The History of Stafford Lake
by May Rodgers Ungemach, 1993
In Spring, Stafford Lake sparkling like a jewel in its setting of emerald green hills looks very much like a natural wonder. Actually, until just over four decades ago that area now covered by the lake was the site of pioneer John Redmond’s ranch home and pasture for dairy cattle as far as the eye could see.
John Bernard Redmond, born in Ireland in 1819, went to South America at the age of 26 where he worked for merchants Warlington & Templeman. Several years later, he moved to San Francisco when the firm opened a branch there. In 1850, he started his own mercantile business which he operated successfully for 14 years.
In 1853, John Redmond married Joanna Walsh and fathered seven children, five of whom survived. No doubt the welfare of their offspring inspired Mr. and Mrs. Redmond to leave the big city. In 1864, the family moved to a 640 acre ranch on Hicks Valley Road in Marin County. John Redmond may have been unaware that the land he had purchased was originally part of two Mexican land grants — Corte Madera de Novato and Rancho Nicasio.
In the years that followed his move to Marin County, J. B. Redmond became known as one of the finest ranchers in the area. In 1888, the Marin Journal reported the Redmond “place is a delight to the eye — 640 acres in a square body, a portion of it under a high state of cultivation. Mr. R. is not at all bashful about using fertilizers. Everywhere about the place one sees indications of nature yielding bounteous returns to intelligent, liberal management — plenty to eat for man and beast. The barn in which his horses and cows are housed, 104 x 68 feet, is the finest in the county. The walls of his dairy building, two feet thick, are filled in with sawdust with two feet of same on the roof. The temperature within in the hottest days of summer is that of an ice house. Under such conditions butter making is an assured success.”
In addition to dairy cattle, there were on the Redmond Ranch “imported Southdown sheep, peacocks, golden pheasants, game chickens, quail and Indian curiosities as well as a number of willows raised from a slip cut from the one over Napoleon’s tomb at St. Helena.” Near the Redmond home, “two streams of delicious water in close proximity to each other burst forth from the hillside at the rate of 84,000 gallons a day. The flow could easily be increased to 100,000 gallons and there is no abatement of the supply on the hottest days of summer…. A gentleman of wealth and leisure could gratify his wildest fancies here in the proprietorship of an artificial lake of 17 acres, filled with speckled trout, bordered with water lilies, and covered with miniature gondolas drawn by swans.” As far as the lake is concerned, that reporter of more than a century ago would be amazed today to find much of his or her fantasy has become a reality.
In March 1888, John B. Redmond was appointed Postmaster at Black Point (Novato Post Office was renamed Black Point from 1865 until 1891.) A Marin Journal reporter wrote: “The prospect is very good that if Mr. Redmond holds this office the usual term of four years, he will see it grow to the third post office in amount of business in Marin County.”
The 1888 edition of the Marin Journal noted that young Mary Redmond, an amateur astronomer, got up at 4 a.m. to observe Halley’s Comet “about 20 degrees above the eastern horizon, in the square of Pegasus.” She was said to be the first person in Marin County to see the new comet.
After John Redmond’s death in 1893, his daughter Bertha married neighboring rancher, Daniel James Ryan. The bride was 30 and the groom 41. Dan Ryan, a native of Limerick County, Ireland, came to California via the Isthmus of Panama at the age of 21, made a brief stop in Contra Costa County, then located permanently in Marin County. The 1894 Great Register of Marin County voters describes him as 5’11” tall, with a dark complexion, gray eyes and hair.
Bertha and Dan Ryan assumed management of her family’s ranch. Their children, Daniel Jr. and Agatha, were born there and attended Novato Grammar School.
It appears Bertha’s sister Agatha preceded their father in death since she was not named as an heir to his estate. Sisters Mieda Redmond and Mrs. Mary (Redmond) Zicovich, became San Francisco residents. Several years after John Redmond’s death, his son John Jr. relinquished his share of the estate and apparently left Marin County, at least until 1930 when his name appeared on the voter registry as a laborer residing in Novato. According to the records, Dan Ryan eventually acquired the shares of the Redmond Ranch held by his wife’s sisters.
It was around 1895 that Hermann Rudolff moved onto the Redmond/Ryan ranch, leasing a residence that had been built in 1861. (A fire destroyed the building in 1938.) The following year, Hermann’s bride Martha joined him. After a couple of years of making cheese and butter on the ranch, Mr. Rudolff established his own business, the New York French Cheese Factory on Railroad Avenue in Novato. He became a Judge and one of Novato’s most prominent citizens.
In 1903, Dan Ryan leased his Novato ranch to Dominico Grossi and moved to Santa Clara with his wife and children. Mr. Grossi operated a dairy on the property for 14 years, then purchased his own ranch nearby.
At that time, Mr. and Mrs. Ryan leased their ranch to the Mendonca family and rented an apartment in San Francisco. Weekends, however, found the Ryan family once again in their ranch home and daughter Agatha riding her horse over the familiar fields, hills and creekbeds. Undoubtedly Dan Ryan, Sr. made additional trips to his ranch during the week to fulfill his responsibilities as a director of the first Novato Bank which had opened for business in 1913, and as a trustee of the Burdell School District. Dan, Jr. remained in San Francisco where he operated a bar.
In the Spring of 1934, Agatha and her parents left San Francisco and moved back to their ranch. Within days of their return, death claimed Daniel Ryan, Sr. His widow passed away the following year.
Dan, Jr. returned to the ranch to supervise the dairy operation. Those who remember him say he was a charming man who had incredibly bad luck with his investments causing him to come very close to losing the Ryan Ranch to creditors. Somehow, his sister Agatha rescued the property and took charge of the dairy with the help of Mr. Mendonca’s son-in-law, Tony Martenz. Dan, Jr. is believed to have left the area. He died in 1964 and is buried with his parents in Mt. Olivet Cemetery near San Rafael.
The formation of the North Marin Water District in 1948 to allow purchase of the Novato Water Company brought permanent change to the Ryan Ranch. Soon after the District was created, voters of North Marin approved bond issues for improvement of the water system and construction of a dam. The excellent watershed and proximity of Novato Creek made the Ryan property an ideal site.
Agatha was reluctant to part with her land but the best interest of the community prevailed. About 1950, she sold off the cattle and dairy equipment and built a new home on the hillside. An old friend, Mrs. Frances Bond McGlauflin, paid Agatha a visit which she later described in her column “Down Memory Lane” in the Feb. 26, 1964 edition of the Novato Advance. She wrote: “My brother and I were guests at the beautiful old Ryan Ranch in the Novato Hills…. The sweeping vista seen from each well placed window of the home looks out on rolling hills and peaceful valleys…. Cattle browse peacefully at a distance and around all is the encircling ring of the distant mountains of the Coast Range. The friendly dogs bounce to the gate to meet you and the surroundings are quiet with the unbroken stillness of good country living.”
Miss Agatha, the last remaining member of the Ryan family of Novato, died in 1987, at the age of 91. The Redmond/Ryan Ranch is presently owned by the Tocalino family.
Stafford Dam was completed in 1951. Before the new lake, called Novato Creek Lake, covered the valley, a few buildings were moved and the rest were torn down. One of the latter was the home of George and Mary Grossi. About 1953, they sold 66 acres of their land to the North Marin Water District for expansion of the lake. Mr. and Mrs. Grossi moved across the road into a house that had been located on First Street in downtown Novato. The owner was Elsie Andersen whose husband, Gordon, opened the first auto agency in Novato in 1926. Mr. and Mrs. Grossi bought the house from Mrs. Andersen around 1950 and moved it to their ranch across from the present Stafford Dam and Lake.
In the shadow of the dam, on David Leveroni’s property, stood a small building that had been the Burdell Cheese Factory until it became the Burdell School in 1903. For safety reasons, the school was moved away from the dam, across the road onto a knoll on Grossi land. The foundation and its twin sentinel trees still remain at their original location. The little one-room schoolhouse remained active until 1958 when it was torched by vandals.
The new dam and lake were not formally dedicated or named until November 1, 1955, when directors of the Water District unanimously approved the name Stafford Dam and Lake in honor of Dr. Charles D. Stafford. Dr. Stafford was President of the first North Marin Water District Board of Directors elected in 1948 and worked tirelessly throughout the difficult period of constructing the dam and improving Novato’s water system. He continued to serve as President until his death in October 1955.
The Manager of the Water District and the five members of its Board of Directors have been extraordinarily diligent and farsighted in their efforts to protect and expand the water supply for North Marin residents. Development of the ranchlands surrounding Stafford Lake would threaten not only the purity of the lake but the very existence of its 8.3 square miles of watershed. To prevent that from happening, the District has entered into agreements with the ranchers in the area, allowing their cattle to graze on Water District lands and providing the ranchers with water in times of drought. As long as the ranchers are able to continue their family dairy operations, there will be no new development.
A portion of Water District property has been leased to Indian Valley Golf Club, Inc. for 99 years. The golf course provides an attractive recreational enhancement adjacent to the lake.
In 1971, acreage west of the lake purchased by Marin County and a portion of North Marin Water District property were combined to create Stafford Lake Park. The agreement signed by the County and the Water District allowed the County to maintain and operate a park for a period of fifty years subject to strict requirements intended to protect District facilities and the water supply. The 139-acre park can readily accommodate up to 3,000 people and provides fishing, barbecuing, nature trails, a children’s play area and other amenities.
In 1984, it became necessary to raise the crest of the dam eight feet and to drain Stafford Lake in order to repair the toe drain at the base of the dam. Manager John O. Nelson had to rely on his ingenuity to solve the problem of removing and disposing of tons of fish, primarily carp, that had accumulated in the lake. Many of the fish had at one time been pet goldfish deposited in the lake by people who couldn’t or didn’t care to keep them any longer. Having read about a former Vietnamese Colonel residing in California who was particularly adept in the art of fishing, Mr. Nelson suggested giving the Colonel free rein to catch and keep as many fish as possible from the partially drained lake. The Colonel reaped a harvest of 30,000 lbs. of carp and everyone was well satisfied with the arrangement.
Sources of Information for History
Great Register – 1858, 1890 & 1894 – Anne T. Kent Room, Marin County Library, Marin Civic Center
Mike Sferrati, Mapping Dept., Marin Civic Center Assessor’s Parcel Map Book 125, pg. 9, Parcel #125090-06 & 07
Recorder’s Office – Records of Deeds – Marin Civic Center
Marin Journal, Sausalito News, Novato Advance
HISTORY OF MARIN COUNTY, 1880, Alley-Bowen
MARIN COUNTY THROUGH THE CENTURIES, compiled by Charles O. Meret, Writer’s Project, WPA
“Down Memory Lane” column by Frances Bond McGlaughlin, Novato Advance, Feb. 26, 1964
NOVATO TOWNSHIP, by May Rodgers Ungemach, 1989
North Marin Water District
“Resolution No. 129 Dedicating Charles D. Stafford Dam and Lake,” 11/1/55
“Agreement Between County of Marin and North Marin County Water District,” 9/21/71
“Interim Report – Stafford Lake Watershed Protection Program” November 1973
“Stafford Lake Watershed Erosion Control Project,” 4/1/86
“Stafford Lake Information Sheet,” January 1987
“Annual Report FY 1991-92”
John O. Nelson, Former Mgr., North Marin Water District
David Leveroni, Jr.
George and Mary Grossi
Ms. Jocelyn Moss
Miss Eleonora Lafranchi
Mrs. Edna Magetti Silva
The Stafford Lake watershed is 8.3 square miles. Sixteen percent is owned by North Marin Water District. Eighty percent is privately owned and used for primarily agriculture (dairy, cattle, stables). Marin County Parks and Open Space own the remaining acres.
North Marin Water District is committed to the protection of the source water quality of Novato’s local drinking water supply. A Watershed Management Plan has been developed to identify future activities. Some protection activities include:
Erosion control: NMWD and Stafford watershed ranchers have participated in a coordinated effort to implement erosion control practices. The NMWD hopes to continue this effort by supporting a new inventory of erosion control needs.
Dairy: The local dairies and ranches have implemented Best Management Practices to reduce nutrient and microbial runoff to Stafford Lake. All dairy waste manure is collected in ponds and disposed to land away from waterways.
County Park: NMWD has been invited to participate in the development of a master plan for Stafford Lake County Park. NMWD provides oversight to the Park’s water quality protection activities related to large event management, irrigation and herbicide fertilizer application.
Students and Teachers Restoring A Watershed (STRAW): NMWD supports the STRAW Program through contributions made through the North Bay Watershed Association. The first restoration project on Stafford watershed occurred on March 7, 2003 by Loma Verde school children.
Riparian Fencing: Most of Novato Creek upstream of Stafford dam was fenced during the 1987 erosion control project. From time to time additional fencing to protect water quality is supported by cooperative efforts between NMWD and ranch owners.
The Ecology of Stafford Lake Park
Bob Stewart, 1993
Underlying rocks in the watershed are as old as 120 million years and make up what geologists call the Franciscan Formation. This is the most disturbed and complex rock formation anywhere in the world. While the Grand Canyon contains rocks that are much older, all the layers are essentially horizontal. Here in Marin, geologists call the rocks a melange because of the resemblance to a pudding with rock types of various kinds all mixed up together. The reason for this jumble is that we are on the very site of a giant trench where an oceanic plate is subducting material from an adjacent plate down to a depth of 70 miles or more. Great heat and pressure changed the original rocks, some were thrown back up (obduction) before they melted. The results is that we have a variety of rocks making up the watershed (serpentinite, chert, greenstone, Greywacke sandstones and schists).
As these rocks weather chemically and physically, soil is formed. Each rock type produces different soils and within each soil are the minerals and elements needed by all life forms including humans. So the rocks are the basic component of the ecology of the area: i.e., the complex interaction of all non-living and living components in the system. The system is basically a cycle where the elements from rock (soil) is passed from one life form to another in a food chain, until the living things die returning the elements to the soil to be reused again.
The energy that drives all life on the planet comes from the sun. That energy is eventually used up and is not recycled.
The Trees, Plants and Grasses
A large variety of plants or “producers” are the first biological level or floor of the food pyramid. These plants take energy from the sun and convert it to chemical energy in foods by a process we call photosynthesis. Only 1/10 of 1% of the solar energy that is absorbed by the earth and its oceans is used in this life-giving process. The plants do this by taking carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and water ((H2O) from the soil and recombining the elements to produce sugars and oxygen (02). So the plants convert sun energy to chemical energy and store it in foods (sugars, starches, fats and proteins) according to this simple equation. All life forms reverse this equation to release the energy stored in the sugar for growth, behavior, etc.
The large trees that live in the watershed here at Stafford Lake are distributed in a predictable way because of certain genetic adaptations they have to soil type, amount of water available and temperature. From the drier, hotter temperature-adapted species to the wetter, lower temperature-adapted species, we have valley oak, coast live oak, black oak, madrone, California bay, Douglas fir and coast redwood. These trees produce a habitat for many forms of life. They frorm seeds which are eaten by animals. Their role in providing food for animals can be elucidated by taking, as an example, one valley oak which produces hundreds of acorns each year of its 300-500 year life span, yet only has to produce one tree from one acorn in order to pass its species on to future generations.
Bush layer plants such as hazelnut, coffeeberry, Christmas berry (toyon) and manzanita grow under tree layers or in the open depending on their adaptations. The lowest level producers are small plants called herbs. All bushes and trees live for many years from one seed (perennial) but many herbs like grasses and wildflowers come up with new seed each year (annuals). Some herbs are also perennial like almost all our native grasses (bunch grasses).
Insects and Animals
The second floor in the food pyramid are the animals that eat plants (herbivores). Many insects such as leafhoppers, froghoppers (adult spittlebugs), grasshoppers, larvae of butterflies and moths eat the plants. In fact insects are so abundant and are such a problem to the survival of plants that plants, during their evolution, have formed defenses such as many toxic chemicals and physical structures (spines, etc). The insects, in turn, sometimes evolve ways to getting around these defenses. Many mammals are herbivores such as the white-footed deer mouse, California ground squirrel, brush rabbit, black-tailed jack rabbit, black-tailed deer, dusky-footed wood rat, Sonoma chipmunk and gray squirrel. Each of the species of mammal is unique and plays a specific role in the ecology of the watershed. Also there are more mammalian herbivores that burrow underground and play an important role in conditioning the soil such as the pocket gopher, moles, shrews, and shrew-mole and the California Vole.
Some birds are also herbivores (eat seeds) such as the lesser goldfinch, house finch, purple finch and pine siskin. Grazing cattle are also in this group of herbivorous animals.
The third floor in the food pyramid are carnivores. This group only eats animals that have eaten plants. Many species of small birds such as flycatchers, swallows and swifts eat flying insects. Many species of bats take over this role at night. A large group of small birds take their insects from the leaves of plants such as the orange-crowned warbler, plain titmouse, chestnut-backed chickadee and warbling vireo. Others, like the brown creeper, restrict their diet to insects and spiders found in bark crevices. The thrush family, including the robin and western bluebird, take their food from the ground.
Spiders are important predators of insects as well. Orb weavers use webs to catch their insect prey. Others like the wolf and jumping spiders directly attack their insect prey by moving around. Crab spiders wait for their insect prey, mostly insect pollinators, at individual flowers, then pinch them with their elongated front legs.
Many species of lizards and amphibians (frogs, newts, and salamanders) are also first level carnivores. Snakes like the garter, gopher, king and occasional rattlesnake eat small plant eating mammals mentioned above.
The snakes, lizards and amphibians in turn can be eaten by second and third level carnivores like the golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk; white-tailed kite, the northern harrier who can also eat from the herbivore level as well. Night hunting owls (great-horned, barn and screech) and mammals (grey fox, badger, bobcat, raccoon and mountain lion join the eagle group as third level carnivores. Certain animals feed at all levels of the food pyramid (omnivores). These include skunks, fox, raccoon, opossum scrub jay, stellers jay, crow and raven.
The numbers of the top carnivores in the pyramid are determined by the amount of prey available to them. Often these top carnivores succumb to microscopic disease organisms in the bacterial and viral groups. When animals or plants die they still have valuable chemical energy locked in their systems. The larger species of scavengers (turkey vulture, and to some extent, ravens, crows and gulls) eat dead animals in the watershed. Insect larvae, ants, earthworms, mites and finally the fungi and bacteria complete the final breakdown of complex molecules to simple elements so that they can be used over again. In the process, the last available energy originally put in place by the plants is used up.
The Water Environment
A special food pyramid exists in the steams that feed Stafford Lake. The producers are freshwater algae and dead leaves (most important of the two). With a little help from bacteria the shredder group goes into action. Certain species of caddisfly larvae, isopod larvae and ripple beetle larvae shred the dead leaves that have fallen from trees. Water boatmen, mayfly larvae, caddisfly larvae then collect or filter particles of leaves. A third group are the scrapers composed of other larvae of mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies and the water penny (a beetle larvae). About 40% of the animal species in the stream are carnivores (predacious diving beetle, caddisfly larvae, Dobson fly larvae, dragon fly larvae, Pacific giant salamander larvae and small fish).
The lake food pyramid is fed by the movement of valuable chemical nutrients from soils in the watershed. The producers are microscopic algae (diatoms, blue-green algae and green algae) and various aquatic plants. These in turn are eaten by aquatic insects and zooplankton (Daphnia, Cyclops rotiers, etc.). Species of non-native fish feed in the lake.
During recent draining of the lake an attempt was made to improve the habitat for redear sunfish, a deep water bottom feeder of aquatic insect larvae. The redear, which takes 3-4 years to establish a healthy population was to be the food choice of the Florida large mouth bass. Bluegill, which feeds in all levels of the food chain have also been introduced as a food source. Bass of two to three pounds are now often being taken from the lake. In order to increase the populations “catch and release” of bass is advocated by the County and the Water District, particularly during the spawning months of April and May. Catfish once overly abundant may also be present in the lake. To avoid carp taking over the food niche, the Department of Fish and Game prohibited the use of live bait fish at Stafford Lake. Often bait fish are scooped from nearby sloughs and can contain species of carp.
During the fall, winter and early spring there is a significant population of birds who also enter the food chain. Diving ducks and grebes feed on fish on the bottom and middle layers. Dabbling ducks like mallard, American wigeon and pintail feed in shallow water on vegetation and invertebrates around the edges of the lake. Many species of shorebirds (killdeer, least sandpiper, dunlin, etc.) feed on insect larvae and other aquatic life on the edges. Many Canada geese feed in and around the lakeshore. White pelicans ballet-feed on small fish and plankton. At least eight species of seagull use the lake and scavenge around the lake during the day returning to their roost on Tomales Bay at night.
A few years after the dam was finished the great blue heron began to nest on the island created by the lake water. The breeding colony grew from fourteen pairs in 1974 to twenty-seven pairs in 1980 to a high of thirty-two pair in 1990. (Data from Helen Pratt). Great Blues feed on fish, amphibians and gophers.
Stafford Lake has a unique ecology and the Marin County Parks, Open Space and Cultural Services Department and the North Marin Water District work hand-in-hand to manage and preserve this resource for the benefit of all.
North Marin Water District leases land adjacent to Stafford Lake to the County of Marin and the Indian Valley Golf Course for recreational purposes. Please contact them directly for information on using the facilities.
Stafford Lake Park amenities include: fishing, a nature trail, picnic areas with barbeque facilities, play structures, lawn areas, a softball field, volleyball, disc golf and horseshoe courts and the recently built bike park.
Indian Valley Golf Course is an 18-hole golf course open to the public.