When the San Ramon Valley Historical Society put historical plaque No. 4 at the White Gate house in Green Valley, they recognized two families from the 19th and 20th centuries, the Howards and the Donahues.
Charles and Nathaniel Howard originally came to California from Wareham, Mass., during the Gold Rush with 22-year-old Charles arriving in September 1849. In August 1849, 29-year-old Nathaniel and others purchased the ship Florida and sailed for California, arriving in San Francisco on Jan. 1, 1850. The brothers reunited and mined at Solomon's Gulch on the Merced River for a year. Returning to San Francisco, Charles engaged in business and Nathaniel plied his carpentry trade as an architect and contractor. Nathaniel was also a member of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee during that rowdy time in the city's history.
Evidently the foggy, rainy weather made Nathaniel ill and, in September of 1856, the brothers purchased a 160-acre property two miles east of sunny Alamo which became the Howard farm. They built a colonial style house that accommodated both families. Nathaniel had married Elizabeth Hitch of Fairhaven, Mass., on May 30, 1844, who joined him in San Francisco in 1852. They had three children, Lizzie, Amelia and Kate. Charles and Susan Homan of Boston were married in 1857 and had children Ann, Perez and Ida.
The Howards were important builders in Alamo and Danville's early American years. First they built their own two-story house from redwood logged from Redwood Canyon west of Moraga, sending the wood to New England to be milled. The house featured a redwood mud foundation, hand-cut and hand-finished doors and window frames, and Georgia pine cupboards. Its Colonial New England design reflected their Massachusetts roots.
This large house was the site of early school classes on the second floor, which taught the Howard and neighborhood children. In 1865, Nathaniel Howard drew plans and neighbors built the first Green Valley Grammar School on land donated by Danville rancher Andrew Inman. Nathaniel's daughter Kate married Charles J. Wood of Sycamore Valley in 1897 and the Howards built them a house as a wedding present. Still standing, this house has been expanded over time.
Charles Howard was active in the community, according to local papers. He reviewed the votes on a county-wide effort to get a railroad from Martinez to Amador Valley in 1868 and served as Danville Grange Worthy Master in 1889-90.
The brothers constructed other early buildings, several of which are still around. The Cohen/Vecki House (now 169 Front St.) and the Boone/Osborn House (15 Serena Court) had almost identical designs and are both Danville Heritage Resources. When the Grange began in 1873 and outgrew meeting at the Danville Grammar School, the Howards designed and built the new Grange Hall at a cost of $1,383. This original hall is now the second story of the Village Theatre, 233 Front St.
In 1886-1887 the Howards' house and ranch were sold to Judge Warren Olney. Nathaniel and Elizabeth moved to Walnut Creek while Charles and Susan moved into Danville.
In 1898 the Judge William H. Donahue family bought the house and farm, which stayed in the Donahue family until 1970. It became a diversified ranch, where they raised chickens, hay, grains, almonds and fruit trees. Ed Donahue was born in 1922, went to local schools, and still recalls the hard work and the beauty of the place. He said there were three houses on the property at one time, the old house in which he and his family eventually lived, a newer one built by his grandfather John J., and a house for their Japanese farm workers.
Ed's brother Ray spent years restoring the historic home, which became a showplace in the area. Ray loved to show off the home and gave it the name White Gate. In 1970 the house and property were sold to Harold W. Smith who built the custom homes development now called "White Gate." Several streets are named for family members.
The historical society dedicated its White Gate plaque on Sept. 10, 1975, with Society President Dr. Wilson E. Close providing a history of the house and property. The plaque honored the memory of Fred and Ruth Donahue, Ed and Ray's parents. Present also at the dedication were the grandchildren of Nathaniel Howard, Mary Ridgway Lichens and George and Waldo Wood.
The plaque was originally placed inside the house. In 1998 when the house was razed, it was placed on a post at Shandelin Court, just off Stone Valley Road.
Sources: "History of Contra Costa County, CA" 1882; Nathaniel Howard obituary, Jan. 28, 1899; Amelia Howard Ridgway memories; Oakland Tribune, Dec. 27, 1970; Virgie V. Jones, "Historical Persons & Places ... In San Ramon Valley"; Valley Pioneer, Sept. 10, 1975; Wilson Close dedication notes; SRV Times, July 18, 1998; booklet on White Gate by Ray Donahue, 1974; telephone conversation with Ed Donahue, 2009.