Sense of Place: Eldridge named after ‘famous ship master’

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The community of Eldridge sits right in the middle of Glen Ellen. For 125 years it was synonymous with the Sonoma Developmental Center, an institution dedicated to caring for the developmentally disabled.

Captain Oliver Eldridge was instrumental in its founding. Born in 1818 on Cape Cod, his elder brothers, Asa and John Eldridge, also were captains. All three were called “famous ship masters.” In 1854, Asa Eldridge crossed the Atlantic in just over 13 days — a commercial sailing record that still stands.

Oliver commanded fast ships as well. In 1844 he sailed the Coquette 16,000 miles from Boston to Canton in 99 days. Later, he took the helm of the Memnon, the first “flyer” sent from the east to California — it succeeded in cutting the voyage from six months to four. These vessels were among the first clipper ships; engineered for speed, they marked the dawn of a new era in maritime travel.

When the Civil War broke out, Eldridge ferried Union troops to Virginia. Later, he delivered steamships around the Horn to San Francisco. After the war, he took on new challenges, including serving as president of two gas companies and the Sunset Telephone Company, as well as the director of Wells Fargo. He also was a member of the Associated Charities of San Francisco.

In 1883, Julia Judah and Frances Bentley, mothers of developmentally disabled children, formed the California Association for the Care and Training of Feeble Minded Children. They aimed to “maintain a school and asylum” for these children, “in which they may be trained to usefulness.” Petitioning the state legislature, they established a state-funded facility in Santa Clara.

When that spot proved inadequate, Oliver assisted in the search for a better location. Looking for ample water, land and railroad access, they chose a site just a mile from Glen Ellen, itself a community recently formed around two train depots. The area was described as a place where “the air is ever mild, and the sun is ever bright and warming … where nature seldom frowns, and where all the elements are benign.”

While the facility initially was named the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children, the railroad depot and post office were called Eldridge in recognition of the captain’s work. On his death in 1902, Oliver left behind a grandson named Eldridge Buckingham, also named in his honor.

For over a century, Eldridge and Glen Ellen lived side by side. Though vastly different, their intertwining stories made them siblings. With Sonoma Developmental Center’s recent closing, coming on the heels of the devastating Nuns fire, both communities face an uncertain future.

Captain Eldridge rounded Cape Horn many times; he was well acquainted with challenging seas and weather. There’s no record of what buoyed him on those rough passages, but the hope for smoother sailing ahead must have been part of it.

While the institution’s title changed over time (and now is no longer), Eldridge, the community’s name, persists. As the state, county and local citizens work out its uncertain future, the name Eldridge looks to have a good chance of surviving these turbulent waters. It may still be what the place is called a century from now.

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