Keep Martinez’s Rich History Alive!

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History of Martinez

Information taken from the book Martinez – A California Town

The beautiful, lush Alhambra Valley was probably a seasonal foraging “pantry” for the stable population of the Karkines Indians. The Karkines are a part of the Costanoan Indian group. 

In 1824, the Alhambra Valley was included in a 17,000 acre land grant awarded to Don Ygnacio Martinez by the Mexican government for services rendered to the Royal Spanish and Mexican armies. In 1849, Don Ygnacio’s son, Don Vicente, built the adobe house now located at the rear of the John Muir Home Historic Site. 

In 1847, Dr. Robert Semple, a dentist from Kentucky who had served as a lieutenant in California’s Bear Flag Revolt, contracted with General Mariano Vallejo to run a ferry service across the Carquinez Strait between Benicia and Martinez (the first such service in the Bay Area). The ferry was to play a major role in the development of Martinez. 

Beginning with the Gold Rush started in 1849, Semple’s primitive ferry boat was the only crossing on the Carquinez Strait, and one of the few ways from San Francisco and points south to get to the gold fields in a hurry. A ferry service between Martinez and Benicia would continue, with some interruptions, until 1962 when it ceased with the opening of the George Miller, Jr. Bridge. 

Recognizing that his wife’s family (Martinez) could benefit from commerce with the waiting gold seekers and suppliers, Col. William M. Smith worked out an agreement with all the heirs to the Ygnacio Martinez property to allow him to establish a townsite at the ferry crossing (west of Alhambra Creek). The Welch family extended the townsite on to their land east of the creek in 1850. 

Martinez became the first town in the District of Contra Costa. Some months later, the California Legislature met to draw county lines and to designate a seat of Justice (government) for the new counties. Martinez was named county seat in 1851. The fledgling city developed rapidly. 

Agriculture would bring real prosperity in the early years. Some of the disheartened gold seekers returned to settle on the fertile lands they had hurriedly passed through in their rush to “find their fortunes.” A number of these earliest settlers were from Nantucket and other areas of Massachusetts, and from Pike’s County, Missouri. Many others came from other lands. These settlers/farmers wrote to family members and friends living elsewhere about the wonderful climate and long springs and summer growing seasons as well as the lush vegetation that was characteristic of the area. 

Initially, wheat was a major crop in the Diablo, Reliez, and Alhambra Valleys. Orchards planted on the valley hills produced peaches, cherries, pears, figs, apricots, and walnuts. The burgeoning city of San Francisco became a ready market for area farm products. 

Dr. John T. Strentzel (father-in-law of John Muir) pioneered the planting of fruit and nut orchards, and vineyards. As early as 1869, Dr Strentzel devised a method of shipping pears and other fruits in containers packed with carbonized bran which allowed fruits to retain freshness when being transported long distances. Farmers were no longer dependent upon local markets to sell their produce. Following Dr. Strentzel’s death, John Muir and his wife, Louie Strentzel, took over managing Dr.  Strentzel’s vast orchard lands. Muir brought his sister and her husband out from Wisconsin to help manage the farm so he could continue his environmental pursuits. Today, the John Muir home, located on Alhambra Avenue adjacent to Highway 4 (along with the Martinez Adobe), is preserved as a National Historic Site. 

Martinez became an important shipping point for agricultural products. Initially, most shipping was done via sailing vessels; however, in 1877 a subsidiary of the Central Pacific (later Southern Pacific) Railroad reached Martinez. In 1899, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway arrived in Martinez. Much produce was shipped to distant markets over the rail routes. 

The completion of the Southern Pacific Bridge between Martinez and Benicia in 1930 replaced a rail ferry service that moved trains between Port Costa and Benicia using the world’s largest ferryboats  (“Solano” and “Contra Costa”). This bridge enabled Martinez to become a stop on the transcontinental line as well as the main transfer point between the Shasta and Coastal routes to the Transcontinental Railroad. The Martinez station, parts of which date to 1877, was very busy until the new Amtrak station was completed in 2001. 

n 1879, the Christian Brothers established a school on seventy acres – Twelve acres were planted as a vineyard.  This would be the foundation of the multi-million dollar Christian Bothers Winery now located in the Napa Valley. Wine production escalated with the arrival of Portuguese, Sicilian, and Italian immigrants beginning in the late 1870’s. They were attracted to the area by the mild climate, fertile soil, and abundant fish life in the Strait. Many of the newly arrived immigrant farmers bought small farms in the Vine Hill and Pleasant Hill areas. 

Among those drawn to the area was Muir’s friend John Swett, sometimes called the “father” of public education in California. He and his son Frank began planting vineyards in 1887. A number of other family vineyards and wineries thrived. Today the Viano family winery is the only vestige of the communities’ once prolific and profitable wine making industry. 

As more and more people settled in Martinez, farmland was converted to residential areas. By the 1950’s, commercial farming had practically ceased. 

Starting in the 1870’s, Portuguese and Italian fishermen reaped a harvest of another sort from the waters of the Carquinez Strait. Fishing was so productive that two of twelve fishing canneries operated on the Pacific Coast in 1882 were located in Martinez. Thousands of pounds of Salmon were shipped to Europe, the eastern U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. Fishing continued to provide a viable living for many families until Bay waters were closed to  commercial fishing in 1957. 

At the turn of the century, petroleum companies developed an interest in locating refineries along the Martinez waterfront because of the deep water harbor and rail connections. In 1915, Shell Oil Company located a refinery in Martinez and a few years later Associated Oil located one three miles away. The coming of the oil companies created a building boom. The expanding Shell Refinery and, to some extent, the Avon (old Associated) facility continue to be the industrial base for Martinez and the largest private sector employers. 

The largest industrial development prior to the refineries was the erection of the Mountain Copper smelter above Bull’s Head Point. This company smelted metals and produced fertilizers. 

Arrival of the oil refineries and chemical plants brought a boom that transformed Martinez into a modern city with a stable tax base and a reputation as a major county retail center that lasted until the 1950’s. 

During the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, county government expansion of operations provided an economic base for downtown Martinez when many residents were shopping out of town at new shopping centers built in nearby communities. 

The population of Martinez has grown from 875 in 1880 to over 30,000 in 1990. 

It’s the birthplace of New York Yankee baseball great Joseph Paul DiMaggio, and was the childhood home of Norv Turner, head coach of the Washington Redskins football team. Other prominent residents not already mentioned are/have been State Senator William Sharkey, United States Senator John Baldwin, State Assemblyman and Senator George Miller, Jr and his son, U.S. Congressman George Miller III. The first paid firefighter in the city was Fire Chief John “Toddy” Briones (for whom Briones Regional Park is named). Special community celebrations are: John Muir’s birthday, Columbus Day, Art-in the Park (September), July 4th, and two Antique Peddlers’ Fairs (May and August).


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Time For a Change...

Please be advised: The Martinez Museum will be temporarily closed for one week to allow for staff to update a new display.

May 28th - June 3rd : Museum Will Be Closed

Please plan to come visit the new display “Parades, Picnics and Parks” once the museum reopens. Thank you!