The Coastal Post - September, 1997

Olompali Park Filled With History


The name Olompali comes from the lost Coast Miwok language and likely means southern village or southern people, states the state park's brochure. It has been in existence since 500 A.D. or nearly 2,000 years. It was a major Miwok center in 1,200 A.D. and seems to have been one of the largest in Marin County.

In 1843, General Mariano Vallejo granted 8,900 acres to Camilo Yanitia, a Christianized Olompali Miwok. Yanitia was the last hoipu, or head man, of the Olompali village. In 1852 Yanitia sold most of the land to James Black, who later became one of the largest landowners in Marin county.

It seems strange that at one time State Park Olompali was a private home, but it belong to a dentist, Galen Burdell and his wealthy wife, Mary Black Burdell.

Mary was the only child of James Black, who married Maria Pacheco. Maria's husband, Ignacio Pacheco, had married three times. "He rode in a saddle encrusted with silver and gold," Jack Mason tells us in Early Marin. He had been an acquaintance of Maria's for 22 years. The interesting thing about the marriage was that it took a dispensation from Father Lootens, because Black had been court-appointed guardian to her three minor children.

The marriage was ill-fated from the start. Black could read but barely write and he was not his bride's social equal, for she was a Durante and had been brought up in wealth.

James Black had been born in Scotland. At 20 he shipped out on a Hudson's Bay vessel, but at Monterey he was put ashore with typhoid fever. He was married and widowed; he brought home a fortune of gold from the gold fields; he was elected assessor in 1852; and he became one of the most influential men in Marin county.

Daughter Mary's marriage to Galen Burdell in 1863 introduced new tensions into Black's and Mrs. Pacheco's marriage. Dr. Burdell had reached San Francisco the long way around. He had first been trained in New York City and went to Brazil, but he had been lured north by the Gold Rush. He had sailed into San Francisco as ship's surgeon on the Dunsbury, which later had a reef named after it. He was well to do, having invented a tooth powder.

But a tragedy occurred. Mrs. Pacheco died in Dr. Burdell's dental chair. Although the dentist was absolved of blame, Mary's father could not forgive him. He said, "I don't want Dr. Burdell's name or Mary's included in my will," according to Mason. However, he had given Mary Olompali Ranch on her wedding day in 1863.

Black then started drinking. Visits to Mary's father were an ordeal. Mary's pregnancy seemed to make him worse.

"Black continued to ride about his property on horseback, often too inebriated to sit in the saddle," wrote Mason. "Late in 1869 he took a particularly bad spill, suffering a two-inch wound at the base of his skull. Softening of the brain followed, but he was still able to get about." Later, he died in convulsions so terrible an onlooker thought he had been poisoned.

The 1880 History of Marin said of him, "The leaves of the great book of life closed and another of California's oldest pioneers has passed from time to eternity."

Black's death brought family passions to the surface. Dr. Burdell had gone to the reading of the will at the Pacheco House, while Mary stayed outside. "Later that evening, he brought an attorney to read the will in a private suite of a San Rafael hotel. When the attorney left the room, Mary tore her father's signature off with her teeth, apparently swallowing it, since it was never found. She was arrested but quickly released, a story that was given sensational treatment in the San Francisco press," Mason wrote.

Retribution was only possible in a court of law. Mary hired three top attorneys and filed her contest in probate court in 1870. She claimed her father's mind had been influenced by his drinking, and he had been under the influence of his wife, Mrs. Pacheco. Mary asked for a jury trial and got it. Persons known to Mary testified against her father, and she won her case.

Mrs. Pacheco turned to good works after the trial, and built the San Jose district's first school house. She spent her winters in San Francisco. One of her children, Qumesido Pacheco, was Marin County supervisor for more than nine years. He built a house on Highway 101 just south of the main gate to Hamilton Field. It still stands.

Galen and Mary now concentrated on Olompali. The 20,000 acres, ranging from Tomales Bay to San Pablo Bay, included large portions of Novato and Nicasio. "Here the retired dentist found ample outlets for his inventive mind. On the San Pablo Bay he ran his own soil reclamation project. His orchards were of many kinds of fruit: apple, pear, quince, fig, pomegrante, persimmon, apricot, peach and plum. Fifty acres were planted in 30 varieties of grapes, a kind of experimental vineyard with "a hint of noble wines to come." Dr. Burdell's banana trees did poorly, but his 200 orange trees were the equal of any on Los Angeles, Jack Mason wrote.

Mary's property was hers alone, 950 acres at the head of Tomales Bay, once known as the Stocker Ranch. It soon became Point Reyes Station once the North Pacific Coast Railway came into being. Dr. Burdell managed the ranch.

"Mary Burdell, an energetic as her husband, planted the first ambitious garden in the county," wrote Mason. When she traveled to Japan, Mary brought home the first planting of exotics to the county.

Mary was a perfectionist in social etiquette. The tablecloth had to be of the finest linen, the silverware polished to the nth degree. She and her husband played lady and lord of the manor. Every Christmas they would deliver turkeys to their friends, and Galen would leave a gold watch at every home they visited.

Mary suffered with gallstones. In 1900, an operation could be put off no longer. She made out her will. It was to be divided three ways between her husband Galen, her son James, and daughter Mabel. She died during the operation.

Son James made major renovations at Olompali, transforming it into a palatial country estate, including a 26-room mansion, complete with a Victorian formal garden. The state park brochure says the estate remained in the Burdell family until it was sold to Court Harrington. Harrington sold the property to the University of San Francisco as a Jesuit retreat.

"During the 1960s, the University of San Francisco sold Olompali several times. Each time, the buyers defaulted and the property reverted back to the university. The most famous tenant was the rock band Grateful Dead. During the Dead's brief stay it became a gathering place for San Francisco's rock musicians, including Janis Joplin and Grace Slick.

Don McCoy leased Olompali in 1967 and turned it into a hippie commune called The Chosen Family. Unfortunately, a fire caused by faulty wiring destroyed the mansion. In 1977, the State of California purchased it and made it into a state park.

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