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Elizabeth Terwilliger Marsh

Terwilliger MarshElizabeth Terwilliger Marsh

The Mill Valley marsh that is located on Camino Alto between Mill Valley Middle School and the Community Center was restored to good health and has  been bestowed with an official name, Elizabeth Terwilliger Marsh, in honor of the Marin County nature lover and environmental activist affectionately known as "Mrs. T." On March 27, 2004, a ceremony to dedicate the newly named wetland and unveil several interpretive signs was held at the marsh, with ninety-four-year-old Mrs. Terwilliger as the guest of honor.

First some history about the marsh's rejuvenation. Mill Valley resident and Bloomathon Project Coordinator Dede Sabbag led the Marsh Beautification Project and the drive to officially name the marsh after Mrs. Terwilliger. "Elizabeth Terwilliger has dedicated her lifetime to the betterment of our community as an educator, conservationist and activist," Sabbag said. "She personally led children and their parents on nature hikes for over forty years, much of the time while living right here in Mill Valley." 

For decades before the project began, the marsh, often informally called Ryan Creek Marsh, led an increasingly challenging existence. Before the 1960's, the east side of Camino Alto was completely marshland and Sycamore Avenue ended at Camino Alto, although part of the area began to be used as a dump site in earlier years. Beginning in the 1970's, the need for a middle school, recreation center and sewage treatment plant grew increasingly important, and much of the land occupied by the marsh was filled in. Sycamore Avenue was extended to what would soon become Bayfront Park. By the late 1970's, the marsh was a three-acre rectangular shaped place marker between the new middle school and rec center.

Floodgates aimed at regulating the tidal flow of bay water were installed at the east end of the marsh, but did not always work properly. "Often the gates were left in the closed position," related Sabbag, "and Elizabeth and her children would open the floodgate so the marsh would not be starved of its life-giving fresh water." Due to its use as a dumping ground, much trash and concrete chunks are buried in the soil surrounding the marsh. Gravel underlayment from the road bed and asphalt paths displaced rich top soil, making life for plants endemic to the area difficult. This in turn triggered invasions of non-native plants, particularly the hearty fennel that began to encircle the marsh.

In the fall of 2001, Mill Valley Bloomathon, the volunteer organization that has planted thousands of bulbs, shrubs and trees in Mill Valley, felt the marsh should be restored to good environmental health. They submitted a grant proposal to the Marin Municipal Water District, which in January 2002 provided $5,200 to the project. Contributions from Bloomathon and the public, as well as assistance from Rick Misuraca of the Mill Valley Parks & Recreation Department and donations of plants by the Headlands Native Plant Nursery and SEED (School Environmental Education Docents) helped fund and implement the project.

Volunteers at the MarshFor about 18 months, volunteers from the community and many organizations and schools pulled weeds, planted native flora, spread mulch and installed irrigation around the perimeter of the marsh. Members of local Cub Scout, Boy Scout and Brownie troops, the Mill Valley Rotary Club and students from several elementary schools, Mill Valley Middle School and Tam High joined in to plant over 750 new plants since the project got under way. The City of Mill Valley installed a fence along the Camino Alto side, to protect the marsh and the people walking along Camino Alto, and the Marin County Public Works Department has replaced the broken floodgate leading into the wetlands.

The results of the restoration are striking. Young toyon, coffeeberry, yarrow, ceanothus, California fuchsia, coyote bush and other native plants grace the perimeter of the marsh, adding color and attracting native wildlife and migratory birds. On most days, egrets, mallards, songbirds and other, smaller wildlife can be seen in or around the marsh. A butterfly garden and hummingbird garden planted by the volunteers attract their intended species. The new floodgates and the use of native flora help improve the water quality in the marsh as well as provide better shelter and food for local birds and animals.

The dedication ceremony was held at the Community Center side of the marsh. Mrs. Terwilliger was the guest of honor at the March 27th ceremony, which included the presentation of a City of Mill Valley proclamation, speeches, the unveiling of signs and refreshments.
Ms T
Over one hundred people attended the ceremony, and speakers included Mrs. Terwilliger's daughter Lynn Ellen and son John, Mill Valley Mayor Dick Swanson, WildCare Director Karen Wilson, Mill Valley School District Board President Monib Khademi and Marin Municipal Water District Director Charles McGlashan, who is currently running for County Supervisor in District 3.

The ceremony ended with the unveiling of the sign naming the marsh, which was moved to its permanent location on the Middle School side of the marsh a few weeks later. Three interpretive signs bordering the marsh on the Community Center side were also unveiled. Although the celebration marks a turning point in the restoration, more weeding and cultivating is planned, and Sabbag invited the community to join in the forthcoming work days at Elizabeth Terwilliger Marsh. For more information, contact Dede Sabbag at 415-383-2492.

Written by Alan Nayer. Text and Photos (except where noted) are © Alan Nayer.

Last updated: 12/13/2007 2:29:18 PM