© Anne T. Kent Room
A portion of the original Tiburon to San Rafael Road overlaid onto this 1926 aerial of Southern Marin.
Most Marin residents think of Tiburon Boulevard as the road that connects the towns of Tiburon and Belvedere with Highway 101. In the early 20th century, the road was important for being a route to the San Francisco ferry. In 1919 Tiburon Blvd. was added to the State highway system and designated as State Route (SR) 52. At less than five miles in length, SR 52 was the shortest route in the system.
In the 1960s, when a bridge across the bay from Tiburon to San Francisco was under serious consideration, the route was being discussed as the possible approach to a major new transbay crossing. However, the new bridge was never constructed and the street is now no more than the main artery of the small Town of Tiburon. Nonetheless, it retains its status as a State highway and since 1964 has been signed as SR 131.
As early as the 1890s, however, a longer more significant Tiburon boulevard was earnestly being pursued. The fundamental idea was to create a road over 11 miles long from Tiburon to San Rafael. The February 1, 1891 edition of the Daily Alta California reported: “A meeting of citizens was held this afternoon, to take steps to secure the building of a boulevard from San Rafael to Tiburon.” Among the steps taken to realize the plan was to petition the Legislature for authorization to use San Quentin State Prison convicts to construct the road.
A key figure in the development of the boulevard was James H. Wilkins, Prison Director, who envisaged the use of convict labor. Concerns arose that deploying prisoners would conflict with paid employment but supporters argued that the county was in no position to build such a thoroughfare. Estimates projected the use of convict labor to build the road could save the county over $250,000 (over $7.5 million in 2018 dollars).
The route of the boulevard described in the early 1890s ran from the Court House in San Rafael east on 4th Street to Irwin Street, and then south up Southern Heights Ridge to the summit above Schuetzen (now California) Park. From the summit, the road continued down to Greenbrae and crossed Corte Madera Creek on a 416-foot long, 20-foot wide trestle and drawbridge. It then approximately followed today’s Highway 101 alignment across the Corte Madera marsh and over Alto Hill to Strawberry. The road was to make use of the abandoned North Pacific Coast (NPC) Railroad grade over Collin’s summit, approximately where Highway 101 crosses over Alto Hill today. From the summit, the route continued on the abandoned grade down to where it met the old Alto-Tiburon county road. The county road followed the Tiburon Peninsula’s southern shoreline to Belvedere and across a drawbridge into Tiburon.
By 1896, with over 60 convicts at work, road construction advanced rapidly. In August of that year the San Francisco Examiner reported: “The road has already been finished from Greenbrae to the outskirts of San Rafael….The road runs through one of the prettiest sections of California and the views are particularly good.” The work on the boulevard attracted scores of prominent visitors. The Sausalito News quoted one of the visiting judges, “This driveway is bound to make the county famous. It will be as noted as the Yosemite valley.”
A group led by Supervisors Barr and Ring, and including President A. W. Foster of the California Northwestern (CNW) Railroad, petitioned the Board of Supervisors in 1898 to change the alignment of the boulevard. Instead of using the abandoned NPC right-of-way to cross to the southern side of the Tiburon Peninsula, the group proposed a route around the north side of the Peninsula. Records show that the change in route was nominally recommended because of unspecified problems with the abandoned railroad right-of-way. Surprisingly, this revision was advocated despite the fact the alignment would be over a mile longer and serve less than a half-dozen property owners.
Revision to the route meant that 1.6 miles of it would pass through the 320 acre California Point ranch home of Supervisor Ring and also serve the 955 acre property owned by Dr. Benjamin Lyford at the southern end of the Tiburon Peninsula. It would connect the CNW Railroad Tiburon station with Dr. Lyford’s Hygeia, the first residential subdivision on the Peninsula.
The Board of Supervisors ratified the changed route on June 22, 1898. The action of the Board was acutely controversial. The Sausalito News offered a strong opinion, “It is a shameful piece of work, and behind it are, apparently, petty and selfish motives and a suspicion of revenge….This excellent highway as originally planned would have been of inestimable value to the entire southern portion of Marin county; but a sudden change in the plans has been the cause of ruining a worthy undertaking…”
An intense battle was waged to terminate public funds for a road that served so few tax payers. A series of legal challenges over a two year period sought to block construction. After multiple court decisions, all of which supporting the use of general tax payer funds to build the road, the Board of Supervisors awarded the contracts to build portions of the realigned boulevard in April 1900. This work was completed in August but issues remained unresolved, particularly fencing and the railroad crossing of at Tiburon.
At the April 1901 Board meeting scheduled to award the contract to complete construction of the boulevard, A. W. Foster gave his personal assurances that the crossing of his railroad at Tiburon would be an excellent installation. The Marin County Tocsin quoted him as saying: “The crossing will be an extension of the street leading from Belvedere through Tiburon across the railroad track. One branch to lead to the new Tiburon school-house, and the other to follow along the eastern side of the track around the point of the hill to the boulevard.” The final construction contract and agreements for crossing the railroad at Tiburon and removal of the “Old Iron Gate” at the Lyford property were reached at the April meeting. With these last hurdles cleared the boulevard would be completed from Tiburon to San Rafael.
The boulevard opened to the public on October 10th 1901 with a grand celebration and feast. The Tocsin captured the experience of first time users of the road north from Tiburon as: “…like a visit to fairyland, a revelation of undreamed scenic beauties.…” The newspaper further noted: “We doubt if there is a man in the County today who is sorry that it was built or who begrudges the money it cost.” Even the Sausalito News, which had vigorously opposed the realigned boulevard, conceded in October 1902: “The great boulevard extending from San Rafael to Tiburon….is one of the finest highways in the county of Marin and, as an improvement, ranks among the best in the county.”
Remnants of the “great boulevard” exist today. In unincorporated San Rafael the street that runs from the end of Irwin Street to the Larkspur city limit is named Tiburon Boulevard. It is a half-mile segment of the original boulevard from San Rafael to Tiburon.
On the Tiburon Peninsula the boulevard north from Tiburon was known for many years as the California City Road. In 1938 the Board of supervisors formally named the road Paradise Drive.
In 1948 the Board of Supervisors formally named the state highway now known as SR 131 as Tiburon Boulevard. However, today's Tiburon Boulevard never formed part of the original Tiburon to San Rafael Road that opened in 1901.