by Dewey Livingston

A rare photo of the Omar Jewell house overlooking Lagunitas Creek, circa 1900.From the Denman & McNear Family photo album. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

The former “town” of Jewell in west Marin has been in the news recently. In fact, it wasn’t a town nor was it the original Jewell-although not far away from its namesake. The settlement of Jewell harks back to the 1860s, before there was a good road or a railroad in the western parts of the county.

The Tocaloma area has long been known as a “Little Switzerland,” with pioneer families Codoni, Mazza, Giacomini and Cheda settling there in the 1860s. But not all were of Swiss extraction: only those on the northeast side of the creek. The west side had Jewell (New York and Illinois), McIsaac (Nova Scotia), Garcia (Mexican California) and others, but all of those save the Jewells had their ranch headquarters on the Olema Valley side of the ridge.

© Dewey Livingston
Portrait of Omar Jewell from the 1880 History of Marin.

The story of the Jewell family is an interesting one. The Jewell’s farm was located in a rather obscure corner of the Lagunitas Creek valley, a place barely seen from the road these days and relatively quiet since the removal of the railroad line in 1933. Petaluma merchant Omar Jewell, formerly a farmer in Illinois, rented a hilltop ranch on Bolinas Ridge from the influential Olds family. He had reportedly been impressed by the success of his dairymen customers as he sold them reapers, mowers and other farming implements in his store in the early 1860s. His young family joined him on the ranch, having traveled for many months overland with a wagon train. The Jewells had prospered enough by the end of 1864 to buy 681 acres of adjacent pretty land facing Lagunitas Creek for $3,405. Jewell built a two-story house and dairy barns on the banks of the creek, with his pastureland rising above to the ridge top. Within five years they had a well-run 40-cow butter dairy and pig farm. They also raised horses.

Between homes in Illinois and Olema, Viana Marshall Jewell gave birth to seven children, but lost Harriet and Olive in Tocaloma when they were young, and Emma a bit later. Alva, Viana, William and Annie attended school over the hill in Olema and helped on the farm. By the early 1870s Omar was ill, and he died in 1875. His sons took over the dairy and also bought a busy livery stable in San Rafael, where they thrived as prominent businessmen in that town. Viana died in 1890, at which time the ranch was leased to the Ottolini family.

Unknown members of the extended Jewell Family. © Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

When the Jewells purchased the property in 1864 there was a busy road across it. Adjacent to his north fence, the venerable Olema Trail — likely dating from Coast Miwok days — descended to the valley on its way from Olema to San Rafael and passed directly in front of the Jewells’ door, so the family must have seen many passersby and visitors. Within three years, however, a new road to San Rafael was constructed across the creek, necessitating a bridge until the North Pacific Coast Railroad’s tracks intruded on the bucolic scene. Jewell sold a 75-foot right-of-way that imposed on his dairy and residence and, when the trains started running proved to be both a help-the flagstop was designated as Jewells-and a bother, with smelly trains running only feet from the house and barns. Eventually the entire ranch complex was moved uphill to a level place overlooking the valley, and there it stayed under successive tenants and owners until its purchase by the National Park Service in 1974. Today, you can see the original Jewell ranch site while traveling the Cross Marin Trail, marked by the 130-year-old eucalyptus trees and old orchard remnant.

Across Lagunitas Creek a new Jewell settlement was created in the age of the automobile. In 1931 the Cheda Estate, no doubt in reaction to the new Sir Francis Drake Highway that traversed the lower part of the ranch, subdivided two mile-long strips of land wedged between the road and the creek. They called their tract “Paper Mill Arroyo” after the famous Taylor mill that had operated upstream. The dozens of small lots were marketed to city people who built weekend and summer cottages. The eastern section became known as Jewell-it lay opposite the Jewell train flagstop-and the western part called Tocaloma after the small town farther west. Both neighborhoods took the names of neighboring places and left the historic Cheda name off the map.

Jewell enjoyed a few decades as a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” place on Marin’s back roads. In 1972 the pretty creek side lots became part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with the residents given legal arrangements that let them stay for 25 years. When that time expired, the homes sat deteriorating until being recently demolished, making way for a major creek restoration.

The two Jewells reflected distinct eras in Marin County History: the pioneers and the railroad; and the summer pleasures of the automobile generation. The old redwood depot sign “Jewell” is long gone, as is its green metal highway equivalent on Sir Francis Drake.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Dewey Livingston’s upcoming book on the history of Point Reyes and Tomales Bay.

Originally published at

The official Medium account of the archive of Marin County history & culture at the Marin County Free Library