Tomales Postmaster & Historian A. Bray Dickinson

By Robert L. Harrison

A. Bray Dickinson at his home in Tomales. Petaluma Argus-Courier, August 3, 1967

Bray Dickinson is a name well known among Marin County’s railroad enthusiasts. He wrote Narrow Gauge to the Redwoods, the definitive history of the Marin’s North Pacific Coast (NPC) narrow gauge railroad. His enthusiasm for the subject is clear:

“All of us who grew up within the sound of a train whistle have found the steam locomotive a magnet of human interest unequaled by any other thing mechanical.”

Ables Bray Dickinson (1890–1958) was always known by his middle name. He did not use Ables, the name of his grandfather, Thomas J. Ables, who was a Marin pioneer, the County’s first Superintendent of Schools, a County Supervisor as well as Marin representative to the State Assembly.

Dickinson was a third generation Marin County native born in 1890 at Tomales to Leon and Zilla Ables Dickinson. His family background included education and government service. His mother was the daughter of an important early Marin County office holder, Thomas Ables, and later she graduated from Mills College. His father was the son of an emissary to Nicaragua in the Lincoln administration.

Dickinson graduated from grammar school in 1904 but on July 2nd of that year the Sausalito News reported he was not recommended for high school work in Marin. This conclusion could be attributed to the fact no nearby high school existed in west Marin. Tomales High School did not open until 1912.

To pursue a high school degree, Dickinson moved to San Francisco and graduated from Lowell High School. Later he earned a degree in history from the University of California, Berkeley. He taught mathematics and history at Oakland Technical High School until he joined the military and served in World War I. During his college days and later as a young man he found time to date two Tomales women, Valerie Ansel and later Hazel Bailey. It was not until he was 42 years old that he married Elaine Peake. The couple had no children.

In the 1920s, his father asked Dickinson to return to Tomales to help run the family general store. His mother Zilla worked in the store and served many years as Postmaster for Tomales. In 1940 he followed his mother as Postmaster. The Post Office was located in the family store so like his mother he benefited from a very efficient and convenient work arrangement.

Record of the Appointments of U.S. Postmasters at Tomales, indicating Bray’s mother Zilla L. Dickinson was confirmed in 1905 and retired in 1940; thereafter, Abless [sic] was appointed and held that position until 1958.

During Dickinson’s years as Postmaster he greatly refined his knowledge of his home town and its railroad. He became a primary source for this local story. He worked hard as his interest on the topic intensified and wrote extensively on local and railroad history including several unpublished manuscripts. In a 1954 book-length article published in the San Rafael Independent-Journal he examined discrepancies in theories on the location of Sir Francis Drake’s 1579 Marin landing place.

The narrow-gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad, nearing the trestle at White’s Hill, en route to Camp Taylor in 1889. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Well-known railroad historian Roy D. Graves wrote: “According to his wife Elaine, ‘he worked like a Trojan for 10 years’ on the [NPC] railroad’s history. Every Sunday, every holiday, and every other moment he could spare away from work was devoted to interviewing and other research.” Dickinson’s research included: the recollections of every old timer; files of old newspapers in state and local libraries; railroad records of the 60 years the narrow gauge operated; and materials from the library in Sacramento and the Bancroft Library at Berkeley.

A. Bray Dickinson standing in front of the railroad trestle at Valley Ford. Daily Independent Journal, November 8, 1952.

Dickinson’s research was ably assisted in his by his wife Elaine. According to The Pony Express magazine of September 1951: “Much of the credit is to be given to Elaine…for years of research she has done in old newspaper files, and documents that have had over fifty years of cobwebs and dust to be blown away.”

Clipping from the Press Democrat (Santa Rosa), June 12, 1949. Photo shows Elaine Dickinson at left, and A. Bray Dickinson in the middle.

Dickinson’s published works include the 1993 Tomales Township: A History edited by Lois Parks and Kathie Lawson of the Tomales Regional History Center. His most renowned work, Narrow Gauge to the Redwoods, was initially not well received. He persevered and had portions of the story published serially in 1951/52 editions of The Pony Express and in a 1958 series of articles the I-J.

Tickets for the North Pacific Coast Railroad and Saucelito [sic] Ferry, issued by the NPCRR around 1880. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

During the time his history of the narrow gauge railroad appeared in the I-J, Dickinson unexpectedly passed away. As a memorial, his wife Elaine asked Roy Graves with help from the Marin Historical Society, to find a publisher. Fortunately enough, it was when railroad histories were becoming more popular. The story was published in 1967 by Trans-Anglo Books. His railroad history was so popular that a second edition was printed in 1973.

Bray Dickinson truly loved history and particularly the story of Marin’s only narrow gauge railroad. As he wrote of the steam locomotive in Narrow Gauge to the Redwoods:

The mere hugeness awes one! Roaring firebox and hissing steam jets radiate rugged strength and power. Even while standing still, its heavy breathing seemingly billows from some living giant. Clanging bell calls out, ‘Come along! Come along with me, over the horizon! Come along and see what is beyond! Come along!’ A startling shriek abruptly shatters such day-dreams as the monster gets underway, while a feeling of solitude creeps into the breast of the one left behind.

Note: In addition to Dickinson’s Narrow Gauge to the Redwoods much of the material in this piece is from the article Ables Bray Dickinson (1890–1958) published in the Tomales Regional History Center’s Spring 2018 Bulletin.

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