Street Names in the Northwestern Hills
By Harriett Burt based on Charlene Perry columns
One of the first areas of the city outside of the flat downtown core to be settled in the 1850s was the northwestern hills overlooking Escobar, Marina Vista and Ferry Streets.
According to Charlene Perry in her posthumous book, the second edition of ‘MARTINEZ A Handbook on Houses and History’, “Island Hill” was the place to live if one was important in the earliest days. The crest of the hill where Richardson St. met Howard (now Marina Vista) was the elite location, rivaled only by the houses at the east end of Escobar above the new 1855 Court House.” Presumably it was named “Island Hill” because it is where the new residents from Nantucket Island settled.
So it is not surprising that the street names reflect the residents of classic New England houses of the mid-19th century, some brought in sections around Cape Horn from the New England coast including Nantucket Island. Nantucket, long a center of the important sperm whale industry which provided light in many mid-19th century homes, had fallen on hard times in 1850 as the whale industry moved to New Bedford for its final years before the invention of gas and later electric light. Consequently a number of Nantucketers came west for the Gold Rush. As did their compatriots from the Midwest such as Elam Brown and his family, Charlene Perry notes in “Martinez: A California Town”, not only did the new Californians write home to encourage friends and relatives to come to here, but so did “the Boston traders who had long frequented the Pacific Coast.”
Captains and Squires
As Perry points out, William Smith’s brother, John F. S. Smith, wrote in 1882 that in the 1850s, “the prestigious title (in Martinez) among Nantucketers was Captain, while the Pikers, from Pike County, Missouri and other newcomers from the Midwest gave their aristocracy the title of Squire, Judge or Colonel. He went on to say that one could also tell their derivation by diet - a preference for ‘hard tack and cod fish’ by the former, ‘flap-jacks and bacon’ among the latter.’ Smith pointed out that despite the differences the two groups all got along as ‘harmonious as doves’ as they worked together to build a town.
One of the prominent residents of Island Hill was William H. Buckley whose name is on the street signs for Buckley Street. Dying in 1902 as the “oldest living resident” according to one of Martinez newspapers of the time, he had been one of the few who had been a successful gold miner during the Gold Rush. In Martinez, he “engaged in several lines of business,” nearly all of which were successful” his obituary noted with satisfaction – his surviving family of eight children and his widow would be well provided for. Buckley was also a Mason and an Odd Fellow.
Bunker Street is barely visible either on a map or on the ground which does not do honor to someone as prominent in early Martinez life for over 30 years as R. R. Bunker. The street is a tiny branch off a small section of Foster Street which is off the west side of Berrellesa near the railroad tracks and the Embarcadero. Bunker himself lived on the northwest corner of Richardson Street and Marina Vista (formerly Howard Street) in a two story home built in 1876. (Ed. Note. There will be more about how Foster Street got its name in a future column).
The Gazette operation moved to Pacheco in 1862 accompanied by a number of other Martinez businesses. Pacheco, located on the deep-drafted Walnut Creek, looked like the ideal place for a business-oriented town and businessmen like mercantilist William Hale and others joined Bunker. The move seemed to be a good idea at the time but the combination of floods of silt emptying out of the Sierra gold mines because of hydraulic mining combined with a historic huge rain deluge lasting three months in the 1860s that laid sheets of water over a wide area of east county and delta up to Sacramento for days and weeks filled the creek with silt that ended Pacheco’s dream of being a port city. So Bunker and the Hale brothers and all the rest returned to Martinez. The Hales founded the first bank in Contra Costa County and Bunker continued the Gazette with a Martinez dateline and Martinez resumed its role as the leading commercial center of central Contra Costa County, a position it held until the early 1960s. Today’s Martinez News-Gazette is in the direct line of succession from the Contra Costa Gazette, established in 1858.
Another street on the Hill is Richardson Street, named for William Richardson, an Englishman who arrived in San Francisco around 1824 just as Mexico received its independence from Spain. The only mention of him is in Martinez - A California Town where it is noted that he married Don Ygnacio Martinez’ eldest daughter, Maria Antonia, and received a large land grant in Marin County. (Ed. Note: As it turns out there is much more to that story which will appear separately).
A few blocks south of Island Hill is an even larger hill that was owned by D. R. Thomas. Still known as Thomas Hill and reached by the rather steep Hillside Drive that becomes Thomas Drive at the crest, it was only part of the D.R. Thomas property. The northern slope flattened out at what is now Green, Ward, Main, and Escobar streets, west of Berrellesa. In the early days of the town, Farmer Thomas raised livestock and fruit and allowed the Martinez Grammar School students to hold their spring picnics on his land. Later, the business-oriented property owner leased the land to the builders of the Bay View Pavilion which was a Bay Area destination for warm summer picnics in the first decade of the 20th century. After that, the family developed it into one of the City’s most popular neighborhoods.
But Thomas should really be honored as the man who helped Martinez develop a modern water system thus not having to rely on wells and collecting rain water. The town was saved from destruction in the 1904 fire because of Thomas’ skill at locating water and moving it to where it was needed and his ability to convince the City to drill wells on the northern end of Alhambra Valley and pipe it to the growing city a few years earlier. But perhaps the greatest thing he did to save the town was selling his water business to the Port Costa Water Company which had facilities in Concord. During the fire, the Concord staff kept a steady supply of water coming to firefighters. That combined with a dramatic wind change saved the town. To this day, a major city reservoir is located on Thomas Hill and is named in his honor.
The other streets of the western side of downtown Martinez such as Talbart and Arlington have not yet yielded the secret of their namesakes. On the south side of the hill, Richardson continued south for several blocks to Robinson. Arreba, Warren, Allen, A and Soto were brief continuations of the streets east of Berrellesa.
Coming Soon: More documented street name origins from throughout Martinez and an interview with a developer and a County Planning staff member to gain more insight on the process of street naming.
Martinez: A California Town: Martinez Historical Society
Martinez: A Handbook of Houses and History, second edition by Charlene McRae Perry
Avenues of History, columns by Charlene Perry in the Martinez News-Gazette, 1978
Slocum’s History of Contra Costa County 1882
To All Inquiring Friends: Letters from Nantucketers in Martinez and SanFrancisco – 1851-1863 Ruth E. Sutter, Martinez Historical Society
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160