Category Archives: History

Coleman Elementary: A Brief History

By Jackie Cormier

In the main office of the Coleman Elementary School hangs a painting of William Tell Coleman. The 19th-century businessman was a spirited developer of San Rafael and the Magnolia Valley that became Coleman Park or today’s Dominican neighborhood. And through the years of three successive school facilities spanning more than a century, this K-5 school has honored the name and legacy of W.T. Coleman, aka Mr. San Rafael.

In 1909 the San Rafael School District gained title to the land on which Coleman Primary would be built adding to the title lineage that spanned Geo. D. Schearer (1909), Mackay & Flood (1907), W.T. Coleman (1871) and the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Gallinas through Timateo Murphy of San Rafael’s pioneer days. The Coast Miwok Indians had been the first caretakers of the land, its creeks, valleys, hills and streams for thousands of years.

It was January 3rd, 1910, that classes were first held at the new Coleman Primary School with Miss Augustina Clark serving as both principal and teacher of the first and second grades. Her colleague, Miss Margaret Murray, “held sway” over third and fourth grade pupils as reported in the Marin Journal of January 6th. Located at the corner of Linden Lane and Grand Avenue, the new Coleman Primary School served children living north of Mission Street The Marin Journal wrote that the Coleman School was “one of San Rafael’s proudest moments in its rapid growth.” The structure being “worthy of the highest praise for its architectural beauty and solid workmanship.”

Included on the Coleman School’s centennial anniversary (2010) web page is an item on “halftimers” or students who worked half a day and attended school the other half a century before. Needless to say, “This made their free/play time very precious.”

By August 1919, the district’s first kindergarten was opened at the Coleman School. Two years earlier, thirty-nine San Rafaelites petitioned the Board of Education to approve such action. Five months after its launch, the Board characterized the Coleman class as “thriving” in support of a measure to establish a second kindergarten at the Short School.

In 1936, school efforts to reap a technological edge were newsworthy. The June 11th Marin Journal reported: “Because of the importance of the radio in modern life, the school is endeavoring to create in the children a good taste in the selection of a radio program. The auditorium is equipped with a radio. A central control system with wired receivers in each room is provided. The entire school can listen to a program without leaving their rooms.” Sixty-eight years later Coleman Elementary would make computers a priority in K-5 classrooms.

The Redwood (101) Highway Extension and A New Coleman School

By the early 1940s, the California State Highway Department was working to extend the 101/Redwood Highway through San Rafael and thereby reduced the play area for children at Coleman. Given the untenable situation, the state purchased the Linden Lane/Grand Avenue site enabling the school district to purchase land and build a new school on what was then Watt Avenue off of Belle Avenue. Plans to open in the fall of 1941 were accelerated to early May due to the State’s demand for abandonment of the old school. A sixth-grade room was added to the facility in 1957 and another six classrooms opened in 1960.

Over sixty-two years, thousands of students graduated from the second Coleman Elementary amidst an array of educational, cultural and community affairs. A farewell yearbook, Coleman Elementary School 1941 – 2003: A Collection of Memories highlights but some of the “happenings” that made a school a community: PTAs, Workday Crews, Yo-yo Championship Awards, Field Trips & Field Days, Sock-Hops, Fairs, Pageants, Safety Patrols, Music Festivals, Plays, Author Festivals, Book Fairs, Drama, Outdoor Education Journals, Walker Creek Ranch Week, Academic Chess Club, Coleman Daycare Center, Creative Writing Club, Published Poets, Cooking in Room 15, Coleman Coffee House for Young Poets & Writers, TeachEach Awards, Rummage and Pastry Sales.

With their school deemed beyond repair and renovation, the San Rafael City School District raised funds through two bond measures, state funding and contributions from the Coleman PTA to cover the $14 million price tag to build a state-of-the-art facility. Like its predecessors—as well as the man whose name the school carries—this school would break new ground: being among the first schools to be built in Marin County in a quarter century.

The new Coleman Elementary opened its doors in the fall of 2004 with sixteen new classrooms (all with computers), a central library and recreational facilities. This year the school serves almost 400 culturally-diverse students in the K-5 grades. Mrs. Ruth Reynolds, Coleman Elementary’s Principal for the past 18 years, tells us that,” We prepare students for the 21st century incorporating national Common Core Standards , Technology and the arts to educate students and to prepare them to be college and career ready by the time they complete high school. Coleman in 2013 is a school that reflects the desires of the community and is involved in many community based programs. We pride ourselves on being a part of the community reflecting the needs and wishes of our parents and the community it serves.”

The Coleman Name and Legacy

The Coleman Elementary School at 800 Belle Avenue honors the name and memory of “Gilded Age” businessman and developer William Tell Coleman. Born in 1824 in Cynthiana (Harrison County), Kentucky, he came to California during the Gold Rush seeking fortune not by wielding a pick and axe in the Sierra Nevada, but by selling tools, wares and other supplies to “49ers” in Sacramento and Placerville before moving to San Francisco.

Coleman’s mercantile efforts were a success and in 1856 he began operating steamships from New York to San Francisco by way of the Horn in three months! He was active in the sugar, fish, wine and raisin trades, the mining of borax—through Harmony Borax Works and its signature 20-Mule Team Wagons—as well as land development.

Mr. Coleman understood the dark side of life in lawless, gold-fevered San Francisco where vigilante justice was common. In both 1851 and 1856, vigilante committees were organized to restore order. William T. Coleman headed the 1856 group and became known as the Lion of the Vigilantes when accused murderers were executed, after a secret trial, for the deaths of a US Marshal and newspaperman.

Coleman later moved his family to New York but again returned to California. In 1871, he paid $84,000 for 1,100 acres in the Magnolia Valley to Oliver Irwin. He later added the Forbes subdivision that became Coleman’s Addition. He hired Golden Gate Park superintendent and civil engineer William Hammond Hall (1846 – 1934) to lay out the subdivision. Thousands of trees and well-nursed gardens were planted.

In 1872, the Marin County Water Company was incorporated with W.T. Coleman as president and chief stock holder. The company purchased the water rights on Lagunitas Creek and built a dam to create Lake Lagunitas. Three years later, W.T. Coleman stocked Lake Lagunitas with 20,000 trout!

In 1887, Coleman sold ten acres in Magnolia Valley to the Dominican sisters contributing half the cost so that they might build a convent and school for girls. The following year, he and his partners opened the opulent Hotel Rafael.

It was the apex of Coleman’s career. For in 1888, he was considered (but not nominated) as the Democratic presidential nominee.  Soon poor decisions in his borax ventures would lead to financial ruin. Nevertheless, W.T. Coleman repaid his debts before his death on November 22, 1893.

Today, Coleman Elementary School and Coleman Drive in the Lincoln/San Rafael Hill neighborhood remember the man who devoted so much of his energy to the development of San Rafael and Magnolia Valley or today’s Dominican neighborhood.

hitchcock school

San Rafael’s Historic Corner: Grand, Elm, and Belle

This article ran in our latest Spring 2012 newsletter. We made an editing error to one paragraph about the Selborne School (aka Bates School). The corrected paragraph is included in this version.

Have you noticed a celebratory air in the vicinity of Grand, Elm and Belle of late? Last year, Trinity Community Church (1675 Grand Ave), a Pentecostal congregation, observed its 80th anniversary and 2012 marks the church’s 40th year of residence. The anniversary was themed “A Voice of Grace and Truth” honoring Trinity’s 1931 beginning as a home Bible study group led by Edith Erickson that led to the church’s establishment in 1937 and affiliation with the Assemblies of God in 1942.

Next year, Marin Ballet (100 Elm Street) will celebrate its 50th anniversary – and is another 40-year resident – having already kicked off the festivities with the On Your Toes blog that remembers “the tenacity of Leona Norman’s founding vision.” Posts affirm the school’s aim that “nurtures each person through the art of dance, and holds dance as art to guide each person…” You can find the blog at

Also, the Marin Tennis Club (995 Belle Avenue) will be honoring its forty years on the courts this year, making it a clean sweep among the institutions that purchased their properties from the Marist Society of California in 1970. Congratulations to each of our cherished neighbors and best wishes to them in coming years in the Dominican/Black Canyon neighborhood!

Out of the Ashes

Given the celebrations, we wondered about other former owners. Sleuthing about, we learned that the site has quite an educational and spiritual lineage having been home to two boys’ schools, a military academy and seminary or The Hitchcock School (1899), the Hitchcock Military Academy (1907), the Tamalpais School (1925) and St. Peter Chancel Seminary (1955).

But it was a late 19th-century disaster that first brought developers to the area. For on Sunday, April 23, 1899, at 5am “a red glare could be seen far in the north part of the city, back of Hotel Rafael and in the neighborhood of William Lichtenberg’s residence” [201 Locust] or so reported The Marin Journal of the fire that consumed the Selborne School (aka the Bates School), established in 1888, that occupied a three-story school and dormitory built by William Babcock in 1892.

The devastated principal, the Rev. Charles Hitchcock, disbanded the faculty while others – Major Rex Sherer and William Babcock – worked to rebuild the school. The new site was then part of the Mackay & Flood properties on Grand Avenue bordered by Elm and Belle.

historic cornerThe school was renamed the Hitchcock School and the July 2nd San Francisco Call made assurances: “This school will reopen on August 29th with handsome new buildings, heated by steam and lighted with electricity. All buildings one story, raised well above the ground. Steam from outside. No furnace, no stoves, no flues in boys’ quarters; the nearest approach to a fireproof school.” A military department was also established.

In 1908, S.H. Olmstead described the Academy in The Overland Monthly as “Furnished with arms by the U. S. Government and under the instruction of an officer detailed by the department at Washington, the boys drill with the snap and precision of old veterans.” Enrollment was 110 students. Then in September 1910 fire destroyed two buildings on the campus or Selborne Hall and the gymnasium that were quickly rebuilt.

Hitchcock 100 Years Ago

A century old artifact, Hitchcock Military Academy’s 1912-1913 catalogue, is kept under lock and key at the Marin Free Library’s Anne T. Kent California Room. Perusing its pages, we discovered much about life at the academy with aspects both familiar and remote, reasoned yet odd.

The school’s aim was ”to develop regular and healthy habits of mind and body.” Visitors arriving by train were met by “carriages and a public bus” and the principal sent “his carriage to meet those who will notify him beforehand”!

Integrated into the military program were courses for both university and business aspirants. A “no cramming” policy (this must be a joke) was emphasized and “thoroughness” highlighted. Manual skills were offered “as a stimulus to development” and “a healthful change from desk work.”

It seemed odd to read: “All buildings are lighted by electricity.” But then we remembered that electricity had come to Marin but a decade earlier. Bathing seemed fun at “a large salt water open air bath” – surely the San Rafael baths dredged out of the canal by Charles P. Ware.

Discipline and morals were a constant attention at Hitchcock and residences had an “experienced matron in each hall.” And in case of troublemakers “any cadet who shows himself dangerous to his schoolfellows is speedily removed.”

That year, Hitchcock rescinded its experiment to allow cadets Saturday home visits. The shift was justified with the quip “the school year is short enough.” Sundays included time “to write home at least once a week” while pocket money “in sums of ten to fifty cents” was given out once a week thereby avoiding large sums that “tend to engender wasteful habits.”

Finally, we had to smile at the title “ The Principal is the Cadet’s Friend” for he remembered “the difficulties, troubles and temptations of his own schoolboy days.”

Taking one last look back, you can know that Hitchcock’s cadets benefited from the daily visit of a physician to the school. When need arose the first four doctor visits were free but of course a $5.00 (not $500.00)/per term fee had already been paid. Meanwhile, the cost for tuition, board and laundry totaled $300 – $350 per term or $600 – $700 for the 1912-13 year. And that’s the way that it was … a century ago on Grand Ave between Belle and Elm!


Photo & Map published in the Hitchcock Military Academy 1912-13 catalogue and downloaded courtesy of The Anne T. Kent California Room

History of the Hotel Rafael


Next time you drive northward through those annoying blind curves on Rafael Drive, visualize yourself in the land of opportunity that was San Rafael of the late 1880s. Imagine for a moment that you have ventured by horse-and-carriage between the stately stone pillars that guide you gracefully upward through the curving elegance and manicured grounds of the grand Victorian Rafael Hotel.

America’s Civil War is recent history and World War I is not yet imagined. Anybody who is anybody is preparing to go to the Paris World Fair (1889) for the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s robber barons and wealthy socialites are fleeing the summer fog to cavort in summer homes on this side of the bay.

Throw in a classy upper-crust girls’ institution of higher education and voila! You now have the perfect climate (weather, financial, psychological) for a magnificent and imposing 100-plus room destination resort to bloom, along with his 10,000 carefully planted young trees, in William T. Coleman’s “Magnolia Park.”

Coleman cavorts with a cast of interesting characters, including Robert Watt, a mining engineer who introduced the cable car to San Francisco (note the street named after him that marks the north end of the hotel grounds). James Wilkins owns the Marin County Tocsin, one of Marin’s earliest newspapers. There was James Mervyn, who is the son of railroad magnate, Peter Donohue who built the North Pacific Railroad, which ran the North Shore branch (Tiburon to Petaluma) with a station within walking distance from the hotel. Other investors include Arthur W. Foster, railroad banker and a founder of what is now the Marin Academy, and William Babcock whose elaborate summer home, Edgehill, will be given to Dominican and magnificently restored in 2010.

San Francisco architects Curlett & Cuthbertson, inspired by the elaborate Del Monte Hotel in Monterrey, design a slightly less elaborate building for the San Rafael site. San Francisco’s social elite come by ferry or steamer to Point San Quentin or Tiburon, then by train or horse and carriage, to San Rafael through the stately entry pillars.

Gates to Hotel Rafael, Courtesy Marin History Museum.

The Hotel brochures boast various activities, including horsemanship, bowling, billiards, dancing, tennis, yachting, golf, sailing, and fishing. Bathing was also available at the San Rafael Municipal Baths, which featured a two-story water slide into a huge indoor swimming pool.

A landmark water tower included an observatory with a large telescope, accessible from an iron staircase winding around the outside of the structure. Capitalizing on gravity to enhance the pressure in the fire-suppression system, it rises 95 (or 135) feet to afford a panoramic view. According to promotional materials, pumps and engines are constantly connected, making it impossible to diminish the water supply. Ample fire hydrants are placed in convenient positions around the building and an “efficient fire service is maintained.” Within the hotel are three patent fire reels on each floor with 100 feet of hose on each, making 1,500 feet of fire hose in the house; which, “with our high water pressure, would be sufficient to cope with any fire.”

In 1895 old man Peter Donahue dies, and his son James and James’ sister, Mary Ellen (Mamie), inherit Peter’s fortune. This new infusion of money brings on a most colorful character, the handsome, debonair, wealthy, German Baron John Henry von Schroeder, who wants to parlay Mamie’s inheritance into something big. He buys out Coleman and embarks on a grandiose expansion of the hotel, including the innovation of electricity. The baron operates the hotel in a wine-and-dine whirl of gentleman (stag) parties, complete with poker, billiards and…women.

The plot thickens, yet disaster looms for the hotel.

Fast forward to a brand new century: January 4, 1900. The San Francisco Morning Call features the Baron’s intoxication and other shocking scandalous behavior in San Rafael. In the first big “show trial” of the century, the Baron is charged with throwing wine bottles from hotel windows, and “making love” in the resort’s garden maze. To say nothing of “ogling” women at the Tiburon ferry slip.

After a jury decides against him, he appeals with a libel suit, and achieves an empty victory. His family has already returned to Germany, so he returns as well, and later rises to a high level in the German military.

In 1915 the hotel is turned over to a World War 1 General named Warfield, and the University of California Regents hold the mortgage. In 1918-19 the influenza epidemic converts the hotel into a hospital. Dominican Sisters, Red Cross volunteers—everyone—pitches in. It’s said that the wealthy adventurer, philanthropist Louise Boyd, sent her chauffer to transport afflicted victims to the facility, and that she personally dumped bedpans.

When the health crisis ends, the building is leased to two Oakland hotel men who electrify all the lights and install an Otis elevator. Best of all, 40 private bathrooms are added, and the hotel re-opens in 1920-21, ready and raring for the twenties to roar.

The new era brings Chamber of Commerce events, service club meetings, receptions, balls, dances, and proms. But the glory days have faded in the shadow of the newly ubiquitous high-speed automobile. The motorized vehicle turns the destination resort into a mere lunch stop on the way to more distant destinations.

Alas, the brochure’s highly touted fire suppression system did not take into account the actions of a reportedly disgruntled employee, who splashes buckets of kerosene throughout the structure and sets it afire on July 29, 1928. According to the newspaper, there are 134 guests. Rescued from the safe is a “melted mass of precious metals studded with jewels.”

In 2011, I met a current resident of Aldersley Retirement Community who, at the age of 8, was lunching at the hotel that day, and remembers the fire “as if it were yesterday.”

Submitted by Joan Nelson at the exact location (70 Rafael Dr.) of the elegant port coucher of the Hotel Rafael.

More Photos

The Anne T. Kent California at the Marin County Civic Center has a new website. They have posted a video with images of the Hotel Rafael, accompanied by the “Hotel Rafael March.”

Local “Detective” Searches the Name: Black Canyon

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.

Oral Histories

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 We’ll try to uncover the “true” story of the naming of Black Canyon.

Edgehill Mansion

With the recent dedication of the Dominican Heritage & Alumni House from the revitalized remains of William Babcock’s Edgehill, a new chapter in the life of this 123+ year old structure begins.

Like other 19th-century buildings, an incomplete record obscures Edgehill’s history. The construction timeline is a mystery, but it is known that the building was commissioned as a father’s wedding gift to William Babcock (1851 – 1918) and his bride, Helena Redington of Augusta Maine, who married in the late 1870s. Photographs taken by William’s brother Harry date back to 1882 which is at odds with the accepted completion date of the mansion as 1887. Whatever, the Queen Anne style home was built past the gateposts at Magnolia and Palm Avenues in what was then the Magnolia Valley area of the Coleman Tract near Meadowlands, the summer home of San Francisco Chronicle co-founder Michael DeYoung.

The marvel of the wedding gift that became Edgehill soon became shrouded in grief as Helena Babcock passed away in 1887 after the loss of three children. In 1895, William – a banker and tugboat tycoon – married Julia Beck (1861 – 1954), a prominent widow from a Baltimore family. The couple lived at Edgehill and its 50-acres where they maintained beautiful gardens, greenhouses and a kennel of Dachshunds! Julia expanded and remodeled the Queen Anne mansion, while decorating her home with antiques and furnishings acquired during travels abroad. Sometime between 1891 and 1894, she added “gingerbread” detailing to the house as well as a tower. The Babcocks’ life together came to an end in January 1918 when William contracted pneumonia and died. Julia was sole heir to his fortune and engaged herself with philanthropic and civic activities.

In January of 1920, after returning from a trip abroad, Julia sold the Edgehill property to the Dominican Sisters for $75,000. The sisters converted the building into their second dormitory – the first being Meadowlands, which they had acquired for $40,000 in 1918. Edgehill was opened to returning seniors on August 30, 1920. The 1924 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of the property includes a 2.5-story building with outbuildings that include a restroom, laundry, chicken coops, dairy bar, cow barn and greenhouse! By 1950 most of the outbuildings had been removed. Over the years, Edgehill provided the college with residence facilities, a novitiate, classrooms, offices, a dining hall and the Garden School pre-school established in 1946..

By 1986 the aging Queen Anne mansion was found to be unsafe as a residence hall and offices were instead located there. In 1989, fter the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the building was closed. Now, more than two decades later, Dominican University has completed its restoration and reopened Edgehill as a center of Alumni activities.