Sir Francis Drake Boulevard: Road of Many Names

by Dewey Livingston

The dedication of Sir Francis Drake Highway in Olema on November 16, 1929. © Jack Mason Museum

For the past 91 years, the major east-west corridor in Marin County has been called Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Originally called the Olema Road or a variant thereof, this old overland route has facilitated the travel of Indigenous peoples, missionaries and rancheros, pioneers and dairy ranchers, tourists, and even commuters. Forty-three miles in length, and two lanes-except for stretches in Greenbrae, Kentfield, and San Anselmo-this important roadway begins on the east at Highway 580 near San Quentin State Prison and terminates at the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

With the current nationwide call for an end to racism and widespread scrutiny of monuments to Confederate leaders, slave owners and traders, as well as historical figures considered to be white nationalists, Marin’s historic roadway, named Sir Francis Drake Highway in 1929, is now under intense public scrutiny. Question have arisen about the legacy of Francis Drake, the English privateer who made landfall on the west coast of North America in 1579. Across the county, place names commemorating Sir Francis Drake are being considered for renaming.

This essay offers a history of the road and its naming and does not examine the legacy of Drake himself. Up until now, most local scholars & biographers have debated the exact location of Drake’s landfall along the West Coast, but now Drake’s wider history is being examined.

The road got its start as a trail, undoubtedly a route used by Coast Miwok to travel between San Francisco Bay and Tomales Bay, and to Point Reyes proper. It passes over two ridges at their lowest convenient elevations-White’s Hill and Olema Hill-and through four valleys (Ross, San Geronimo, Lagunitas Creek, and Olema) before reaching the Point Reyes Peninsula. In its totality, this route was the easiest and most direct route between villages in the vicinity of San Rafael and Olema, and seasonal encampments at Drakes Estero (there’s that name again) and Tomales Bay. Beyond Olema, the Coast Miwok route likely took another path, over Inverness Ridge near Haggerty Gulch, rather than the route along the shore of Tomales Bay through Inverness.

During the 1850s and early 1860s, after the Coast Miwok had been forced off of their traditional land and European settlers made their homes in the new county of Marin, horses and wagons followed the Olema Trail, which likely mimicked the Miwok route. Into the 1860s, this was barely a road; remnant portions can still be found in the hills above Olema. To replace this rough and steep track, a well-graded county road was built in 1865–1867, and is the route we mostly follow today.

The entirety of today’s roadway called Sir Francis Drake Blvd. had its origins in at least five separately administered segments: San Quentin-Greenbrae to Kentfield Corners; Kentfield to the junction at San Anselmo; San Anselmo to Fairfax (called Red Hill Road); Fairfax to Olema; and Point Reyes Station to the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

The oldest of these four segments is probably the second listed, from Kentfield to San Anselmo junction. As part of the county road between Saucelito (Sausalito) and San Rafael that was developed in the 1850s, this segment was usually called the Ross Landing Road or some variation thereof. In the 1850s and ’60s Ross Landing-which later became Kentfield-was the busiest port in Marin County, with shipments of lumber, paper and dairy produce pouring out of the surrounding hills and valleys. This segment was busy with commerce between the landing and San Rafael, and also points west like Lagunitas. It remained the Ross Landing Road into the twentieth century, and was a section of Highway 101 for a few years before the opening of the more direct and modern eastern highway in 1930.

The Ross Landing Road in Kentfield around 1920; the road would be named Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in the 1930s. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

The segment between Kentfield and San Quentin grew slowly; most of the communication with the prison and nearby Greenbrae brickyard was by boat, or the long-established road from the Point directly to San Rafael on the north side of San Quentin (Greenbrae) Ridge. This road was improved in the 1870s as a connection between Ross Landing and the ferry at San Quentin; and further in 1930 (by convict labor) to connect with the new three-lane 101 highway under construction; and again in the 1950s as the community of Greenbrae grew out of the picturesque dairy pastures.

The developed county road between San Rafael and Olema, laid out by County Surveyor Hiram Austin, was built in two periods. With Lagunitas, San Geronimo, and Nicasio growing in countywide importance, a good road was needed to San Rafael. In 1865 the county constructed a new road through the San Geronimo Valley, over White’s Hill (replacing a steep trail on the eastern side) and through Fairfax to join the older road to San Rafael. The road adhered to reasonable grades and widths to allow easy passage by wagon and carriage.

Newly laid concrete in the San Geronimo Valley in 1929. © Jack Mason Museum

In 1867 Austin continued the survey of this road between Log Cabin-a location west of Lagunitas later known as Shafter’s and what we know today as the Inkwell-and Bolinas by way of Olema. Here, Austin laid out a good road alongside Lagunitas (Paper Mill) Creek, passing the bustling S. P. Taylor paper mill and heading over Bolinas Ridge a short distance north of the old trail, to the growing town of Olema. There it joined, after a two-year gap, a new road-also laid out by Austin and today called Bear Valley Road-to the foot of Haggerty Gulch at White House Pool, adjacent to today’s Inverness Park.

The older road to Point Reyes ascended the ridge from White House Pool, but in 1873 Pierce Point ranchers petitioned for a new road that better served the thriving dairy ranches on the north half of the Point Reyes Peninsula. Again, Austin rode out and designed a road that followed the west shore of Tomales Bay, past the future site of Inverness, to a pass at Keatly Gulch-now called Ottinger’s Hill. The road continued on to connect, at the old blacksmith shop near Schooner Bay, with the previous road that ended at the 1870 Point Reyes Lighthouse. And, in 1875, shortly after the new North Pacific Coast Railroad created Olema Station (today’s Point Reyes Station), a “levee” road was pushed across the wide marsh at the head of Tomales Bay.

So, by 1876 all the sections of the road now called Sir Francis Drake Boulevard were in place, albeit in a primitive state. These narrow dirt roads were dusty in summer and muddy in winter; the Point Reyes residents suffered sand dunes and drifts, the peninsula largely consisting of sandy soil. But these roadways, with their wooden bridges and suburban boardwalks, served the population well. Appointed citizen “roadmasters” kept their sections in repair. The coming of the North Pacific Coast Railroad in 1875 required moving some sections, and many travelers to the coast took the train rather than the rigorous road route.

It took half a century to see modern improvements in the road, the impetus being the invention and growing popularity of the automobile and increasing demands for farm produce from western Marin. By the ‘teens, the roads in town were paved, but the rural routes to Point Reyes, Bolinas and Tomales continued as bone-jarring relics of the past. In 1925 Marin voters passed a $2.5 million road bond that promised wide, paved modern roads connecting to the coast. These improvements focused on the agricultural products of western Marin, offering a more efficient mode of travel-by truck-than the fading 50-year-old Northwestern Pacific Railroad, as it was called by then.

Most of the bond money went to what was called the “Manor to Point Reyes Road.” This new road followed the old county road between western Fairfax (Manor) and Point Reyes Station, but with sharp curves smoothed and grades eased, and was significantly widened, from about twelve feet to eighteen. The best feature-at least at the time-was the concrete pavement: after much debate, a roadway of thick concrete was chosen over asphalt for its durability.

The bright ribbon of new concrete passes through Lagunitas in the early 1930s. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Crews graded the roadbed in 1926–27, with County Surveyor John C. Oglesby designing handsome concrete bridges to span the three crossings of Lagunitas Creek as well as others on San Geronimo Creek. After letting the new gravel road settle for two years, between June 12 and October 29 of 1929 contractor J. V. Galbraith poured sections of concrete, starting at the west edge of Whites Hill and ending at a new steel truss bridge at Point Reyes Station. (One section, the eastern side of White’s Hill, was surfaced in asphalt because of the unstable nature of the hillsides, which continued to crumble into the 2000s.)

The new highway to the coast was a big deal for the farmers and merchants in Olema and Point Reyes Station. And the name so far given-Manor to Point Reyes Road-left much to be desired. A prominent storekeeper in Point Reyes Station offered his idea to the public.

Wilford J. “Bill” Scilacci’s father Pietro had emigrated from Switzerland in the early 1880s. While working for fellow Swiss immigrant Salvatore Grandi at Point Reyes Station’s only store for more than a decade, he saved his money and in 1898 bought a block facing A Street where he built his impressive Point Reyes Emporium, an edifice that made his old boss’s store look puny. Bill took over the store in the 1920s and expanded its offerings, bringing this country store into the twentieth century.

In July of 1929, as the new highway was being paved, Bill Scilacci wrote a letter to the San Rafael Independent, offering an idea that he felt would enhance commerce in western Marin as well as the county as a whole. Bill, an active member of the booster organization Marvelous Marin, suggested a famous namesake for the future road.

This highway is the most important in the county as it is the main artery through the county, and a name that will tie in with some event or part of our own history would do much to secure some of the advertising that Marin County is desirous of getting today.

For instance, with the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge it will be the desire and ambition of every tourist visiting California to cross this gigantic structure, crossing this bridge into Marvelous Marin where our natural beauties must appeal to travelers from all over the country. “Now if such a name as the Sir Francs Drake Highway would be acceptable to the county at large, try to visualize for a moment the publicity that would be obtained therefrom, the discovery of California by Sir Francis Drake is a part of the history in every state in the union, so therefore the adoption of this name would make the publicity as complete, or more so, than any name that could be approved of. “The extension of the present highway to that part of the county first discovered by Drake is only a matter of a few years, and if you have any doubts of the merit of such an outstanding title take this trip some Sunday and I have no doubt but that you will agree that West Marin has something wonderful to offer in the way of landscape and scenery. “However see if we cannot get an expression from your subscribers as to the relative merit of giving this new highway a name that the county will be proud of hundreds of years hence.

As he noted with the coming Golden Gate Bridge, Scilacci’s suggestion was entirely based on bringing tourists and new residents to Marin and its coast. Marvelous Marin ran with Scilacci’s idea, and the new highway was dedicated as Sir Francis Drake Highway on November 16, 1929. Inaguration festivities included music by the San Rafael High School Band and the breaking of a bottle on the new roadway by San Rafael teenager Mary Menzies. Much news coverage followed, with full pages of advertisements for West Marin businesses. The following year, the Board of Supervisors banned all advertising and billboards along the road.

The new Sir Francis Drake Highway stretched only 14 miles from Manor to Point Reyes Station. The road to Inverness and the lighthouse was extended in the early 1930s and also became known as Sir Francis Drake Highway. Despite the new and popular driving route to the coast, there was no public access to the beaches at Point Reyes until the late 1930s, no doubt a result of public pressure.

Marvelous Marin and the newly formed Sir Francis Drake Highway Association publicized the new road around the country. The Sacramento Bee often mentioned the road, enticing its readers to leave the heat of the valley and experience the cool climate of West Marin’s coast. AAA extolled its beauty and featured the road in its guidebooks and maps. It was seen as the first part of a network of roads from the East Bay and beyond that connected the interior with the coastal areas, although it would take almost 30 years for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to be built and provide such a link. Only the Great Depression and World War II slowed the progress that the boosters were hoping for.

In 1931, a portion of the eastern segment of the route-composed of the two roadways from Ross to Fairfax-was named Sir Francis Drake Boulevard at the request of civic leaders in San Anselmo and Fairfax; Kentfield and Greenbrae soon followed. The intent was to increase traffic and commerce through their towns from the new Highway 101. The Boulevard would connect with the already established Drake Highway, and eliminate about four different street names through those communities. In September of 1931 the name change was celebrated at an event at Marin Junior College. Twenty-five years later, an extension through what is now Larkspur Landing to Highway 17 (today’s 580) provided a freeway exit to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from the western end of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

The innovative concrete highway of 1929 did not pan out as expected. In less than a year, major cracks started to appear, and it wasn’t long before the once-smooth roadway became a nightmare of cracks with jagged edges rising as the concrete slabs broke and settled. Soon after the Whites Hill segment was replaced by an easier and wider grade in the late 1930s, parts of that new road started to slip and sink, while great slides closed the summit many winters.

The roadway has seen many changes since its inception, including traffic lights and four-lane sections being built in Greenbrae, Kentfield, and San Anselmo. The citizens of Ross objected to widening the road through their sylvan community, leaving that stretch the most reminiscent of the old suburban Boulevard. In the mid-1950s, a long stretch was bypassed in the San Geronimo Valley, leaving San Geronimo Valley Road as a remnant of the 1929 roadway. J. C. Oglesby’s beautiful Shafter Bridge was demolished and replaced, while his beautiful arch bridge at Tocaloma still stands next to its modern replacement.

Whether the name is changed in the future or not, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard offers a journey through history and a beautiful landscape, much if which is preserved through our county, state, and national parks. Though it has evolved from a Coast Miwok trail to a crowded weekend conduit to popular recreation areas, by any name it will remain an important and much-loved passageway through Marin County.

Originally published at



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