Historic Martinez Courthouses

By William Mero

Contra Costa County was officially formed on Feb. 18, 1850. Martinez was selected as the county seat in 1851. This was still a raw, wild frontier. There were probably less than 1000 persons living in the entire county in 1850. Early settlers in Martinez often complained about wild cattle stampeding through the dusty streets chased by hard riding vaqueros.

The first public building in Martinez was a stone jail built in 1850. Its location is rather uncertain as the only description is that it was built on the west bank of Alhambra Creek at the bridge on the street leading back from the wharf. Its function as a jail was also somewhat dubious as escapes were common. As a judge once wrote, "but by carefully guarding the prisoners, some of them were detained until they were tried."

The first courthouse was housed in a building at the end of Escobar Street. All the later courthouses were built in the same area. The building was also used as a church, school house and Masonic Lodge hall. The first murder trial held there was The People vs. Wempett and Wampett. The two young Indians, brother and sister, were tried by a jury who found them guilty of manslaughter. Evidently the judge was aware of their special circumstances for the sentence was only a fine of one dollar and two weeks in jail. This may be an illustration of frontier justice at its best.

The first legal execution was in August, 1852. An Indian was convicted of stabbing a Mexican in Pinole to death. No scaffold was available so the limb of a Martinez sycamore tree served instead.

During the early years of the 1850s, the county was run alternately by a Court of Sessions and a Board of Supervisors. Three judges formed the Court of Sessions which combined both the legislative, judicial and executive into one body. The judge that headed the Court was elected by the people. The other two judges were elected by the other county justices of the peace.

Due to political infighting, when the Court of Sessions was replaced by the Board of Supervisors, the building of a regular courthouse was delayed until 1854. L. R. Townsend was the architect, and contractors Childers & Chipman won the bid for $27,000. Finished in 1855, the old courthouse had the jail in the basement. Sadly the new jail often proved to be equally "leaky" as the first jail when it came to holding important prisoners for trial. In 1856 Jose Olivas, one of the killers of Dr. John Marsh, was quickly captured and just as quickly escaped from the new jail. He evaded capture for ten years. It was not unusual for other convicted murderers to disappear before their scheduled appointment with the hangman.

The pride of the county was the special bell installed in a belfry at the top of the 1855 courthouse. It had been especially cast in Seneca Falls, NY and brought around the Horn by sailing ship to Port Costa. It rang out to call court sessions, announce juries had reached a verdict or as a fire alarm. For years it was kept in the rotunda of the 1902 courthouse that replaced the 1855 courthouse. Sheriff R. R. Veale saved the bell in 1901 when the old courthouse was destroyed. The sheriff loved our county's history. The entire record of his 40 years as sheriff are preserved in the Contra Costa County Historical Society archives. Today the famous bell is kept in the Martinez History Society museum.

The October 1868 quake on the Hayward Fault caused extensive damage throughout the county. John Marsh's great stone house in Brentwood was badly shaken. Both Alamo and Pacheco suffered severe damage to their brick and stone building. The courthouse in Martinez did not escape. The rear walls collapsed. The USGS estimates that the quake might have been a magnitude 7 event.

Court sessions had to be held in a nearby carpenter's shop while repairs were made. A jail was constructed in Antioch to hold any prisoners. Even after extensive repairs, the courthouse was still not considered safe. In 1875 an annex was added to the courthouse to house the county clerk and county recorder. The area around the courthouse became known as Courthouse Square. A park was constructed in front of the courthouse.

After the 1868 earthquake, numerous grand juries condemned the old courthouse as unsafe. By 1899 there were plans to demolish it and build a larger and grander structure for a growing population that had now reached over 18,000. The initial plans were for a courthouse that was not to exceed $100,000. This projection was soon proved to be totally unrealistic. Architects, Haven and Toepke from Sacramento, drew up the plans for a Greco-Roman classic style building with four Ionic columns and a frieze at the roof line.

The Pacific Construction company bid of $177,383 was accepted in July 1901. The cornerstone was laid on Dec. 14, 1901. Alas, as with so many government projects, the initial cost estimates proved wildly short of the mark. By August 1902 a special election had to be held to increase the county's bonded indebtedness. An additional $71,000 was required to finish the building, $20,000 for the jail and another $70,000 for furnishings. All the offices enjoyed plush Oriental rugs and mission furniture.

The separate jail was built in the rear of the new courthouse. The jail as well as the courthouse were built with Vermont granite. The jail's architect was William Mosser & Sons.

In March 1903 the supervisors and county departments were moved in and in celebration - a "parade" was held that May. It featured county bands, fire departments, lodges, school children along with a barbecue, sports events, banquets and dances. From all reports a good time was had by all.

Another pride of the county concerning its new 1903 courthouse was the large dome or cupola that topped the building. It was intended to give the new courthouse the appearance of a capitol building. However in 1954 the supervisors were worried that in case of a large earthquake, the cupola might come crashing through the roof of the courthouse.

Bids were made in 1956 when the contractor began to actually remove the cupola, he found that it was actually sturdy and well-constructed. Although the county's fears were proved to be unjustified, the contractor had a contract to fulfill. He proceeded to remove it anyway.

By 1933 the population had reached nearly 80,000. It was decided to build a Hall of Records to house the increasing records and civil servants to manage them. The Hall of Records was built at a cost of $450,000. The building site was purchased from the Fernandez estate for $12,500 in 1922. Population growth after the First World War made a new building to relieve the congestion in the old 1902 courthouse necessary. It was built on a pay-as-you-go plan. The project was free of debt when completed. The four story structure contains over 8,000 feet of floor space. The building is square with six Doric columns resting on 18 foot octagonal bases. It is named the Wakefield Taylor Courthouse after the Honorable Wakefield Taylor, a distinguished justice in our east county for all his working life. R. R. Arnold, the County Engineer, supervised construction.

In 1966 the 1933 Hall of Records was remodeled. The court was then moved from the old 1902 courthouse and housed in the larger Hall of Records. The 1902 courthouse became the County Finance Building and is listed as a National Historic site as is the newer Hall of Records.

Eventually continued population growth made additional space necessary. An additional courthouse complex was built in 1987 by the S. J. Amoroso Construction Co. The architect was The NBBJ Group of Seattle, Washington. It is a three story concrete structure facing north and is known as the Bray Courthouse.


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