Point Reyes cattle ranches gain national historic status
Ranchlands at Point Reyes National Seashore in West Marin County, where cattle have thrived on grassy, fog-shrouded hills since the mid-19th century, now are nationally certified historic places, a designation that blends California’s early times with current modern controversy.
Two areas totaling more than 36,000 acres on the Point Reyes Peninsula and the adjacent Olema Valley encompass the original 36 ranches that were on the land in the mid-1850s, at the same time Julio Carrillo and others were plotting the streets of the frontier city of Santa Rosa.
Point Reyes, once described as a “cow heaven,” became an agricultural powerhouse in the post-Gold Rush era, supplying butter to a booming San Francisco, and now is a leading producer of organic milk and grass-fed beef.
Today, there are 13 active ranches at the north end of the national seashore and eight more ranches, mostly beef cattle operations, in the Olema Valley on the other side of Highway 1.
There are more than 150 old homes, barns, creameries, carriage sheds and other structures on the rolling, windswept land, many in sore need of repair, and all now recognized as testaments to history at the same time their future is clouded.
The 71,000-acre seashore, a popular visitor destination, also includes historic buildings that were involved in early 20th-century communications technology and a lifeboat station and lighthouse.
The 22,237-acre Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches Historic District and the 14,127-acre Olema Valley Dairy Ranches Historic District are now on the National Register of Historic Places, which names more than 94,000 U.S. buildings, sites, objects and districts deemed worthy of preservation.
The two dairy districts join seven other seashore sites on the national register, including the iconic Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in 1870 on a rocky promontory jutting 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, and the humble Tocaloma Bridge, built in 1927 over a creek east of Olema and now relegated to part of a bike path but still endowed with a gracefully curved concrete structure like only one other bridge in California.
Cicely Muldoon, the park superintendent, said she welcomed the national historic certification additions.
“National parks are so much more than sweeping landscapes. They are keepers of our national heritage, both natural and cultural,” she said. “Collectively, national parks tell the story of the country by preserving its history.”
To make the historic register, a site must have local or regional historical, architectural or archaeological significance as well as “sufficient integrity” to demonstrate its value, said Paul Engel, the seashore’s archaeologist.
With significance rising to a national level, a place can qualify as a National Historic Landmark, and the seashore boasts two: Point Reyes Lifeboat Rescue Station, built in 1927, and the 5,965-acre Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District, named to the elite list in 2012 as the site of the “earliest documented” contact between Europeans and California Indians.
Those who insist the expansive bay, lined by white cliffs, also was Sir Francis Drake’s landing site in 1579 took the designation as acceptance of their premise, even if the U.S. National Park Service did not officially endorse it.
But the beef and dairy ranchers of Point Reyes and Olema Valley remain on tenterhooks over an unresolved issue facing the federal agency.