The Coastal Post - May, 1996

William Tell Coleman Was San Rafael's First Shaker


William Tell Coleman single-handedly built San Rafael. He must have had Swiss ancestry, because otherwise why was he called William Tell Coleman? The medieval tale of William Tell deals with the prefect of Uri, a subject of the Hapsburgs, and how he abused his power by tyrannizing the town, and how William Tell refused to be intimidated by him. His punishment was to shoot an apple from his own son's head. Because he was an excellent marksman, his son survived. The legend goes on to tell that he had two arrows in his bow, and when he was asked why by the prefect, he responded, "If I had slain my child with the first arrow, I would have shot you with the second." For this statement he was also punished, but escaped and shot the prefect anyway. William Tell was always bold and resolute in his answers and there is reason to believe that William Tell Coleman emulated William Tell and his legend.

Coleman was first known for making San Francisco safe. He was the head of the Vigilante Committee, which in 1856 hanged Charles Cora and James Casey for the murder of U.S. Marshall Richardson and newspaperman James King. And evidently San Francisco thought highly of him, because they placed him in charge of men with pickaxes who patrolled the city. They gave Coleman $100,000, which was an enormous sum in those days, to patrol the city. He made a fine job of it. He was a wise and determined man who took leadership when it was needed.

In 1871 Coleman discovered San Rafael, which already had a reputation for a fine climate. By then he was a millionaire who had sailing ships on the seven seas and branch offices in cities around the globe. Much of his money was made in speculation with raw cane sugar which he developed before Spreckles.

He used his money to build up San Rafael, which was a sleepy little town although it had a newspaper, the Marin County Journal, established in 1861. To show how primitive San Rafael was before Coleman took over, it had a jail built out of hewn logs, but no cemetery. The dead were still buried in the mission grounds.

But San Rafael had ferry service to San Francisco at the San Quentin landing since 1855. In 1869 people had gathered together $50,000 to build a railroad which was called the San Rafael and San Quentin railroad. To do this was quite an undertaking because 1,000 feet of trestle were shipped from Liverpool, England, and coolie labor was used to put down the tracks.

The 1880 historian Munro-Frazer wrote about in Then and Now. "Now we trip down to the spot, a short distance from the hotels, wait on a platform for the tap of a bell, step into an elegant car, and in eight or ten minutes step off the car onto the steamer."

San Rafael was ripe for development in 1871 and W.T. Coleman had the money to do it. First he bought Magnolia Valley, to which he added the old Forbes subdivision, which became known as Coleman's Addition.

The former owners had denuded the valley of trees to make it farming land. Coleman planted an extensive nursery, mostly eucalyptus, which he imported by seed from Australia, and not content with eucalyptus alone, he soon added acacia, ash, chestnut, cypress, maple, pine and walnut to his nursery, all of which flourished in Magnolia Valley.

And Coleman employed an engineer to lay out the sites, most of them elevated, so that most of the roads were curved. The lots ranged from one to 20 acres.

He had no trouble selling the lots, because he brought water to them and to San Quentin Prison. He formed the Marin County Water Company with a capital stock of $600,000, he being the chief stockholder. To do this he bought water rights on Lagunitas Creek and formed Lake Lagunitas, 600 feet long, which held 150 million gallons behind its 51 foot high dam. Later he bought riparian water rights on Paper Mill Creek from Samuel P. Taylor.

Monro-Frazier, in his History of Marin County published in 1880, tells us that the prison would pay $1,000 a month and the water company could count on $500 to $600 a month from San Rafael, which is a far cry from what the Water District makes today.

Mason wrote in his Making of Marin, "To this model suburb came dozens of San Francisco merchants and professional men in the 1870s, impressed by the good climate and easy commute."

Coleman also built a park, called Laurel Grove, for young people with a dance hall in it where, "to these accommodations thousands throng in the springtime to enjoy freshness and hilarity" according to James Scherer's Lion of the Vigilantes, William T. Coleman.

Among the many things Coleman did for San Rafael in 1872 was to help underwrite the new county courthouse, and build the Hotel Tamalpais. San Rafael became Coleman's favorite home. Mason wrote, "Towards it he maintained an air of patriarchal attachment, never lofty." Coleman bought Walter Skidmore's Queen Anne-style house on what is now Mission Avenue, and he owned the corner of 4th and C. He sold the Dominican Sisters property in Coleman's Addition "for a song." He first sold them 10 acres for $20,000, and then he gave them 10 acres more for one dollar. Two years later, in 1889, a three-story building built in Renaissance style was the first building on the campus.

And he, with some other men, built the Hotel Rafael which had 101 rooms, an observation tower, cottages, tennis courts, stables and rolling lawns.When it opened in 1888, it was known far and wide as a luxury hotel.

Among his other titles, he was vice-president of the Sonoma and Marin Railway. No doubt a man of this prominence would soon gain national recognition, and he was talked about as running against Grover Cleveland for President, but the nomination was never offered.

But Cleveland managed to get him in a round about way. Coleman owned two million dollars of borax property in Death Valley. In fact, whole mountains of borax took the name of colemanite in his honor. When President Cleveland delivered his tariff message on December 6, 1887, he placed borax on the free list. This ruined Coleman. No doubt people envied his wealth and prominence, and evidently President Cleveland was one of them.

Coleman was a man of honor a la William Tell, and he paid off all his creditors, but the struggle ruined his health, and he died on November 22, 1893.

Immediately everyone moved in on the kill. Banker Louis Parrott bought his San Rafael mansion for $25,000, about half its worth. The Nevada Bank of San Francisco peddled most of the land which Coleman still owned to bargain hunters.

Even now, about 100 years after his death, few people know about William Tell Coleman, and few care enough to read about him. But he did create San Rafael and for this alone we should be grateful to him.