Danville - its written history spans 150 years | June 27, 2008 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

- June 27, 2008

Danville - its written history spans 150 years

by Marillyn Cozine

Even in the beginning, the story of Danville is one of growth and change.

In the 1850s a sparse scattering of farms dotted the hill-sheltered Valley of the San Ramon Creek. Some of these spreads were farmed by miners who had left the gold fields of the Mother Lode in favor of the wheat fields of Contra Costa. Other early farmers had made their way across country by wagon or had sailed the arduous route around Cape Horn.

Daniel Inman was 22 when news of the great California Gold Rush reached him in Illinois. He and his brother Andrew left home in May 1849 bound for the Mother Lode. After working several claims and running a hotel in Sacramento during a rainy winter, the pair brought their savings to the San Ramon Valley to buy land.

In 1858 a man named Davis asked Inman for permission to build a blacksmith shop at what today is Diablo Road and Front Street in Danville. It became the first building in the tiny village which was to take shape along the banks of the creek. Soon a post office was needed; it had to have a name. The Inmans listened to suggestions from their neighbors, but modestly rejected Inmanville. Grandma Sallie Young, Andrew's mother-in-law, suggested Danville. It was her hometown in Kentucky and it recognized Daniel Inman as well.

Thus in 1858, the town of Danville, Calif., was born.

The imposing mountain which rises above Danville has inspired many legends. A popular tale, attributed to Gen. Vallejo, says that once when mission soldiers were fighting near the mountain to recapture runaway Indians, a bizarre creature appeared. In bright costume, its sudden menacing presence so frightened the soldiers that they fled. Since they believed the strange being to be an evil spirit, they named the mountain Diablo, or devil, in Spanish.

In 1772 Spanish explorers traveled through the Valley en route back to Monterey from an expedition seeking an easy trail to Bodega Bay. Later Spanish Franciscan missionaries arrived to convert and "civilize" the Indians of Contra Costa. The unhappy Indians, whose culture was on a stone-age level, moved to Mission Dolores in San Francisco. In 1806 a measles epidemic killed all children under 10. The tribe perished.

In the 1830s the San Ramon Valley was included in Rancho San Ramon, a Mexican land grant. Herds of cattle roamed freely, foraging the lush native grasses. In spring the rancheros drove their cattle to bay and river areas to sell hides, tallow and horns to shippers and to buy gun powder, salt and other items.

The Californios loved fiestas to which people from miles around came and stayed for days. But those times ended in 1848 when California was ceded to the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War. Two years later, California was admitted to the Union as a free state without first becoming a territory.

That same year Leonard Eddy became the Sycamore Valley's first resident. Robert O. Baldwin and William Meese quit prospecting and came to the San Ramon Valley in 1852. Baldwin raised onions as well as grain. In 1856 a farm which came to be known as White Gate was established by Charles and Nathaniel Howard, clipper ship skippers from Maine. Daniel Robert McPherson, grandfather of Roger L. Podva crossed the plains with Buffalo Bill in 1849 and came to the Tassajara Valley in 1851. F.E. Matteson had a farm of 160 acres and set out orchards of peaches, apples and cherries along with grape vines in what is now Blackhawk. M.B. Ivory came across the Isthmus of Panama and settled in the Green Valley neighborhood near Danville in 1858.

In 1862 Charles Wood established a farm in the Sycamore Valley after coming to California from Massachusetts and Michigan by way of Nicaragua. August Hemme, Silas Stone, David Sherburne, Robert Love, Joel Boone, David Glass, Leo Norris and Joel Harlan were other Valley pioneers whose names are familiar to today's residents.

In Danville's early days, Front Street was a thriving business district. James Close of Toronto, Canada, bought Inman's blacksmith shop and other property in 1875. His son Clarence Close started a grocery store in 1910, which at times also housed the Odd Fellows Hall, the high school and the area's first telephone exchange. The post office and branch of the county library were in the store building next door. Also on Front Street were the Grange Hall, the Presbyterian Church and a grammar school.

Around the corner was Tiger Alley, notorious for saloons and houses of dubious repute. For years that narrow roadway was mud in winter and dust in summer. Today it is East Prospect Avenue, site of shops and restaurants.

In the 1870s some farms in the Danville area were homesteaded by Civil War veterans. Most of those properties were sold soon after they were "proven-up" in order to create larger more economical operations.

Valley wheat farmers formed the Danville Grange in 1873 to protect themselves from unfair pricing practices, and the Grange soon became the social and cultural hub of the community. Grangers, the "movers and shakers" of the time, helped to establish the high school and library, to bring telephone service and to promote Mount Diablo as a state park.

John Hartz was Danville's first developer. In 1888, he subdivided his farm, laid out Hartz Avenue and sold lots. Within a few years, the new street became the town's central business district, replacing Front Street which was crumbling into the creek from winter rains.

Fruit-growing was important to Danville's economy well into this century. Peach, pear, plum and prune orchards, as well as almond, ranged across the Valley floor. By the turn of the century, some older orchards were removed and replaced by walnuts. In 1891 the railroad came to the Valley, after local farmers donated land and money for the right-of-way.

The 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco caused great excitement in Danville, but no one was hurt seriously. Most chimneys were cracked or twisted and some broke off completely. A water tank at the livery stable fell, stock in grocery stores tumbled and plaster in homes cracked.

The first World War inspired Danville to patriotic fervor, according to newspaper accounts. One stated, "Every boy from about two to 14 is out marching with flags, drums, guns or anything that looks like a weapon." Many Valley men commuted by train to work at the shipyards at Port Costa during the war years.

Completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Caldecott Tunnel in 1937 opened Danville and other Contra Costa towns to visitors and new residents from "over the hill." But World War II with its weekly ration of three gallons of gasoline severely limited auto use.

Along with the rest of the West Coast, Danville observed blackouts during the war and searched the sky for enemy planes. In the spring of 1942, some 12 Danville families of Japanese descent were uprooted from their homes and herded off to the internment camps.

When the war was over, servicemen stationed in California were reluctant to return to the hard winters of the East. The state began to grow and the building boom was on. Here came the Danville subdivisions of the late '40s and '50s - Danville Gardens, Montego, Danville Estates, Cameo Acres, Vista Grande, San Ramon Heights, Montair - and there went the Valley's thousands of acres of walnuts. Near the same trail which had been used by Indians, Spaniards, pioneers and farmers, Interstate 680 carried thousands of cars and trucks.

Danville, which had 1,225 residents in 1940, had 3,585 by 1960, and 26,446 in 1980. Median household income in 1980 was $37,376. In 1982 the citizens of Danville showed their strong sense of community identity by voting to incorporate their town, assuring themselves more control over its path into the future.

From "Danville: Portrait of 125 Years," published by the Town of Danville in 1984 to celebrate 125th anniversary