Tuesday and Thursday
11:30 - 3:00
First four Sundays
1:00 - 4:00



Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA -  (925) 228-8160

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 were 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.

In 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 Califronia. 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's 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).

[Martinez History]