The Bolinas Stage

The road from San Rafael to Bolinas is notoriously narrow, steep, and twisting. Though it's less than twenty miles, a trip to Bolinas can be an adventure, especially at night or in the fog. Imagine what it was like a hundred years ago, when you would have made the trip by stagecoach.

Bolinas was a much busier place a century ago. Residents of San Rafael and San Francisco liked to get away to Bolinas on weekends to picnic, swim, fish, hunt, and hike. Bolinas was also a popular destination for longer vacations, with two hotels and an extensive resort called Willow Camp, now Stinson Beach. But for many years it was hard to get to Bolinas at all. You could take a schooner from San Francisco, ride a horse from Olema, or walk or ride over Mount Tamalpais from San Rafael on the old trail built by the Miwoks. A stage road was built in 1865 from San Rafael through Olema to Bolinas. In 1870 an engineer named Hiram Austin drove a road (now the Shoreline Highway) from Sausalito to Willow Camp, but Bolinas Lagoon prevented him from connecting the road to Bolinas. Passengers were deposited at McKennan's Landing, where they signalled for a launch from Bolinas to come pick them up. In 1875 the North Pacific Coast Railroad was completed from San Rafael to Occidental. Tourists could now take the train to Point Reyes Station and catch the stage to Bolinas, but it was still a long all-day trip. A shorter way was needed.

In February 1877, the County Supervisors requested Hiram Austin to survey a new route between Bolinas and San Rafael. Austin's proposal was approved, sealed bids were submitted, and on July 3, 1878, the contract for building the road was awarded to Jesse Colwell and J. H. Wilkins of San Rafael. They hired crews and started work two weeks later. There were complaints at first that the contractors were using Chinese labor when there were local lads that could use the work. Colwell replied that they would be happy to hire white men if they could find any that would work for a dollar and a quarter a day. The Chinese built the road.

They started from Bolinas and cut the road steeply up to the top of Bolinas Ridge, roughly paralleling the old San Rafael Trail a mile or so away. The road crossed the ridge and descended Cataract Canyon to Lagunitas Creek, then followed the creek upstream through the willow groves and meadows in Lagunitas Canyon. It then went down near the old Shaver Grade and into Ross. From there it was only two more miles over the ridge to San Rafael and the Marin County Stables at Fourth and A. The new road was fourteen miles long, sixteen feet wide, and had 48 culverts and 29 bridges. It was completed on June 26, 1879, on schedule and under budget. It cost around $16,000 dollars and was famed throughout the area for its magnificent views. In 1884 a cutoff road was built from the railroad station in Fairfax to meet the main road at Bon Tempe Ranch, shortening the route by two miles.

The Bolinas-San Rafael stagecoach line started business as soon as the road was finished. At first it ran three times a week, later on every day but Sunday. The trip took three hours and cost a dollar and a half. San Francisco residents on holiday could now catch the early ferry to Sausalito and the train to San Rafael, and the stage could get them to Bolinas in time for a late lunch. Conditions could be rugged. In the wet season the road became a mass of mud; washouts and landslides were common. In dry weather the mud dried into iron-hard ruts and the dust was terrible. Women often wore veils over their faces and long coats called dusters. Spring-fed drinking troughs were maintained at several points along steeper stretches of the road. Often hunters or hikers would ask the driver to let them off at some likely spot and pick them up on the way back. On one occasion the passengers had to share their seats with a 221-pound bear two of the men had shot.

There were two regular stops where people could eat and stay the night if they chose. Liberty Ranch in the upper end of Lagunitas Canyon had been a working cattle ranch until the stage road was built past its door. Then Vincent Liberty enlarged his house, built some cabins, and turned it into a roadhouse. Mrs. Liberty was famous for her cooking and hospitality. Guests could fish in the creek or rent horses and explore the beautiful area around Little Carson Falls. Just downstream from Liberty's place were a number of cabins at Scott's Camp and the clubhouse of the Lagunitas Rod and Gun Club, which leased over 12,000 acres of land as a hunting reserve. Further downstream was Shaver's sawmill and a little settlement called Alpine where the sawyers lived.


Liberty Ranch

The other stop was at Summit House on top of Bolinas Ridge (the site is at the intersection of Ridgecrest Blvd and the Bolinas-Fairfax Road). Summit House was a rustic hotel and restaurant run by Constantine deSella, a well-known chef. It was a popular starting point for hikers heading for the summit of Mt. Tamalpais.

Summit House

The Bolinas coaches didn't look like movie stagecoaches. They were heavy open wagons with two wooden seats and a canvas roof that could be rolled back on fine days. Three passengers faced forward and three back. The driver sat on a high seat in front with two privileged passengers. A leather boot in back held luggage, guns, and fishing rods. Depending on the load, the coaches were pulled by teams of two or four strong draft horses and driven by some skilled and colorful characters.

Bolinas Stage

A good stagecoach driver was envied by men and admired by women. He sat up there on the high seat with a cigarette dangling from a lip, the "ribbons" and a rawhide whip held casually in special calfskin driving gloves. Quick runs were expected, and the drivers had to judge the curves and road conditions carefully. The steel tires would skitter to the very edge on the many sharp hairpin turns. It was not a ride for the faint of heart, but the drivers were skilled and experienced and the line had an excellent safety record. Nevertheless, there were incidents over the years.

In June of 1892 the stage was descending Fairfax Grade (Bolinas Avenue) when it was passed by a painter's wagon dragging a ladder. The lead horse shied at the ladder bouncing in the dust and fell over the cliff, slowly pulling the other horse and the wagon to the edge. Three of the passengers jumped clear, but the stage with driver Thad Lewis, three women, and three children, plunged down the embankment. The horses were caught by a wire fence and the stage somersaulted over them to land on its side in the bottom of the canyon a hundred feet below. One little girl was thrown clear, only to have a horse land partially on top of her. Unbelievably, neither humans nor horses were injured. After everyone was brought up to the road, Lewis apologized, saying, "In fifteen years of driving, this is the first time this has happened."

Anything could startle the team and start a runaway. Another driver, Leonard Nott, left the stage to deliver mail to one of the homesteads along Lagunitas Creek. The team suddenly bolted, leaving Nott behind. A lady passenger managed to scramble to the driver's seat, seize the reins, and stop the stage. She complained bitterly that she'd pulled so hard she'd skinned her hands. One team bolted at the sound of a train whistle in Fairfax. Most of these runaways did not result in injury, but there were occasional tragedies. In September 1883, a runaway team struck the carriage of Mrs. Jesse Colwell, the wife of the man that built the road, killing her mother, Jane Ingram. And the day before Christmas, 1887, driver James Steele was killed when his team ran away with an empty stage.

By far the most famous incident on the stage line was not a runaway but a holdup. On the morning of September 19, 1898, driver Wallace Sayers had just left Liberty Ranch on the way to San Rafael when a man with a mask and gun jumped out from beneath a bridge and ordered him to halt. Sayers and his three male passengers were robbed of their cash and gold watches, but three women passengers were allowed to keep their belongings. The robber told Sayers to "Drive on, and if you look back I'll blow your head off." But Sayers had recognized the robber's voice as that of Victor Colwell, the son of the roadbuilder. Sayers highballed into San Rafael and notified the sheriff, who quickly organized a posse and rode out after the robber. He caught up to Colwell on Ross Valley Road, making for Ross Landing. They searched him and found a gun and the loot, and he quickly confessed. Within two hours of the holdup, Colwell was in jail. He went to trial in February 1899, pleading insanity. His family and friends testified that he had frequent spells of intense melancholy and peculiar behavior, but the stage passengers stated that he appeared sane during the robbery and Colwell was sentenced to seven years in prison. His father Jesse had lost both his mother-in-law and his son to the road he had built. His son's conviction must have broken his heart. Less than six months later, Jesse was dead.

Victor Colwell’s mug shots at San Quentin, 1899

The old stage road started a slow decline in this century. Both the railroad and the Coast Highway bypassed Bolinas and the town became a smaller, sleepier place. Tourism to Bolinas declined. Willow Camp was closed and in 1904 Summit House burned down. Both big hotels in Bolinas, the Dipsea and the Flagstaff, had been thrown into the lagoon by the 1906 earthquake, centered just a few miles away at Olema. After 1906, Phoenix Dam inundated part of the old road. In 1919 the water district built Alpine Dam, flooding the settlements in Lagunitas Canyon, and the road was moved up onto the side of the valley - the present Bolinas-Fairfax Road. In 1911 the stage coaches were replaced by Stanley Steamers, and in 1920 by busses. When the last owner of the line died, his wife drove the run in a station wagon. Greyhound bought the line during World War II, until gas rationing finally did it in.

Much of the old stage road is under water now, but parts of it can still be seen. The Bolinas-Fairfax Road from Bolinas nearly to Alpine Dam is the original road as surveyed by Hiram Austin. The first hundred yards of the trail to Cataract Canyon follows the stage road down to the lake. The road reappears from the head of Alpine Lake at Liberty Gulch. When the lake is low you can still walk along the stretch of road where Victor Colwell held up the stage in 1898. Just beyond the gate at Bon Tempe Lake parking lot, the old cutoff to Fairfax is now the road past Sky Oaks Ranger Station. The main stage road goes down Shaver Grade to Five Points and under Phoenix Lake. Emerging again in front of the old Porteous Ranch caretaker's cabin on the north shore, it then plunges under the dam, ending up as the path through the picnic area at Natalie Greene Park. The stages continued down Lagunitas Avenue to Ross, then up Laurel Grove and over the Makin Grade to San Rafael. They came into town down Greenwood, Madrona, Clorinda, Reservoir, and Ross Avenues, then went up D Street to Fourth. The only portion in San Rafael that has not been paved over is a short steep grade between Upper Toyon and the cul-de-sac at the end of Evergreen.

It is haunting to stand on some lonely arm of Alpine Lake today and imagine an Atlantean scene down below the still water; old buildings with fish swimming through the windows. They're not there, of course; all the structures were razed before the lake was filled. But seeing the old road winding through the thick brush one can almost hear the rumble of wheels and the crack of a whip. One half expects to see the stage flying around a turn in the dusty road with gentlemen in frock coats and ladies in long dusters and wide-brimmed picnic hats staring at the oddly-dressed stranger standing in the road. Perhaps they'd think you were the ghost of Victor Colwell, returned to hold them up again.

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford