The Mission Spring of San Rafael, Archangel
by Bill Allen
From the Marin County Historical Society Magazine, vol. XV, no. 1, 1989, pp. 19-21.
Much has been written about the location chosen for the site of the 20th mission in the Californian Franciscan Mission chain and the reason for its founding. Its location in a secluded valley, sheltered from the fog, its health-inducing climate, fertile soil, its access to the water routes of the bay would not in themselves be sufficient reasons to locate a mission here. The presence of life-sustaining water would be as important a factor if not the deciding one. For without water to sustain life, as well as for irrigation of the crops, a mission settlement would have difficulty clinging to the land no matter how favorable the other factors were. Thus, the site for the mission was wisely chosen, the first mission buildings being placed on a slight rise below the slope of a hill rising behind it from whose side flowed a stream of cool, sweet, refreshing water.
The mission fathers lost little time in developing the spring. They dug a ditch from the spring down the hill to the mission, where the water flowed through a wooden trough in front of the mission, continuing on in the direction of the mission orchard, where the water could be diverted for irrigation purposes to nourish the fruit trees and grape vines planted by the mission fathers.
The original mission adobe buildings have long since crumbled and all traces of their existence have disappeared; the old mission orchard trees and vines have long since been uprooted and built over. Today, the reconstructed mission church building on the approximate site of the original structure is a small reminder of those former times. There is, however, a singular reminder of this earlier period—the old mission spring on the slope of San Rafael Hill, still producing an abundant supply of life-sustaining water.
There are three very active springs today on the side of San Rafael Hill above the old mission. All three of these springs are on Robert Dollar Drive and have been improved over the years by tunneling into the hill. Water from one of the three once flowed down the hill to the mission. Even earlier, it probably quenched the thirst of the valley's earliest inhabitants—the Miwoks of the Coastal Range.
The candidate put forward as the mission spring in a July 25, 1964 article in the Independent Journal is the lower spring, located above and behind the wooden water tank on Robert Dollar Drive, belonging to the City of San Rafael. This spring belongs to the Elks Club. In 1915 this spring belonged to the Boyd Estate. At that time, John Boyd hired mining engineers to excavate a tunnel into the bowels of the hill and install a concrete aqueduct. The water was to be used for the house and the gardens of the estate. With the sale of the estate, the water rights of the spring was transferred to the Elks. The Elks have used the water from the spring to irrigate the grounds and fill the swimming pool on the property.
According to the article, this spring which is described as being behind the venerable "Jordan House", was the spring that fed the Mission brook. But an old map dated 1875 found in the California State Library in Sacramento, and listed as a "Map of the Coleman Addition of the To" of San Rafael," indicates that the middle spring on Robert Dollar Drive is the venerable Mission spring. The map shows this spring with two water courses leading from it. And it is these water courses which are identified in an historic water rights case of the 1870s between Thomas Hanson and James McCue.
In the 1860s there was only one developed spring on the hill variously referred to as the Dixon Spring, the Forbes Spring, and the San Rafael Spring. In 1869, James McCue purchased this spring from Alexander Forbes for the purposes of supplying water to the thirsty residents of San Rafael. John Dixon had attempted to do the same thing in the early 1860s. McCue also purchased a site below the spring, on which he constructed a 70,000 gallon reservoir, into which he intended to divert the water of the spring, which at the time was rated at 40,000 gallons of water per day.
At the point at which McCue was ready to divert the water from the spring to the reservoir, Mr. Hanson slapped a restraining order on him. Hanson accused McCue of diverting the water of the spring from its "usual and ancient course."
It seems that sometime in the 1830s Timothy Murphy, with the use of Indian labor, had dug a ditch from the spring that fed the mission to his small orchard and vineyard above his adobe, which was on the corner of Fourth and C Streets.
James Black, in testifying in the water rights case, stated that when Murphy was not using the water from the spring for domestic or irrigation use, he would permit the water to flow down towards the mission.
Mr. Hanson's concern over McCue's diversion of the spring water was due to the fact that the ditch which Murphy had dug many years before passed through his property, which was at the corner of Mission and B streets and he was using the water from this ditch for domestic and irrigation purposes. Hanson's testimony also gives distance and direction to the spring. From Mr. Hanson's property the spring lay in a northeasterly direction some 300 yards up on the hill. This evidence, along with Black's testimony, tends to identify the middle spring as the spring of the mission padres.
Mr. McCue won the court case and was allowed to divert the water of the old mission spring into the reservoir he had built. But McCue didn't stay in the water business very long. In 1872 he sold his water plant to William Coleman, who had incorporated the Marin County Water Company, the predecessor to the Marin Water and Power Company, which sold all its water properties to the Marin Municipal Water Company in 1917. In 1918, the reservoir and water system on San Rafael Hill was taken out of service, and in 1920, the two springs, the middle and upper springs, the reservoir and land owned by the M.M.W.D. was sold to Leon Douglas for $12,000. He, in turn, deeded the property to the City of San Rafael with the stipulation that water from the springs was to be used for the park or other municipal purposes.
In 1928 Robert Dollar gave the city $750 for the purposes of improving the efficiency of those two city-owned springs. At that time the "original" spring (the middle one) is identified as the old mission spring, and was rated as producing 25,000 gallons of water per day. The improvements of 1928 involved enlarging the tunnels at the spring sites. When the work was completed it was reported the springs now had a capacity of producing 50,000 gallons of water per day.
Robert Dollar, always interested in the fullest development of the park, envisioned a fresh-water swimming pool for the park to be filled by the added capacity of the springs. The pool was never built.
In 1937, both city-owned springs were improved upon again. This time, the tunnels, reported as penetrating into the hill 75 feet and 100 feet, respectively, were retimbered.
Today, the two city-owned springs are still producing an abundance of water. Water from these two upper springs flow through a system of pipes to the wooden water tank above Boyd Park along Robert Dollar Drive. Water from this tank flows into the fish pond at the upper end of the park. There is also a pipe which carries water from this spring system to Falkirk.
Today if you stand alongside the old mission spring and listen quietly you can hear the water flowing out of this spring as it has continuously since the times of the mission padres. What is remarkable about this spring and the other two is the fact that water pours from these springs year round in seasons of both abundant rainfall and drought. These springs seem to possess an inexhaustible supply of water. Those early mission padres, who located the penultimate mission here, chose a site second to none in providing that most essential ingredient for life—cool, clear, refreshing and life-sustaining water.
1. Book of Deed, M.M. W.D. to Leon Douglas, Book 219, page 274. Book of Deed, Leon Douglas to City of San Rafael, Book 221 page 269.
2. James McCue's Plain Talk, 1907: Bancroft Library.
3. Hanson vs. McCue, Case No. 2578: California Historical Society.
4. McCue Reservoir: History files of M.M. W.D.
5. Map, Coleman Addition of Town of San Rafael 1875: California State Library.
6 Map, Town of San Rafael 1888: California Room, Marin County Library.
7. Map, M.M.W.D. Map of San Rafael 1917.
8. Newspaper: 5-25-1861, 1-29-1870, 8-6-1870, 3-18-1871, 4-29-1871, 2-17-1872, 10-26-1872, Marin County Journal; 2-14-28, 4-5-28, 10-2-37, San Rafael Independent.
9. Field Notes: Robert Bennett.