X Marks the Spot: The San Quentin Crossing

by Dewey Livingston

A 100-year-old view towards San Rafael from the San Quentin Peninsula. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

photograph recently discovered in a precious album of photographs depicting life at San Quentin Prison is one that doesn’t show the prison, but rather the view towards San Rafael from the other side of the Point. The century-old picture is striking because of the distinctive V at the center of the photo: the converging roads of the San Rafael-San Quentin Toll Road and the San Rafael-San Quentin Railroad.

The photograph is in an album kept by Daniel Sullivan, a longtime employee at the prison; he probably took the photo. Sullivan retired in 1919, so we can assume the photo was taken some time in the ‘teens, or possibly earlier. For more about Sullivan, see the article by Brian K. Crawford at this link. The Sullivan album is one of three in the collection of the Anne T. Kent California Room.

This article is a careful examination of one fascinating and unique photograph in the album. While the picture is partly faded and the photographic conditions were not ideal, it is full of interest. Look at the accompanying three photos in order of their placement, as each will be described in more detail. A contemporary map of the area comprises the last illustration, and you can see it in more detail at this link. There is also an article about the map and the area at this link.

A detail of a survey map showing the route of the road and railroad as seen in the photograph. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

he photographer stood at the top of San Quentin Ridge near the area where the current Sir Francis Drake Blvd. exit cuts through the low ridge on its way from 580 to Larkspur Landing. To his left would be the prison grounds. He was aiming his camera northwest, and it was a hazy or foggy day. In the far distance, the still-young city of San Rafael is visible, but half lost in the haze. One can barely see the hills behind, and even San Rafael hill is largely obscured.

The entire right hand side of the photo, partially obscured by a grove of oak trees, is filled with water: that is San Rafael Bay. Behind it and to the edge of town is the marsh, about 300 acres of largely untouched wetlands.

That piece of virgin wetlands is interrupted by the right hand line coming towards us: that’s the San Rafael-San Quentin Toll Road, or turnpike. The other side of the V is the San Rafael-San Quentin Railroad. In the middle are reclaimed wetlands-convenient because the two transportation structures effectively formed levees. Small marsh pockets inhabit the “coves” at the foot of the undulating Marin hills on the left.

At the top of the V is the two-hilled Simms Island, used for agriculture, with a resort occupying its west end. It was literally an island in the marsh, requiring an artificial connection to the “mainland” of southeast San Rafael. Simms Island was destroyed, its rock dumped in the surrounding former marsh to create the western Bellam Blvd. area around Andersen Drive. The former island itself now hosts the Marin Square Shopping Center (and many of us remember the Marin Motor Movies there prior to that), the main post office annex and its neighboring businesses, and a bit of the 580 freeway to Oakland.

The grassy hills on the left are the northern side of San Quentin Peninsula, its hills spilling down to the marsh. At the time the photo was taken the O’Connor family from Ireland grazed these hills and made butter and milk. It was a short shot to the ferry landing at the Point. Their ranch buildings are hidden by trees on the dark slope. You can also see what is probably the earliest San Quentin Road, following the bottom of the slope in the center. In the dark foreground, a fence divides the slope, and we see a few strands of barbwire in the foreground.

The right hand side of the photo shows the doomed San Rafael Bay and wetlands. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Look at the photo above, a detail of the right side of the photo. San Rafael Bay and the marshlands were slowly filled for use by industry and for housing, called the canal area today for its proximity to San Rafael Canal on its north. Much of the open water seen is also filled: it is the area including Spinnaker Point and Target/Home Depot and the open lands in between. How many readers remember going to the dump? We were filling this nice bay.

The center of the photo shows the convergence of the railroad and toll road. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Now look at the image above, a detail of the center of the photo. Here we see the converging roads with Simms Island in the distance. A long white fence is seen on the east side of the island, and its combination of grasslands and oak forests prove that it was a pretty spot. Other extant views of Simms Island can lead us to regret that this scenic island in the marsh was completely wiped off the face of the earth.

Inside the V is reclaimed wetland, probably used for agriculture. Today that triangle is occupied by businesses like Marin Airporter, Smart & Final, and the Golden Gate Bridge District bus yards.

The left line of the V is the San Rafael-San Quentin Railroad grade. The train departed San Rafael from B Street between First and Second and passed the popular Laurel Grove picnic grounds as it glided above the marshes on a long strip of fill. Traingoers passed Simms Island and could stop at Scheutzen Park for a day of fun and leisure. In the foreground the tracks crossed the turnpike road at a severe angle. If we could look behind the photographer, we would see the tracks curving around the point and onto a trestle to little Agnes Island, the terminus and ferry landing. Today, the railroad bed is occupied by Andersen Drive.

The right line of the V is the San Rafael-San Quentin Toll Road, or turnpike. Built in 1865 to replace the old serpentine road in the hills, it left San Rafael at the foot of Third Street, and passed across the marsh farther north than the railroad. Notice that a line of telegraph poles follows the road. And, the white railroad crossing sign at the junction-”Look Out For The Cars!” Today, the old turnpike road is-in a massively widened state-the John T. Knox Freeway, US 580.

The photograph gives a unique perspective of the converging road and railroad. Observers can see the three routes to San Quentin all built within the first 20 years of Marin’s life as a county. But also, the photo is showing us another time, a view that is now densely developed suburbs, industrial areas, and shopping centers. Take a moment to forget all the challenging things going on in the world, and enjoy a quiet ride out to San Quentin.

Originally published at https://annetkent.kontribune.com.

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