Muir Beach Photos

A Brief History of Muir Beach

Home | NEXT: Memories of Muir Beach

The Early Days

Earlier it had been known as Bello Beach, after Antonio Nunez Bello, a Portuguese settler who supposedly bought the entire hillside for a $10 gold piece. He had purchased the area, known as the T Ranch, in 1910, from the Tamalpais Land and Water Company. The T Ranch was a grazing area of the old Rancho Sausalito, granted by the Mexican Government to William Antonio Richardson in 1835. His heirs lost control of the rancho in 1857, to Samuel Throckmorton and the Tamalpais Land and Water Company, after a controversial bankruptcy proceeding. (See "Mill Valley: the early years" by Barry Spitz, for more details.) Before that, of course, the area was inhabited by members of the Coastal Miwok tribe. Apparently a couple of refuse middens, an indication of their many years of settlement, were visible along the sides of the creek in early years, but have gradually eroded into the landscape.

Culturally, Muir Beach has gone through several phases. It was originally planned as a community for blue collar summer cabins, when the 1923 subdivision was filed. Although the lots were cheap, the community developed slowly, with probably less than a dozen houses by 1930. I recall, as a child, playing in the leveled clearings and half finished foundations of unbuilt cabins, so other families no doubt began with a cheap lot and great plans, which, after weekends of do it yourself construction, never were completed.

In the 1930s a number of Portuguese families from the Azores moved in, looking for inexpensive housing and working in the local dairy farms, that had been carved out of the old Rancho Saucelito. The highlight of their social life, through the 1950s and continuing today, revolved around the brotherhood hall in Sausalito. The IDESST, Irmindado do Divino Espirito Santo e Santissima Trinidade, informally called the Holy Ghost Hall, still holds traditional Portuguese festivities on Caledonia Street.

The War Years

The 1940s brought the war, and thousands of workers from rural states flooded in to work the huge Marinship shipyards in Sausalito, churning out liberty ships, sometimes launching one a day, to ferry soldiers and materiel ( for the war effort. Needing housing, every available space, including the summer cabins of the beach, were soon filled. The military also took over what is now Spindrift Point, the house at 185 Sunset, and built the lookout installations of the Overlook, all to watch for possible submarine attacks. It seems hard to think of now, but without satellite reconnaissance and instant communications, the Pacific Ocean was a very dark and empty space, with no way to be sure of anything beyond the visible horizon. My parents recalled sailors drinking for hours at the old Tavern, and then at midnight stumbling out the trail for their lookout shift on the Point. No flashlights were allowed, for fear of being spotted by enemy aircraft (and headlights had to be painted purple!). Sis O'Brien told me that their was an anti aircraft gun set up in front of the Tavern, where the parking lot is now.

From the '50s to the present

As the tensions of World War II gave way to the affluence of the formica fifties, the Muir Beach community continued to follow its own unique path. As it was still consider a damp foggy and somewhat isolated community, housing remained cheap, and the Portuguese settlers were soon joined by the new Bohemians and Beatniks. This was the community of my childhood, positive in many ways, but not always the idyllic pastoral utopia many people think it must have been. Like all first generation immigrants, the Portuguese families relied on the strength of their Old Country heritage while adapting to the demands and skills needed by the new world economy. And the Bohemians were in some ways quite different from the optimistic and cheerful Hippies who followed them. They were fascinating, energetic and creative people, but often far more radical and revolutionary, dreaming of a more ideal, often socialist, world culture, and struggling to deal with, or to just ignore, the booming economy and superficial affluence they saw just over the hill. While most of the American culture was idealizing the new wonderful new houses going up along Flamingo Road, my father, along with Doc O'Brien, Bud Brown, Alison Scofield and Chuck Borden, would spend hours, months, in heated discussions of radical politics and the future of America, one generation ahead of their time.

Although often economically struggling, there was definitely a strong sense of community - funny how those two often go together. At that time the Beach seemed far more separate, and Mill Valley much further away. It was partly because I was a child, but also because of the economic and technological realities. I remember riding over the hill in my parents old used '48 Pontiac, whose only redeeming feature was being a bright robins egg blue. On a wintry night, through heavy rain or dense fog, we crept around the turns, the weak headlights (did it even have a 12 volt battery?) barely showing one or two white stripes on the road ahead (there were no yellow reflectors). Nowadays I zip over the hill for my cappuccino, with quartz halogen headlights, cell phone, Triple A card and Volvo Stationwagon, and hardly give it a second thought. Unless I remember the third grade Christmas play at Park School, that I went to with my mother and Bobby Victorino - I was so excited, because it was the first time we had gone to town for an evening event at school!

But either despite or because of the economic uncertainties and sense, whether you were Portuguese or Bohemian, of being different from the mainstream, we did have a very strong sense of community cohesion. This community sense became an issue at the end of the 1950s, when the Community Services District was first proposed. The water system had been owned by the Muir Beach Water Company, in which each property own had a share. Road maintenance was on an ad hoc basis - families would chip in a few dollars, the Martin brothers would bring over a truck load of gravel, and the men would get out with their shovels, patch the roads, clear the storm drains and get ready for winter. When a heavy storm came through, and the storm drains overflowed, threatening to wash through the unpaved streets, you knew you had to work together to fix it, no matter how stubborn and difficult your neighbor had been during last nights argument at the Tavern. You couldnt just call up Harvey or Donovan and expect that something would get done. Would the creation of a community services district, even a small scale government unit, destroy that sense of personal independence and community interdependence?

On the other hand, water quality was always an issue. My parents said once that the water supply was first provided by the wells of Green Gulch Ranch, with everyone paying a flat $2 monthly fee. The quality and mineral content of the water was not good, and at some point the community apparently felt they could do better. The Muir Beach Water Company was formed, a new well was drilled, near where the Pelican Inn now is, but with little improvement. The water continued to be full of iron and minerals, with the well frequently breaking down. People often had a personal water tank in the back yard, to allow the minerals to settle out, and provide a supply when the community system failed. Some people, though not my family, would haul water from town or Muir Woods, and I think there were warnings from the health department about drinking it. So, it was a difficult decision: individual self reliance was very important, but water you could see through would be nice too!

After several years of heated discussion, the CSD was formed, in conjuction with the creation of the new Seacape Subdivision above the original Bello/Muir Beach subdivision. Gradually the water quality improved and new, larger and nicer,houses were built. But Muir Beach didnt lose its unique ability to run on a different track than Mill Valley. The old Tavern, a somewhat battered but stubbornly persistent bar from the 1920s, now became a dance hall, nurturing the new generation of psychedelic bands. Some, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Creedance Clearwater Revival, went on to albums and national fame. Many others, perhaps equally as talented, disappeared into peoples hazy memories. As Ashleigh Brilliant once said, all my smoke goes up in dreams.

The cultural changes brought a few generational conflicts, but nothing serious. Mary Rodrigues sometimes called the Sheriffs Office, complaining about the immorality of the nude young people running around the beach. Her husband Joe, also a devout and traditional Catholic, would agree that it wasnt right, while he sat on his deck, glass of red wine in one hand, binoculars in the other, enjlying the sight of naked women running around below him! Just because it wasnt right didnt mean he couldnt appreciate it, until the deputies made them put their clothes on! In general, the hippies, often from white collar backgrounds, appreciated the pragmatic skills of their blue collar neighbors, and the older generation, becoming more cynical and less hopefull as they got older, appreciated the energy, enthusiasm and naivete of the younger generation. And perhaps the reputation lingers on. On a recent call to Triple A, when I mentioned Muir Beach, the operator said, "oh yes, thats where Janis Joplins ashes where scattered." Perahps just an urban legend, but an interesting thought, that Janis' ashes might be mingling with my fathers out in the cove.

Perhaps the greatest shift in the nature of community came in the early 1970s, when a serious drought affected northern California. THe Marin Municipal Water District, concerned about future supplies, but a hold on new water hookups, and therefore a freeze on new construction in southern Marin. Muir Beach, with its own water supply, was one of the few areas you could build a new home. Suddenly, instead of regarding our little community as an odd backwater of funky cottages and converted summer cabins, realtors and buyers began to look at Muir Beach seriously. Soon permits were being submitted for building new, larger, family homes. It only lasted for a few years, and a handful of homes, before the county agencies cracked down. Concerned that, with rocky clay soil and small lots, traditional septic system couldnt support the increased water volume of larger houses, new regulations were adopted, making any new construction, or even serious additions or remodels, very difficult to get approved. This has certainly brought a certain stability to the community, which has grown very little since then. Gradually, however, it has had an inevitable affect on what people are willing to pay for a home here. It wasnt long ago that the ever jovial Joe Rodrigues, glass of wine in hand, would chat with tourists walking in front of his house. Commenting on his prime location and view, many would, half jokingly ask if he was willing to sell. His standard reply, "Yes - for $50,000", was meant to put them off, that being an absurd price to pay for an old farmhouse. When people started taking him seriously we knew times were changing.

But not entirely. Muir Beach continues to follow its own path, definitely different from the cappuccino corners of Mill Valley, yet also different from Stinson Beach or the obstinant hippies of Bolinas. Muir Beach is a community that is definitely willing to accept 21st century technology and be part of the global culture, but is also a place where the descendants of the Portuguese, the Bohemians and the still groovy hippies can live comfortably with their newer neighbors.


NEXT: Memories of Muir Beach

Photos 1 | Photos 2 | Photos 3 | Photos 4

1890s Photos | Old Maps | Aerial Photos | Miscellaneous Photos

Tavern Photos : 1, 2, 3, 4

The Souzas