Hamlet's Demise Saddens Those Who Left

Special to The Times

Virginia Jensen remembers long hours of picking oysters from Tomales Bay, standing for hours more prying them open and finally selling them at her family restaurant in this historic west Marin County community.

The work only intensified after her husband, Henry, a fisherman, drowned when his boat capsized in 1971, leaving her with four children and pregnant with a fifth.

Although life was hard, Jensen says she has no regrets about raising her children in the community. She and others are sad to see the demise of Hamlet, which will be demolished, beginning Tuesday, by the National Park Service. The little town north of Marshall has deteriorated, and the Park Service has decided it would be too costly to maintain.

The community -- now only a collection of dilapidated buildings on pilings falling into the water and a handful of outhouses -- dates to 1844, and once had a railroad station, a post office, a fish cannery, a dairy and, in later years, a restaurant, oyster beds and rental cabins.

Jensen, who lives now in Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, sold the 40-acre property to the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1988 for $650,000 after she could no longer maintain it. Severe winter storms in the early 1980s washed away her oyster beds and she didn't have the means to maintain the operation to meet county codes.

"It's sad," said Jensen, 65. "I've watched those buildings deteriorate and slowly fall into the bay."

But the quarter-Miwok Indian woman, who lived in Hamlet for 35 years with her family, recalls that "it was a darn hard life. Between picking oysters at nighttime and running the restaurant in the daytime, it seemed like you never had time to sleep."

Her children worked alongside her in the oyster beds and in the restaurant, where they served oysters steamed, fried and in stews.

Jensen remembers a friendly, quiet way of life. Customers dropped by, put on aprons and went to work.

"I met a lot of fun people," Jensen said. "People in bands used to play music for us. They stopped in to have a beer and oysters, and the next thing you'd know they'd be playing trombone on the dock."

What distresses Jensen is the decrepit condition of Hamlet and its impending demise. When she sold the property, she said, the Park Service promised to preserve it and told her a ranger would live there in a trailer to prevent vandalism.

John Dell'Osso, chief of interpretation for the Point Reyes National Seashore, said he had no knowledge of such a promise and there was no way a ranger could have lived on the site without water or sewage facilities.

When the Park Service took over the property, the buildings were already badly deteriorated and it would have taken too much money to renovate them, he said.

Dell'Osso said the buildings need to be removed because they pose a safety problem. He said the Park Service hadn't dismantled them sooner because the money wasn't available. The demolition is costing $150,000.

After the buildings are gone, the Park Service is considering putting in a small gravel parking lot and one or two picnic tables. Hikers and bicyclists will be able to take the path along the old railroad bed next to the water, which could be connected to the neighboring county park.

Douglas "Dewey" Livingston, who wrote a history of Hamlet for the Park Service, said the state had determined that the community could have qualified for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places if the Park Service had completed nomination papers. But he said that never happened.

Livingston wrote that Hamlet was one of the earliest settlements on Tomales Bay and played a prominent role in west Marin County. It was a busy rail stop for passengers and freight. Most of the early structures are long gone.

Livingston, who lives in Inverness, said he wishes the Park Service had formed a partnership with the community to save the buildings because of their historical significance to the area.

"I knew it was a pretty daunting challenge," he said.

But Paul Elmore, president of the Eastshore Planning Group, which reviews development plans in the area, said it would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore the buildings at Hamlet when the Park Service bought the property.

"I drive by it every day," he said. "Frankly, what's left is a danger. You're going to have fires, transients camping. I think it's a lost cause."

In the years since the government acquired the property, the buildings have deteriorated further. The restaurant, perched over the water on rotting piers, is falling apart. A construction crew in protective clothing and respirators removed asbestos and flaking lead paint from the restaurant's interior last week in preparation for this week's demolition.

The story is the same with cabins on both sides of the restaurant. Several have fallen off their support pilings into the water, and another lies partially submerged.

A visit to one cabin uncovered hints of the past -- pieces of blue and white tile flooring, a cabinet and a stove vent -- along with graffiti and a peace sign scrawled on a wall.

Several wooden outhouses across from the structures also are crumbling.

Dana Hooper, a painter in the rural Chileno Valley area of Marin County, wanted one of the outhouses, but when she went to get it, all she found was a hole in the ground. She had planned to put it on her 10-acre property to remember the little town.

"These buildings have this kind of human presence," Hooper said. "They're just weathered and shaped by the elements. It's really a cool place with the bay right there."

Realizing that Hamlet would be demolished someday, Hooper and Susan Hall, a painter from Point Reyes Station, put on an exhibit of their works on Hamlet at two county libraries two years ago. Hall, who published a book, "Painting Point Reyes," said she had been drawn to the community.

"When you're around buildings that have been lived in a long time and have a number of uses, they have their own voices," she said.

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