With Black Canyon’s recent June 4th evacuation drill, tongues are wagging as to the origin of the Black Canyon name. One DBCNA newsletter carrier was stopped by a motorist eyeing the “gold sheets” who asked “How did Black Canyon get its name?”
As it turns out there are multiple theories regarding the naming of Black Canyon but not one conclusively resolves the query. Together they offer an array of leads spanning the legendary to the fantastic.
Today Black Canyon runs both sides of Mountain View’s canyon floor with inroads up the canyon walls by way of Linden, Williams, Bradcliff, Sienna Way, Convent and Oakdale. Years ago a larger swath of northern San Rafael wilderness was mapped as Black Canyon and in 1910 a state game commissioner proposed that a “large game preserve” be established in the area of Point San Pedro and Black Canyon.
By Fire or By Record?
Long time residents tell us that the Black Canyon name came from the oak forest that darkened the canyon. Others remember legends that Indians set fires to herd animals deeper into the canyon where they could be hunted.
In 1977 the “blackened by fire” theory led to press speculation that “The large Coleman tract (now the Dominican area) was burned many times, possibly giving Black Canyon its name” as featured in the San Rafael Pointer of March 22nd. Such “possibility” gave us pause as no area fires were cited prior to 1917 while other newspaper accounts name Black Canyon as early as 1900!
In 1879 Jas. Wilkins, a civil engineer, depicted Coleman’s Irwin Tract in a survey map of the Town of San Rafael that includes an unnamed road (presumably Mountain View) extending thru the lands of Lichtenberg. A dual tributary fed creek is nameless but runs parallel to the road much as Black Canyon Creek, free of culverts, would parallel Mountain View today.
Twenty years later the city map commissioned to Geo. L. Richardson names Mountain View Avenue ending past Williams as well as the Mackay & Flood (of the Comstock gold and silver bonanza) properties extending beyond the city limits into the wilderness that would be Black Canyon. By 1924 San Rafael’s Zone Map used a copyrighted map of The Marin Journal dated 1916 and Black Canyon is named.
Meanwhile, Marshall Madison’s oral history is on file at the Anne T. Kent California Room. His father, Frank D. Madison, bought land at the location of the burned Selbourne School (near Williams and Mountain View) early in 1906. Marshall recalled that his dad “busied himself with bringing rocks down from Black Canyon (then called Lichtenberg Canyon) and building retaining walls…”
Those words were the mother lode of our inquiry. A voice from the past recalling the canyon before it was known as Black Canyon. Marshall’s story includes the years between 1906 and 1908 when the Madison house was being built, albeit delayed by building material shortages, after the San Francisco earthquake and fires.
Locating Elsa Lichtenberg’s oral history proved a cinch as it is now part of the California Room’s online sources. In 1873 William Lichtenberg journeyed to America to serve as German consul in San Francisco. The family remained and built a home at 201 Locust on land purchased from W. T. Coleman in 1875. Lichtenberg’s Canyon commenced behind the house and included today’s Bradcliff Court and Welcome Lane where stately Eucalyptus giants still stand at what was the back of their property.
Adding to our mystery it turned out that in 1913 William’s son, Rudolph, married Mabel Burdell the granddaughter of Marin pioneer James Black – the namesake of Point Reyes Station’s Black Mountain and by some accounts Black Point/Grandview east of Novato! But the marital connection is too late to account for an already named Black Canyon.
Travails in Black Canyon
With the 1888 opening of the Hotel Rafael, guests were seen not only on the luxurious grounds of the grand hotel but also out “for a tramp” in the wilds of Black Canyon. Newspaper clippings account for their harried experiences that always ended well.
In 1900 the wilderness of Black Canyon became a refuge for G. Baverio, a fugitive from justice who was apprehended there according to the June 2nd Sausalito News.
Then in the fall of 1903 a group from Sausalito searching for water supplies near Lagunitas separated and wandered off into Black Canyon. After walking some nine miles through high chaparral, the lost Sausalitans found their way, by account of the Sausalito News of September 5th.
The most fantastic story appeared in the August 5, 1907 issue of the San Francisco Call. There it was headlined: Camera Strap Saves Life of Young Woman — Catches on Limb of a Tree and Checks Her Fall From Cliff. Thus, a Miss Wilson survived her misstep near Black Canyon waterfall by virtue of a camera strap that held her inverted for up to a half hour before being rescued by friends!
And that is a yarn worthy of Black Canyon where oak trees sway in the wind, black tailed deer roam, and today’s residents make their homes, still able to wander over hill and vale.
If you have information regarding the naming of Black Canyon in San Rafael email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll try to uncover the “true” story of the naming of Black Canyon.