Tomales Bank Robbery, 1996

Blair Fuller

In 1990 I bought a house on “Maine Street” in Tomales. The house had been built before 1876 and was dilapidated, unpainted for many years and not lived in for ten or fifteen. The family that owned it had put it on the market five years before.

Tomales was then a seen-better-days small town. It had been founded by Irishman John Keys in 1850 when he discovered a usable port up an estuary from Tomales Bay. Ports are rare on the northern California coast, and Keys’s small schooner, the Spray, could sail north from San Francisco and within two days turn south into Tomales Bay and, with luck, into the estuary hours later. A deep-water tidal pool lay just below the present junction of Route One and the Tomales-Petaluma Road. It made a snug, well-protected harbor.

Keys built a dock, then a warehouse, then a house for himself near the water. He planted potatoes along the creek that emptied into the estuary from the broad, shallow valley to the east, and he soon declared he would provide a passenger and freight service to San Francisco and back.

Doubtless Keys picked up cargo at the Miwok village on nearby Tom’s Point and perhaps other villages as well. The few accounts of those years describe an area teeming with fish and game, and the Miwoks were adept at trapping both.

Keys filed a claim for the area surrounding the anchorage and port. Soon a trickle of Anglo farmers and herders began to appear around Tomales’s “Lower Town,” as it came to be called, to work the surrounding unfenced and unploughed rolling countryside. People were pouring into California from all over the world, and many saw better opportunities than to hunt for gold itself. In a few years Keys could declare that his to and fro voyages would be “weekly.”

In 1874 the tracks of the Northwest Pacific Railroad reached the newly built Tomales Station. The trains originated alongside a San Francisco Bay wharf in Sausalito, came north through Fairfax and the San Geronimo Valley to Point Reyes Station, and continued up the east side of Tomales Bay to the town. In the years that followed, track-laying would continue to the north, to Valley Ford, Freestone, then over the mountain and down to Monte Rio on the Russian River, and west along the river to Duncans Mills near the river’s mouth at the Pacific.

There were many tiny stations along the railroad’s route to which farmers and foresters could bring their freight and for which the trains could be flagged to take on cargoes. Going south, the Northwest Pacific hauled a good percentage of the redwood and Douglas fir that built the city of San Francisco.

The “Upper Town” of Tomales grew up around the railroad station. Its major entrepreneur was Canadian-born Warren Dutton, who was also, it seems, a developer-born. He produced the earliest map of the street grid and became a shop and a hotel owner as the town grew. The Lower Town had faded in importance over the years as the estuary filled in with silt washed down from the potato fields during the rainy seasons, and the building of the railroad bridge over the Walker Creek estuary punctuated the ending of the port’s career. (The two stout bridge supports still stand in the middle of the estuary, and vestiges of the railroad’s causeways can be seen at many points along Tomales Bay.)

Thus began the period of Tomales’s expansion to a population of perhaps no more than 500 permanent residents, but with five hotels, eight saloons, and three automobile dealerships by 1920. Dutton had built himself a suitably substantial house on the west side of Maine Street (now Route One). Up the street from Dutton, on the street’s east side, my house had been built for a physician, Dr. Albert Winn. He received patients behind the corner door of his ground-floor office, and his surgery was upstairs, on the second floor.

In 1874, perhaps in response to all those saloons, a local version of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union raised the funds to construct the Tomales Town Hall four doors north of the Winn House. Most of the money came from Warren Dutton, a teetotaler. The Town Hall has been in use ever since, renovated and enlarged in 1930 and again in 2008, but with virtually all its original timbers still standing. Since the “great experiment” called Prohibition came to an end in 1932, wine and beer have been served at many weddings and other celebrations in the Hall, with no ghost-caused disasters reported.

Of the eight saloons, only the William Tell revived in 1932. The “Tell” claims to be the oldest saloon in all of Marin County, and is a survivor in a “downtown business district” reduced by catastrophic fires, one of which destroyed the Dutton house and several hotels in 1920. Train service to Tomales ended in 1930 when it fell victim to more flexible truck drayage and the already deepening Great Depression.

My first visit to Tomales was in late 1989. Earlier that year I’d had a quadruple coronary bypass and, recovering, came to feel certain that the entire world was essentially and importantly benign. My first decision in this new phase of life was to buy a boat to sail on Tomales Bay, which to me was the most interesting and beautiful bay imaginable, alive with thousands of birds, fish, harbor seals, and sea lions. I had not entirely got my strength back when I found a sweet old 21-foot sloop for sale in the Oakland estuary—I was then living in San Francisco, as I had been for many years. I had the boat trucked up to the Marshall Boat Works and dropped into the bay.

Wonderfully satisfying, I was sailing again and it was as pleasing as I had imagined, even if I ran aground on unexpected shallows and had to wait for the incoming tide to lift me off. I did tire out, though, and as I sat waiting for the nudge of the rising water, I began to wonder if I could find a small, cheap house so that I would not have to return to San Francisco at the end of each sailing day.

I looked at houses in Point Reyes Station, Inverness, and Marshall itself, but all that I saw were discouragingly priced, and I reached Tomales with little hope. A Caltrans sign on Route One told me that Tomales’s population was 250, but my first impression was that it was even smaller than that. There were no stop signs or traffic lights on the highway or at the single cross street.

I parked near the William Tell and—to my astonishment—a branch of the Bank of America. How could a major American bank make enough profit here to keep a branch open?

There it was, however, a smallish, neo-classical stone façade structure with faux columns framing the glass entry doors and tall, formal-looking windows above. Business hours were listed on the doors, and through the glass I saw an interior like those in the banks that Bonnie and Clyde robbed in the 1930s. To the right was a high partition of opaque glass and dark wood trim, cut into by two small tellers’ windows, one of them with an “Open” sign showing. To the left were dark, grim-looking wooden chairs, rigidly arranged, and a single, bare high table. No people were in sight.

Outside at the corner I found a plaque that stated that a bank had been at this location since 1875 but that the present structure had been built in 1920. From that spot I looked across a large, empty lot to Dillon Beach Road running west, and on its far side Diekmann’s General Store, “established 1867.” In that lonely moment I was grateful to see a Real Estate sign on the east side of Route One, and there I spoke with an agent who seemed pleasantly surprised to see a stranger but who was quickly disappointing. Nothing was for sale in town except a thirteen-acre parcel suitable for grazing livestock. However, as we spoke, I saw through her window a For Sale sign on a very rundown-looking house further up the street and I pointed it out to her.

She conceded that there was such a sign but said that the family that owned the property refused to speak to real estate agents. She lifted her chin, saying that she had no idea what they were asking for, in fact, two old houses side by side and a field in back with a small barn on it. “You’ll have to call the owners,” she said, clearly saying goodbye to me in the same breath.

Starting back to San Francisco, passing through the rolling, spring-green farmlands between Tomales and Petaluma with broad-shouldered Sonoma Mountain in the distance ahead of me, I was thinking that the chances of finding my imagined house were dim indeed, but that I would call the For Sale phone number, no stone left unturned. The Sebastiani family was asking $95,000 for the entire property. My friend, architect and former building contractor Greg DeLory, came to Tomales with me to determine whether the structures could be made habitable, and he said yes, they could. Really? In spite of this and many that’s? But he held to his opinion.

So I bought the property, together with wrecks of antique vehicles and farm equipment, a water well only thirty feet deep, a concrete front step to the main house imprinted by one of the Sebastiani children’s bare feet, and any number of cobwebs.

To read more please purchase Volume 2.

William B. Dewey, Bay Patterns #2


Many talented individuals are featured in the West Marin Review. Please click below for this volume’s contributors.

  • Cover
    • William B. Dewey   Bay Patterns #2
  • Prose
    • Laurel Wroten   The Birds and the Beef
    • Elizabeth Leahy   whitebird
    • Steve Heilig   Hiding Out with Joanne Kyger, Poet of West Marin
    • Barbara Heenan   Imagining Cherry Pie
    • Karen Gray   Letter from the Everglades
    • Rosaleen Bertolino   Silverton
    • Francine Allen   Things
    • Elizabeth Whitney   What Would Buddha Do?
    • Sandra Nicholls   Raising Rockettes
    • Blair Fuller   Tomales Bank Robbery, 1996
    • Philip L. Fradkin   Unpublished Manuscripts
  • Poetry
    • Terry Tempest Williams   Finding Beauty in a Broken World
    • Linda Pastan   Late September Song
    • Nell Sullivan   Earthly Catalogue
    • Jon Langdon   Jenny Haiku
    • Eugenia Loyster   If We Should Die Tomorrow
    • Joanne Kyger   Night Palace and About Now
    • Donald Bacon   Oblique Tide
    • Barbara Lovejoy   Fog
    • Gary Thorp   Kehoe Beach Haiku
    • William Keener   Bolinas Lagoon
    • Marilyn Longinotti Geary   A Textured Felt
    • Rick Lyttle   A Dry Spring
    • David Swain   Witness
    • Rebecca Foust   The Last Bison Gone
    • Murray Silverstein   Song of the Field
    • Agnes Wolohan Smuda von Burkleo   Dear Friends in Minnesota
    • Payne Jewett Shafter   An Ode to Coffee
  • Art + Artifact
    • C.R. Snyder   Election Sign on the Grandi Building
    • Igor Sazevich   Point Reyes Morning Spaces
    • Tomales High School, Art One Students   Happy Mistakes
    • Amanda Tomlin   Winter Night
    • Rich Clarke   Martinelli Bull, Highway One
    • Nancy Stein   Wave #44
    • Elise Kroeber   Marsh at Bodega
    • Gale S. McKee   On The Road and Leaving Home
    • John Anderson   SIME
    • Annet Held   Giethoorm and Staphorst
    • Kathleen P. Goodwin   South from Sculptured Beach
    • Anne Vitale   57 Argyle: Vignettes of Home
    • Fariba Bogzaran   Invisible Dialogue
    • Marin Literacy Photography Project   La Vida
    • Kurt Lai   Reflection
    • Ashley Howze   Untitled
    • Angelica Casey   Untitled
    • Evvy Eisen   The Oysterman
    • Louise Maloof   Erika’s Apple
    • Claudia Chapline   Swimmer in the Sun
    • Tomales High School Mural Project   The Bounty of the Bioregion
    • David Geisinger   The Memory—II—Absence
    • Carola DeRooy   Belles Lettres
    • H.D. Mott   Shadowbox
    • Kyle Govan   Untitled
    • Raul Macias  Untitled
    • Margarito Loza  Untitled
    • Molly Marcussen   Untitled