The town of Olema was named after the Coast Miwok Indian village of Olemaloke, which means Coyote Village. The Olema Valley was home to coyotes, mountain lions and bears. Indian village communities of seventy-five to several hundred people developed in sheltered places near fresh water and plentiful food. You can see the recreated Indian village “Kule Loklo” (meaning “Bear Valley”) at the Bear Valley Visitor Center a short walk from the Bear Valley Inn. The earliest historical account of Coast Miwok peoples was by a priest on a ship under the command of Sir Francis Drake in 1579.
With the Europeans venturing into the New World, the sad demise of the Miwok was not long. The rocky shores were the site of frequent shipwrecks, such as the Portuguese captain Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno, whose ship ran aground near Drake’s Bay in 1595, laying claim to the region for the King of Spain. Following that, the Spanish Franciscan missionaries came around 1775, teaching European agricultural tradition and converting the Miwok to Christianity. Then, in 1822, Spain ceded control of the area to Mexico. Mexico then lost the area to the United States after the Mexican-American War in 1848.
With all that, the door opened to immigrants coming to California seeking a better life. They found the pastoral life of rural Marin resembled many of their homelands. Émigrés to West Marin came from such countries as Scotland, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, China and Portugal. They brought new fishing and farming practices which influence practices today. For example, the Croatians introduced netting fish, while the Chinese introduced netting shrimp.
Olema, now a tiny hamlet, gives little hint of the bustling activity that went on here 120 years ago. Historical accounts of the pioneer days in Olema mention two churches, seven bars, and a race track. Other historical services included a post office, grocery store, butcher shop, two hotels, stables, express office and a dry goods store. The Olema Inn (formerly the old Nelson’s Hotel and now Sir and Star Restrauant), built in 1876, once served as a local bank and stage stop. The town was an important location between the redwood forests and the port of Bolinas. Roads were used to take the logs from the area now known as Samuel P. Taylor Park to the ocean, where they were shipped to San Francisco for the paper mills and newspaper offices. However, with the coming of the railway in 1874, logs began to be moved by rail. Olema Hill was too steep for the railroad, so the rail line was built to Point Reyes Station (originally called Olema Station!). The North Pacific Coast Railway ran from Sausalito through central Marin to the Russian River. The track widths were different on the first and second parts of the line, so trains had to change at Point Reyes Station onto a narrow gauge line. This rail line operated from 1874 to 1902.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park (just two miles east from the current Bear Valley Inn) became a recreation destination for San Francisco residents. Much as folks now come to see the redwoods, people around 1889 were doing the same (as well as to leave the San Francsico fog!). Here they are seen in Camp Taylor waiting for the train to take them back to San Francisco. This railroad right of way is the Cross Marin bike path that hopefully some day will connect to Point Reyes as it did then.
As Point Reyes Station grew to service the train line, Olema’s importance diminished. Now only a few buildings remain from that era, including 88 Bear Valley Road (which is the current Bear Valley Inn).
The Bear Valley Inn was part of the Shafter estate that owned most of the land in the area up to the 1900’s. The Inn is thought to be constructed around 1910 and is an amazing house. The walls, ceilings and floors are all built of the finest redwood. In fact, its redwood gutter, approximately 100 years old, still functions today. The Shafter’s owned large tracts of land and operated the Bear Valley Lodge that catered to wealthy San Franciscans who came to Olema to hunt bear, deer, mountain lions and other creatures plentiful at the time. The game keeper for the lodge apparently lived at the house.
The Old Olema Butcher shop “Gamboni’s” shall remain a historic relic; the front was moved to Washington DC to be used in a display in the California section of the Hall of Everyday Life in the American Past, at the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology.
To learn about the wealth of natural history, one only has to walk a ½ of a mile to the Point Reyes National Seashore Headquarters with its Earthquake Trail and Interpretive Center.