Martinez is a moderately sized city with an area of 13.1 square miles and a population under 50,000. The city’s colorful history began with Don Ignacio Martinez, an early 19th century commandant of the Presidio of San Francisco who received land grants from the Mexican government which included the land site of present day Martinez.
In 1849 the city was named after Martinez and a year later, when California became a state, the city was declared Contra Costa County seat. From the beginning, the Gold Rush played a key role in the city’s development and standing. It was a stop off point for people traveling to the gold fields. In addition, it also became a well-known agricultural center, a wine growing region, and the site of the Shell Oil Refinery.
Today, as you approach the city you are greeted by a sign announcing “Historic Martinez”. That applies not only to its Spanish California roots, its contributions during Gold Rush times, nor to its more recent 20th Century activities but to a very broad and rich fabric of contribution to the community, the state, the nation and the world.
The list below is a sampling of our local history makers. Many family and friends still reside in Martinez.
- Three Alhambra valley neighbors and friends became giants in their respective fields and, along the way, made tremendous contributions to the country and even the world.
• John Muir the Scottish born naturalist who is best known as buddy to President Theodore Roosevelt and father to the National Parks system. He also founded the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society. The Martinez house he moved into after his father-in-law John Strentzel passed away is now known as the John Muir house and is a National Historical monument.
• Dr. John Strentzel was a Polish physician who may be best known as the father in law of John Muir. However, in his own right, Dr. Strenzel gained fame as an experimental horticulturalist. He became recognized as the foremost expert on California’s budding horticultural industry and is sometimes described as the Father of California Agriculture.
• John Swett the New Hampshire school teacher who came to California in 1853 to find gold and ended up becoming the father of the public school system for the State of California. He was Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State, is credited for making public education free to all students, and founding the organization that became the California Teachers’ Association.
- Adventurer Joseph Walker was one of the most noted mountain men in America and is believed to be the first “white man” to see Yosemite. He retired to his brother’s farm in Alhambra Valley and is buried in Martinez’ Pioneer Cemetery.
- Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, one of the most famous baseball players in American history, was born in Martinez and still has many family members and old friends living in, and around, town. He is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Coopersville, still holds the record for most consecutive hits, made “off the field” headlines with his marriage to Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe, was also famously known as “the Yankee Clipper”, and, after his retirement, became Mr. Coffee to a new generation of Americans because of his television commercial. His namesake, “the Joltin’ Joe”, the sleek pleasure boat that was a gift from New York Yankee fans, and which Joe used to romance his bride Marilyn Monroe, can still be seen at the Martinez marina in a restored state.
- Tree City USA: Martinez qualified and was included into The Arbor Foundation’s National “Tree City USA” program. This is in sync with the area’s deep agricultural and naturalist history as well as its geographic location fairly surrounded by water and regional open space. e.g. Martinez Regional Shoreline on the North; Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline stretching West; Water bird Regional Preserve and McNabney Marsh bordering the city to the East; and Briones Regional Park bordering the Alhambra Valley to the South.
- Cheers: Martinez is recognized as the birthplace of the martini. As the story goes a thirsty goldminer wanted to celebrate his goldmine success with a bottle of champagne. Because the saloon had no champagne the bartender, Julio Richilieu offered to fix a “Martinez Special.” The drink was two thirds gin, one third vermouth, orange bitters, and an olive. Another story claims that it was a newsman on his way back to San Francisco where, when he got back, spread the word. However, the name was eventually shortened to Martini and became the favorite drink of many.
- Bocce Ball: Martinez is the Bocce Ball capital of the United States, home to the largest bocce federation in America.
- Transportation: Martinez from the earliest days was a center of transportation and communication. It built the first ferry in the West. Many ferries followed that one and it was a “commuter” sea port of note for over 100 years. In addition, it was a pony express and a stagecoach stop. Once the Carquinez Bridge was built in 1962, the ferry stopped running but freeway and train traffic is heavy. Today, there are 42 trains that pull into the Amtrak Intermodal Station, connecting Martinez to the outside world.
- In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many immigrants migrated to Martinez. The community was enriched tremendously by the contributions to the ranching, farming, and fishing industries in particular.