Fairfax


People waited for the train in what is now the town parkade. The big building on the left presently houses the Coffee Roasters; the Manor funicular can be seen  on the hillside.

Anne T. Kent, California Room of the Marin County Library


A good time town

Revelers have always swarmed to this sylvan setting for old-fashioned fun in the sunBY JESSICA LEIGH LEBOS

Psst, lookin' for a good time? Funky little Fairfax has always been the place where the party people go for fun. Even when it was a one-horse train stop on the way from Sausalito to Tomales, Fairfax knew how to throw a shindig.

In the 1880s, the North Coast Railroad would bring thousands of San Francisco revelers every weekend to the sylvan setting for picnics, drunken debauchery and general misbehavior. One 1884 newspaper article dryly reported that at one Sunday picnic, "about 2,000 attended and fifty fights occurred." But Fairfax had already earned a rowdy reputation earlier in the century, when Lord Charles Snowden Fairfax and his wife Ada settled into comfortable country living in "Bird's Nest Glen" in 1855.

Lord Fairfax, the 19th-century version of a trust-funder, and Ada were known for their Southern hospitality. Their lavish parties sometimes turned a tad ugly when Charles's proclivity for whiskey embarrassed Ada to tears, or when guests insisted on dueling to the death after a nice lunch. One afternoon in 1861, Charles Piercy died from a bullet shot by Daniel Showalter over a political dispute, the last such documented political duel in California history (mudslinging has been in vogue ever since).

After Fairfax's death in 1869, the property came into the hands of Carlo and Adele Pastori, who opened an Italian restaurant at the old Fairfax mansion in the 1890s. San Francisco elite and famous folks from all over the country came for Chianti, pasta and fine service. When Pastori's burned to the ground in 1911, Adele built an even grander edifice on the site (which, thanks to the defeat of Measure C a few years ago, still stands on the current Marin Town and Country property behind Fair-Anselm Shopping Center.) At the turn of the century, Fairfax was still a one-horse town and growing at the pace of an old pony. But Henry Frustuck introduced the word "subdivision" into the town's vernacular in 1908, and further development put up lots for sale all over Cascade Canyon, Bush Annex, Fairfax Park Tract and Fairfax Manor. This last set of plots was located all the way up Manor Hill, which had terrific views but an impractical commute.

Since SUVs were still about 80 years in the future, Edward S. Holt and his partner Prentis Gray came up with the bright idea of building a funicular railroad up the hill (Hell, if they can do it Switzerland, we can do it in California!) The Fairfax Incline Railway opened in 1913 to transport prospective buyers and other thrillseekers for a nickel a ride. Rumor has it that during Prohibition, the little tavern at the top sold more than ice cream sodas, but that's no surprise, is it? Since neighboring San Anselmo stayed goody-goody dry until the 18th Amendment was repealed, Fairfax kept its carousing reputation going 500 feet up a mountain. The railroad was deemed "unsafe" in 1929 and abandoned in 1930 amid a flurry of lawsuits.

The construction of Alpine Dam kicked Fairfax's population boom into gear. By 1917, many of the Italian laborers brought in to build the dam had decided to stay, and in 1931, the tiny village became an official "city." That is, until some party poopers on the city staff started using "town" again during the 1970s to preserve a "small-town image" (which it continues to do) and deter outsiders from using Fairfax as their stomping ground. But that won't stop folks from dancing their patootie off at 19 Broadway or taking over the pool tables at Peri's come the new millennium. Though I'm sure we'll be better behaved than those pugnacious picnickers at the turn of the century.

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