Mill Valley lies in the beautiful foothill forests of Mount Tamalpais near the coastal flats of Richardson Bay. The unique terrain and microclimate were constant forces that helped shape the small town into the city it is today. The hills and deep, steep canyons drained by numerous creeks were home to the Coastal Miwok and other early Northern Californian tribes, who settled throughout the North Bay. The Coast Miwok arrived approximately 6,000 years ago in the area and were the first known inhabitants of present day Marin County. Records by eyewitnesses indicate the Miwok numbered 1,500 - 2,000 in 1770, the year before the missionaries arrived.
John Thomas Reed, an Irishman, received the first Mexican land grant on the Marin peninsula in 1834. At the time, this area was in Mexican California. The grant gave Reed access to what is now Tiburon, Belvedere, and parts of Corte Madera and Mill Valley. John Reed’s first order of business was setting up a mill to provide lumber for the new military post being built in the Presidio, across the bay in San Francisco. During the 1830s-80s, Mill Valley was primarily used as a ranch. The open, rolling hills were ideal for grazing dairy cattle and the abundant and hardy coastal redwood perfect for construction.
Mill Valley changed significantly from 1889-99. The Tamalpais Land and Water Company came into existence and the extension of the railroad brought new opportunities and improved facilities for town residents. More immigrants arrived as a result. The railroad now reached downtown and brought even more day visitors. Hotels and service businesses grew quickly to house and entertain the growing stream of visitors.
In 1900 the town was incorporated as the Town of Mill Valley. Frank Fiske Bostwick was the first president elected to the Mill Valley Board of Trustees. In 1907 the first Town Hall was built. Other establishments of maturing communities such as Mill Valley’s schools, churches, parks, and the Mill Valley Golf Course indicated Mill Valley’s status as an important town. The town’s first library was donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1911.
The 1920s marked the introduction of automobiles and postal services that connected the town more to San Francisco. During Prohibition, Mill Valley had its share of colorful stories with secret homemade wines made by Italian settlers, while more enterprising bar owners made bootleg whiskey under cover of the thick foliage of the local creeks. In 1922 snow fell in Marin County and continued for several years.
1929 was a year to remember for Mill Valley. A firestorm called the Great Fire burned for many days in early July and nearly destroyed all the homes and businesses in the city. It raged through much of Mount Tamalpais. Only a change in wind direction saved the city from burning to the ground. That year, the Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods Scenic Railway ran for the last time. The fire and the automobiles had made the railway obsolete. The Great Depression took its toll on railroad tourism and the tracks were eventually dismantled in 1931. Some famous landmarks including the Mead Theater at Tamalpais High, the Mountain Theater rock seating, and the Golden Gate Bridge were built by the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
After World War II the Army used the grounds of the Mountain Play for combat training. In 1947 the Town of Mill Valley changed its name to the “City of Mill Valley”.
The Tamalpa Runners, the Mill Valley Historical Society and the first Mill Valley Film Festival began in the 1970s.
In 2000 Mill Valley celebrated its Centennial as an incorporated city. The census that year showed the population of Mill Valley to be 13,600.
The history of Mill Valley reflects the many changes that swept the world and how it affected its growth and journey to the city it is today. Mill Valley is a place beloved of its residents and visitors alike.