Saturday, Jun. 15, 2019

Bolinas Pioneer George Burge

By Richard Nielsen · March 06, 2019

George Burge as he appeared in his 80s. <span>&copy; Susan Chipman </span>

George Burge as he appeared in his 80s.

The Bay View Hotel as it appeared, when George Burge purchased it from Mrs. Jesus Gifford in late 1871. <span>&copy; S. F. Maritime Museum </span> A barrage of weekly ads for the Bay View Hotel in the 1870s, such as this one from the "Marin Journal," ensured a steady flow of patrons. <span>&copy; Marin Journal </span> In the late 1880s, the Bay View Hotel was renamed the Ocean House.  The large hall built by George Burge can be seen attached to the north end of the hotel.  The stables are on the left behind the Bolinas stage. <span>&copy; John Page </span>

Fatherless at age 7, by his early twenties George Burge knew his options for success in the rigid economic structure of early 1800s England were severely limited. Consequently, he decided to abandon the monotony of farm work that had carried him through his teens and enlist in the British army.  But this, too, was bereft of his vision of a more fulfilling future. Bristol, near his home in Chilcompton, was drenched in tales of seafaring adventure that easily lulled young George to follow in the footsteps of a multitude of other bold Englishmen.  At age 24, in 1854, George left the army and claimed passage aboard a ship bound for America. 

 George tried his hand at a number of occupations in the Midwest and southern Canada, where he even demonstrated his potential as an engineer in a sawmill.  Dissatisfied, he returned to New York and booked a passage to Nicaragua, lured by tales of gold in California.  However, he arrived late in the game and was unable to reap rewards in the gold fields of California and Oregon.  Reduced to traveling on foot, he made one last unsuccessful attempt to find riches in British Columbia.  Unlike many others, he had the sense to quit sooner rather than later, and in 1858, worked passage back from Seattle to San Francisco.  

 In 1861 he worked briefly at a hotel in San Francisco.  Then he returned to Bolinas -where he had spent time in 1860- and found work as a woodchopper.  After serveral years he was able to save enough money to acquire acreage on the west bank of Gregorio Creek (now Pine Gulch Creek) from Pablo Briones on April 1, 1865.  This area would come to be known as Paradise Valley.

 On Jan 30th, 1863, George was naturalized.  Three years later, he married Fanny.  Unlike George, Fanny had received a scant education and was unable to read or write.  Sadly, she died in February of 1867 at age 31, probably during childbirth.  Sorrow over Fanny’s death may have been the impetus that led George to arrange for a caretaker for his farm that May and embark on a voyage back to his native England.  There he spent much of the remainder of 1867.  

While in his homeland, he met a young lady, Emma Davis.  They married on November 12, just prior to leaving for the United States. Toward the end of their first day of the voyage, Emma asked George where he was sleeping that night.  When he replied, “With you, of course,” she was horrified at the thought and immediately pulled off her rings and threw them overboard.  She quickly responded, “No, you’re not.”  Apparently, George’s courting during the voyage was successful, for she overcame her inhibitions and gave birth to ten children during the ensuing years.

 In May of 1868, despite his experience with wood chopping he had an unfortunate accident when a large tree branch fell on his lower leg and trapped him for several hours, not far from his farmhouse.  Fortunately, his wife Emma found him, and with the help of others set him free.  Through hard work and frugality, George acquired additional acreage in Bolinas from Hiram Nott, linking his existing farmland with acreage extending from Mesa Road over the ridge to the west.  This expanded his farmstead to 135 acres. 

 Itching to improve his status further, at age 41 George put his farm up for sale and sold it in September 1871 to two brothers, James and Joseph Hushon.  Almost immediately, he reinvested the proceeds in the Bay View Hotel, owned by a widow, Mrs. Jesus Gifford.  The hotel was perched over Bolinas Bay on Wharf Road, across from what is now the Bolinas Museum, located in the part of Bolinas referred to as the Point (The Point is now downtown Bolinas.). George’s experiences working at a San Francisco hotel a decade earlier provided him with some of the fundamentals of managing a hotel.

 In December of 1871, George and his growing family moved into their more luxurious accommodations at the Bay View Hotel in time to celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless, much needed to be done with the hotel after years of neglect.  Month by month, George remedied these many problems and made valuable improvements to the hotel.  Meanwhile, Emma not only took care of the growing family, but also cleaned rooms, cooked meals, and otherwise looked after hotel patrons.

 By the following summer, George had built sizeable stables on the adjacent lot to meet the needs of hotel guests.   Ambition soon led to the acquisition of the Bolinas-Saucelito stage, which brought guests directly to the hotel from the San Francisco-Sausalito ferry.  A month later, he added the People’s Stage Line, which ran from Olema to Bolinas via Woodville. When he expanded the hotel a few years later, he relinquished the stage lines, though his stables remained their terminus, facilitating access to his hotel by arriving passengers.

 A May 1873 Marin Journal article acknowledges George and Emma and the hospitality they provided at their hotel: “The hotel, the Bay View, is kept by Mr. George Burge, who, with his hospitable helpmeet, make it indeed a travelers' home.”  Though George’s wife Emma is not mentioned by name here – as was typical of the time- she was clearly essential to the success of the hotel and was valued by the community of Bolinas and active in local affairs.

 About this time, George needed to secure his property lines along Wharf Road.  In 1873, he and other Bolinas residents petitioned the county to establish the physical limits of Wharf Road.  The County approved and later that year, County Surveyor Hiram Austin defined the parameters of the road.

  By the summer of 1874, George had added a spacious 40 by 60 foot hall to the north end of the hotel.  Not only was it an attraction for hotel guests, it also became a sought after venue for locals to hold dances, meetings and school and community programs. However, completion of the Druids’ Hall on Gospel Flat in the late 1870s slightly diminished the demand for Burge’s hall.  Nevertheless, frequent concerts and balls continued to enliven the hall through the 1870s and into the 1880s.  George’s oldest daughter -Ada -frequently displayed her musical talent at school programs and concerts held at their hall.

 By the mid-1870s, newspaper ads show that George had put his hotel up for sale, claiming health reasons.  However, except for a lease, a hiatus from proprietorship, and a brief sojourn in San Francisco in late 1873, the family would continue to manage the hotel until the end of 1883.  Throughout the years, George continued to make improvements at the Bay View Hotel.  In 1881, he piped water from a distant spring to a tank mounted on the stable roof to provide running water for the hotel – a first.  George’s status as a local leader led to his inclusion in the prestigious 1880 Marin County History.

 In December 1883, a year after their last child Mabel Agnes was born, George traded the hotel for property in Solano County.  The venture in Solano County was short-lived, and the Burge family subsequently moved to San Rafael, where George worked at the Las Gallinas brick yard. For a time, Emma worked in a bakery and George did carpentery work.  Their last venture was a chicken ranch in what is now John McLaren Park in San Francisco.

 Emma passed away in the 1890s, while George lived on to the ripe old age of 89.  They are buried together at the Sunset Cemetery in El Cerrito with two of their children. 

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