Bolinas: a hidden town with history

A glimpse of Bolinas in the 1800s. Photo courtesy of the Bolinas Museum.

Have you ever been to the little town of Bolinas, near Point Reyes National Seashore? Have you ever wanted to go, but couldn’t find the turn-off from the highway? Well, that’s not by accident. It has been said that if Bolinas had a welcome sign – which it doesn’t – it could read: “Welcome to Bolinas. Please Keep Moving.”  

But it hasn’t always been that way, as KALW’s Steven Short explains in this installment of The Source.

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STEVEN SHORT: When going north across the Golden Gate Bridge, or when heading southwest, from San Rafael, it’s highly unlikely that you will see a turn-off for the town of Bolinas. That’s because area residents are known for removing any directional signs to their unincorporated village. Why is that?

ELIA HAWORTH: Well, it is a long story. And in the ‘70s, yes – it was protectionism. And it was to stop tourists from finding us.

Elia Haworth is the Assistant Director of the Bolinas Museum.

HAWORTH: And I also curate the History Room, so I’ve come to know an extensive amount about the history of our little town.

Reclusive residents may try to avoid attention today, but long ago, resorts on the lagoon attracted vacationers from as far away as Sacramento. And Haworth says getting there from San Francisco involved a whole lot more than just finding the right turn-off in your car.

HAWORTH: Well, you went in a boat, then you had to find a horse. Then you rode over from Sausalito.

Did you hear that? You had to find a horse! Imagine that!  

HAWORTH: People traveled. You know, I think it’s such a big deal to get in the car and drive an hour to Mill Valley or somewhere.  But they – they traveled by horseback and by foot without thinking anything of it.  

Now, these travelers weren’t coming to today’s Bolinas. It didn’t exist yet.

HAWORTH: There was a summer colony here before there was a town. There were big hotels, right there, on the lagoon. And people came and went from San Francisco regular – and Oakland!

Those summer get-aways ended after the 1906 earthquake destroyed the hotels.  

HAWORTH: Which was really a loss. I wish they were still there. We could go over and have tea now.

Well, since we can’t have tea, let’s time-travel instead. 

After Spain lost control of Alta California in 1821, the Mexican government continued the patronage system of gigantic land grants throughout the territory.

HAWORTH: And this was a land grant given to Rafael Garcia – he arrived about 1834 to claim it. It went from where Dogtown is today, all of Bolinas, all of the east side of the lagoon and Stinson Beach, and it was called Rancho Bolinas.

Garcia decided to abandon the coast and move inland a bit, where he established another rancho. This move, Haworth says, allowed Garcia’s sister and brother-in-law, Juana and Gregorio Briones, to take possession of Rancho Bolinas.  

HAWORTH: So Rancho Bolinas was very successful, and the homestead is still down by the schoolhouse. And everything was lovely, until gold was discovered.

And that brought treasure hunters to the area by the thousands – especially to San Francisco, a place totally unprepared for them.  

HAWORTH: Remember San Francisco was tiny – not even a village, in sand dunes! And fog.  

Piers had to be built – homes and stores – everything! 

HAWORTH: Gregorio Briones gave permission to men that he knew, in this Bay Area, to start logging on his land. And I’m sure that he could never have foreseen the devastation that was going to occur.  

Haworth speculates that Señor Briones probably expected these men to harvest a few boatloads of his plentiful redwood trees, and that would be the end of it. That didn’t turn out to be the case.

HAWORTH: Suddenly thousands of individuals were involved with this, both in San Francisco, and here.  

These busy newcomers soon discarded “Rancho” from the area’s name. And they mispronounced the Spanish “Bolinas” as “BOW- leens,” which some people took as a corruption of the word “baleen,” which is a type of whale.  

HAWORTH: And people have said, did it make – did it mean “whale?” But I believe it came from the Miwok name.

First of all, we believe that the native people – Coast Miwok – who lived here for at least 1700 years, called their land Bali-N. And that’s when the Spanish were – finally came and started taking them to the Missions, they would record the name of the – where they came from. And of course they’d do it with a Spanish ear, for there was no written Miwok language.  

SHORT: So let me just ask: what did Bolinas mean?

HAWORTH: Don’t know. Because the last speakers of Miwok didn’t tell. You know, we don’t – we don’t know.  

They didn’t tell, and I doubt that anyone cared to ask. And that’s a shame.

But remember; while the whole forested rancho was called “Bolinas,” the settlement presently named Bolinas didn’t really have a name at that time. And the area just up the road, where people lived in those days, took on a nickname derived from its four-legged residents.

HAWORTH: Where the town is today was merely called The Point. The Point was where all the shipping happened. So everything grew up at the little town we call Dogtown.

As for a visit to Bolinas, Haworth says … 

HAWORTH: You may have to do some lookin’ for it.

SHORT: As any quest!

HAWORTH: Yes, a quest. That’s good!

Mythical quests of Old always involved unmarked roads and the possibility of wrong turns. Those ancient quests also invariably ended with unexpected discoveries for the Seeker. And the same might be said for Bolinas today.

In Bolinas, I’m Steven Short for Crosscurrents.

This story originally aired on Wednesday September 1, 2010.