Take a Walk into Mill Valley’s History

My husband, Lippy, recently led an intrepid group of us back in time 100 years to Mill Valley’s Horse and Buggy Days. He did this as a docent with the Mill Valley Historical Society’s “Walk into History”, an amazing event that takes a different path every year to show people the very rich history of our old (by California standards) railroad town.


The first train arrived in 1889. It was a branch of the North Coast & Pacific Railroad and ran on a narrow-gauge single-track, then a double-track to the station. (The station was moved further downtown in 1903 to the spot that remained the train depot, and then a bus depot, and is now the Depot Bookstore).

In 1896, the Mill Valley & Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway installed standard-gauge track for its runs up the mountain. There was a telegraph office at the station. The early train made about 14 trips a day to the San Francisco Ferry. A trip to San Francisco by train and ferry took about 50 minutes at the turn of the century. Today, by car and ferry, it would take about an hour.

Lumber was also an essential part of early Mill Valley’s history. The Mill Valley Lumber Company, which has changed hands many times, remains in a spot near downtown. The railroad passed through here as late as 1940 for passengers and 1955 for freight.


This sign is still on one of the buildings: Railroad employees must not move engines or cars beyond this point.


We stopped at a wonderful stately Victorian on our town’s main street that was originally built as a summer home for the San Francisco family of George Lingard Payne, of Payne Bolt Works. Payne planted a row of magnolia trees for his wife, who was originally from the South, and the home, which the family used as a secondary residence, was called “The Magnolias”.

One of the great things about our walk was that we went back through modern driveways and discovered remnants of the past I’d never seen before, even though I walk and bike down this street all the time. Behind one such newer apartment building was the Carriage House for The Magnolias, which is now a private home. Its wrought iron gates were originally used on the elevators at the St. Francis Hotel.

Carriage House2

Poplar Brae, built by Scotsman William Terry in 1893, is a wonderful example of the sweeping Victorian verandas that surround some of Mill Valley’s original homes. It also has Asian elements, which some western avant-gardists were discovering at the turn of the last century.


Lippy had us pause and imagine the days when the train ran constantly down Miller Avenue, past these homes. Locomotives were powered by wood, and then oil. They were noisy, smoky and smelly. Vehicles were horse-drawn — cars were still few in 1910 — and the roads were dusty in summer and muddy in winter.

In 1893, only three homes had telephone service. Untreated sewage ran through a pipe down Miller. Streetlamps arrived in 1902, and lighting until then was by kerosene or coal oil. (No wonder so many wooden structures burned down.) Cooking was by coal or wood. Street paving began in 1917.

By all accounts, people walked a great deal, to and from the train, and also to the mountain for a hike. Now, of course, most of us drive to the mountain. (It is a long walk.) We’ve traded train noise for car noise, but our air is undoubtedly cleaner and our lives generally easier, with more conveniences at our disposal.

Back near downtown, this house was built by fireman Charles Thoney, who moved his family permanently to the home after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (This pattern was repeated all over Mill Valley, whose early residents often used it for summers and vacations.) A Thoney descendant still lives in Mill Valley, though not in this house.


I played my cards right and got to be the tour’s photo holder.


Mill Valley 3rd graders learn about their town’s history and, of course, many of us keep learning about it, thanks in large part to the work of the Mill Valley Historical Society, who create the Walk into History each year and help maintain the History Room in the Library, which houses archives and treasures from our town’s early days.

Thanks, especially to Chuck Oldenburg, and to the Mill Valley Historical Society members who provided so much research and rich detail to the Walk.


Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman and Bettina Mow

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