History of Mill Valley

To learn more about the history of Mill Valley visit the Lucretia Little History Room at the Mill Valley Public Library.

A Brief History of Mill Valley

By Doris Bassett, Updated by Joan Murray

"One of Mill Valley's loveliest attributes is its infinite capacity to provide shelter for all - for those whose path has been straight and narrow, and for those who have marched to different drummers." - Nancy Swadesh in "Mill Valley Historical Review," Spring, 1982.

Native Presence in Mill Valley

Mill Valley nestles below Mt. Tamalpais, cradled by the mountain foothills, its feet lapped by Richardson Bay. The earliest archaeological evidence we have of Indians living in Mill Valley comes from a site in Strawberry, where findings indicate that Indians were hunting and fishing on Richardson Bay over 5,000 years ago. There may be earlier sites, but before 5,000 years ago, any sites situated at the edge of the Bay would now be underwater, covered as the sea level rose when the ice started melting over 10,000 years ago. Other known village sites within Mill Valley area are typically near the Bay and a year round stream. Ancient DNA evidence indicates that native people came from Siberia either by land across the Bering land bridge and/or by sea along the western coast of the Americas.

Indians who lived in Mill Valley, Tiburon, Belvedere and Sausalito described themselves as belonging to one group, the Huimen. They spoke Coast Miwok, as did all the other Indians in Marin and southern Sonoma Counties. The Coast Miwok were known for their intricately woven watertight baskets decorated with designs of shell beads and feathers, as well as feathered ceremonial regalia of hats, belts, aprons, and jewelry. Most of the surviving artifacts are housed today in European museums. Today there are over 1,000 descendants of the less than 20 Coast Miwok survivors, and these descendants call themselves the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

Mission Period in San Francisco Bay Area, 1776 to 1839

By 1769, the Franciscan Missions were working their way north from Mexico with Mission San Diego. In our area there were the Missions Dolores in San Francisco (1776), San Rafael (1817), and Sonoma (1823). Each mission was separated by a day's horseback ride.

One hundred and sixty people, identified as Huimen, were baptized at Mission Dolores in San Francisco, and by 1817, fewer than 20 had survived, mainly due to exposure to European diseases. As a result of the high death rate, the authorities decided that the Huimen and other surviving Coast Miwok people at Mission Dolores should be transferred to the newly established hospital mission in San Rafael.

One of the most famous Coast Miwok, the leader we know today as Chief Marin, was a Huimen born in Mill Valley about 1781. He both cooperated with and defied the military and church authorities. Marin was baptized at Mission Dolores in 1801 and died at Mission San Rafael in 1839. General Mariano Vallejo named the county after him in 1850. A plaque commemorating Chief Marin's birthplace is located on the southeast side of Locust Avenue near Walnut Avenue.

Early Settlers & Land Grants

Two foreigners, whose names would be significant to Mill Valley, came to California around that time, William Richardson, an Englishman, in 1822, and John Thomas Reed, an Irishman, in 1826. It was Reed who gave us the name of our city.

Being ambitious men, they saw that a good fortune could result from gaining a Mexican land grant to the virginal lands of southern Marin. They both applied for land grants. Reed was granted Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio (where the wood was cut for the Presidio) in 1834. Comprising 8,000 acres, it ran roughly from the Corte Madera del Presidio creek (to the east of what is now Miller Avenue), north and east to the San Quentin Peninsula and including what is now Strawberry, Tiburon, Corte Madera and up to Lark Creek in Larkspur, and then south to Richardson Bay.

In 1838, Richardson received Rancho Sausalito, 19,000 acres stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the south, Mt. Tamalpais to the north, east to the Corte Madera del Presidio Creek and out to Richardson Bay, including the Headlands and what is now Stinson and Muir Beaches, Sausalito, Tamalpais and Homestead Valleys, and part of Mill Valley.

Dairy Ranches & the Sawmill

The Old Mill, No Longer in Use Around 1890 to 1900 (MVN 1807-CMLPL 025)Try to picture the groves of virgin redwood, grassy hills dotted with scattered oaks, creeks unchecked by dams, marshes alive with birds and fish, and a few small Indian villages, all without boundary markings, and no roads, sidewalks or street signs. It was not surprising that Reed built his sawmill on the Cascade Creek (now Old Mill Park) in the mid-1830s on land that was part of Richardson's Rancho Sausalito. Reed had married Hilaria Sanchez, daughter of the Commandant of the Presidio, and settled his family near what is now Locke Lane and LaGoma Avenue. By 1843, Reed was dead at age 38.

By 1856, Richardson, too, was dead and Samuel Reading Throckmorton, a man who had come to San Francisco in 1850 as agent for an eastern mining business, was administrating Richardson's estate for the heirs. Throckmorton had acquired a major part of Sausalito Rancho as payment of debt in 1853-4, and built a ranch "The Homestead" (Linden Lane and Montford Avenue). The ranch superintendent was Jacob Gardner, a man whose family continues to be important to Marin County. Portions of the land were leased for dairy farming to Portuguese settlers, a prominent nationality in Marin to this day. Reed's sawmill and home place, Throckmorton's ranch, a few scattered farms, and Indian villages comprised Mill Valley in the 1850s when California became a state.

In 1873, a San Francisco physician, Dr. John Cushing, became aware that in the determinations of Mexican Ranchos boundaries in southern Marin there were 320 "lost" acres between the Reed and Richardson lands. These acres were located from the eastern side of what is now Corte Madera Avenue and across the creek into West Blithedale Canyon. Dr. Cushing petitioned the government for the lands under the Homestead Act and built a small sanitarium for his San Franciscan patients. By 1879, he was dead.

The Coming of the Railroad

Original Mill Valley Railroad Station, Built in 1889, for the North Pacific Coast Narrow Gauge RailrIt wasn't until 1884 that the title for the land was received. In the meantime, the North Pacific Coast Railroad had laid tracks from Sausalito to the north, with the nearest stop in our area across what is now Highway 101 at Strawberry. The Cushings, realizing the advantage the railroad would make, launched what would become a very successful summer resort hotel. They enlarged the sanitarium, added cottages, and met their guests with a horse-drawn carriage at the Strawberry train stop.

When the Cushings arrived in Blithedale Canyon, there was a small farm nearby in the valley run by a family named King (King Street was named for them). One of its buildings was a small adobe house, which we now believe was there prior to that farm, as descendants reported in oral histories. It was used as a milk house by the Blithedale Hotel and is still standing as part of a house on West Blithedale Avenue, the oldest structure in Mill Valley.

Hiking, Camping & Summer Homes

Families from all over the Bay Area and beyond spent their summers at the Blithedale Hotel in this lovely valley. The creek was dammed for swimming. There was fishing, probably hunting in the nearby hills, hiking and horseback riding. In the evenings there were often lantern-lit parties, perhaps just on weekends, when husbands could commute from San Francisco and join their families.

Now there was also a summer resort. Mill Valley remained a quiet, natural place, despite signs of man's destructive nature. Slashings from Reed's cutting and milling of the redwoods were everywhere with second growth reaching out from the debris.

The Tamalpais Land & Water Company & the City Plan

Throckmorton died in 1883, badly in debt to the San Francisco Savings Union, which had foreclosed a $100,000 mortgage and subsequently had taken possession of 13,000 acres of his land. Out of this, the Tamalpais Land and Water Company (T.L.&W.) was formed with the goal of developing lands here in Mill Valley. Headed by Joseph Eastland, a man already a power in the state, and joined by Lovell White, Roger Magee, Louis Janes, and C.O.G. Miller, their work seriously began in 1889. Eastland, who had been president of the North Pacific Coast Railroad in 1877 and retained an interest, saw to it that a spur came into Mill Valley from Almonte. To plan their project, they hired Michael M. O'Shaughnessy, already a noted engineer (among other work, he was chief engineer for Hetch-Hetchy Dam and Reservoir and had planned many San Francisco streets), and what a lovely plan he devised! Carefully protecting the environment, O'Shaughnessy laid out roads, pedestrian paths and step-systems, built Cascade Dam and Reservoir for water supply, and set aside reservations for churches, schools, and parks. It was something very rarely done in those days when towns simply grew.

The Land Auctions

The Big Day was May 31, 1890, when 3,000 people attended the land auction held near Reed's now-crumbling sawmill in Old Mill Park. Over 200 acres were sold that day alone, valued at $300,000, and located primarily in the areas of Throckmorton, Cascade, Lovell, Summit, and Miller Avenues and extending to the west side of Corte Madera Avenue.

Some new property owners built permanent homes. Some erected cottages for summer use. Others just tented on their property. It must have been a lovely time to live in Mill Valley. Family oriented with no electricity or telephones, days spent as they were at the Blithedale Hotel, evenings by candlelight at home or with outdoor parties lit by lanterns, church on Sunday, husbands commuting to the "City" by train and ferry. There were no cars and no paved roads (Can you imagine the dust!). Several small hotels appeared and Bay Area people began to come to the valley for weekend hiking.

Gravity Cars Leaving the Tavern of Tamalpais in 1916  (CMLPL 087)A few words here about the first president of T.L.&W. Company, Joseph Eastland. He was the man who made it possible to really "plan" Mill Valley, since he had the money and the clout. He'd founded power companies all around the area, was on the board of a number of banks, and had control of several commercial companies. Eastland built a large summer home, "Burlwood", for his family out on Throckmorton Avenue in 1892. It is still standing although much of the original land has been parceled off. His was, of course, the first home to have electricity. By 1893, when the "Blithedale" telephone exchange was installed, Mrs. Cushing, the owner of the Blithedale Hotel, and Joseph Eastland, had the only telephones in the valley. By 1894, Eastland was dead. The Post Office was opened as "Eastland" in his honor, but because of many objections, it was changed to "Mill Valley" in 1904. It was the only attempt made to honor this very important man.

Churches were built. A school was started in a residence in 1890. Then Summit School was opened with one room and 35 students in 1892. Retail shops and services sprung up near the railroad station.

The Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railroad (called the "Crookedest Railroad in the world") was planned for and built from the town center to the summit of the mountain and began operations in 1896. This attracted tourists to the area from near and far. Some years later a spur to Muir Woods was added to its route. It continued its popularity until the automobile and better roads came into being. Operations were discontinued in 1931.


Start of the Dipsea Race in Lytton Square, September 13, 1912 (MVN1105)

By 1900, Mill Valley's population had grown to approximately 900. In August of that year, elections were held for incorporation. A total of 168 votes were cast with incorporation approved by the all-male voters (women's voting rights were many years down the road). Town trustees were chosen from among prominent citizens and organized city government began.

The Outdoor Art Club was founded in 1902 by a group of civic-minded women led by Mrs. Lovell White (wife of the second president of the T.L.&W. Co.) in an effort to preserve the natural beauty of the valley and surrounding areas. Their clubhouse, designed by the famed architect Bernard Maybeck, was completed in 1904, and still stands at the intersection of Throckmorton and West Blithedale Avenues.

Now known nationwide, the Dipsea Race originated in 1905 by members of the San Francisco Olympic Club. With few exceptions, it has been held every year since. It is run from the center of town over the hills and valleys to Stinson Beach. There were 110 runners the first year. Now it is limited to 1,500 with many more applying for the privilege of running this very grueling course.

The 1906 Earthquake, Population Growth & the 1929 Fire

In April 1906, the Great Earthquake struck San Francisco and other communities on the San Andreas Fault. Many San Franciscans who had cottages here fled the city. A large number never left Mill Valley again. The population grew that year to 1,000 permanent residents and 1,000 summer residents.

Bridges were built over creeks, dirt roads were oiled, and cement sidewalks began to appear. The first City Hall was built in 1908 and a Carnegie Library in 1910. By 1920, with a population of 2,554, many roads were paved, and mail delivery was initiated.

1929 was the year of Mill Valley's most destructive fire. It raced down the mountain from the Middle Ridge area, and despite everyone's desperate efforts, destroyed 117 homes. Only a miraculous change in the wind direction saved the rest of the town.

Mill Valley Historical Society "Review" - Summer 2021

  • Cover of a Magazine titled "Review" with an old photo of an African American man in a suitEight Decades of Racial Justice Work in Southern Marin
  • A Brief History of Redlining in Mill Valley
  • The Life and Death of Mill Valley Newspapers
  • First Person: Excerpts From Recent Oral Histories

Download the Summer 2021 Edition (PDF)

The Construction Boom Between the Two World Wars

Mill Valley's ambience began to change between the two World Wars, due to the accessibility to the City by automobile via the Golden Gate Bridge (1937). Real estate became a principal business. Construction boomed. The Locust Avenue shopping area, the first commercial area to develop outside the town center, was begun in 1929. Marshes east of Miller Avenue were filled, and the direction of Corte Madera del Presidio Creek was altered. The main arterial road had been Highway 1 (our Camino Alto), running from Sausalito through Tamalpais Junction along the eastern edge of Mill Valley and across the hills to Corte Madera and beyond. The Golden Gate Bridge and its resulting heavier traffic caused realignment to the present Highway 101, with a bridge crossing Richardson Bay. The railroad continued to function in Mill Valley until passenger service was dropped in 1940. Freight service was discontinued in the early 1950's at a time when the population was 7,331.

World War II, with "Marinship" in Sausalito, brought workers from all over the country. Housing was required for them in Sausalito and nearby communities. Many never left the area after the war. The country's economy, much changed and accelerated by the war effort, continued to expand after the war. People had money to spare. Many chose the relatively safe, quiet and more attractive suburban areas. This pattern has continued to this day.

Since World War II

Lytton Square Across the Street from the Bus Depot in 1960 (MVN1218)Since the mid-1960s, population has generally remained constant at about 13,000, but there has been an explosion of growth outside the city limits bringing the regional total including Mill Valley, Tamalpais and Homestead Valleys, Muir Beach, Alto and Strawberry, to a far greater number. In Mill Valley now, many houses and apartments house one or two working adults rather than "traditional" families.

Mill Valley people, working together with public agencies, have permanently saved much of the open lands that buffer our town from other towns of southern Marin. This saves our city from becoming a part of continuous suburbs like those that exist in other parts of the state. A new Wurster, Bernardi, and Emmons-designed Mill Valley Public Library was completed in 1966. It houses the Lucretia Little History Room, named for Mill Valley's only official Historian. In 1998, a 9,132 square foot addition to the library was opened which provided the space required to meet the expanded needs of the community. This included a significant expansion of public Internet workstations and access to the library's online catalog.

It now houses the Mill Valley Historical Society, the Friends of the Library, and the Library Foundation. The entrance to the Library is graced with a work by Richard O'Hanlon, a noted sculptor who made his home here in Mill Valley.

A Public Safety Building, housing both police and fire services, was opened in 1976. City Hall, dedicated in 1936, was renovated in 1978. Bay Front Park is a place much enjoyed and we have a lovely little Plaza in the center of town replacing the former parking lot which replaced the train tracks.

Eleven years in the planning, Mill Valley opened its popular community center in April 2001. A five-acre site now contains multiple sports fields as well as an aquatic fitness center with a covered pool, with room and equipment for exercise, and space for classes and meetings. A community auditorium that seats 350 people is available for public and private events.

The grandniece of Lovell White (second president of the T.L.&W. Co.) was Mayor of our city 1972-74, and served on the board of the Marin Municipal Water District, giving continuity to our history.

Our town has been extolled through local schoolteacher, Rita Abram's song, Mill Valley, California, about the glories of life here, which attracted youths from all over the country each summer. We survived the 1960's spillover from the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury "Flower Children," and The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County by Cyra McFadden, with its satire of a hedonistic lifestyle in Mill Valley.

We are now surrounded by large regional shopping centers (five between here and San Rafael). Our local merchants are hoping that the pleasure of shopping in a "real" downtown with friendly, personal service can survive.