Author: Martin, George

Musical magic on the mountain

Up on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County there is an old inn that was built in 1904 along the scenic railroad that once wound its way up the mountain. Tamalpais and its railroad were world famous back then; tourists took a ferry from San Francisco, a train to Mill Valley and then boarded a train with open air cars that went up the mountain, with the steam engine pushing from the rear. John Muir rode that train, and I think a president or two.

The westernmost curve of the Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway, where one could switch to a stagecoach for a ride to Willow Camp, now Stinson Beach, was known as West Point, and the small hotel and dining establishment built there became the West Point Inn.

Just below the peak of the mountain there was a more elaborate structure, the Tavern on Tamalpais, where there were rooms, food and dancing. Outside, the open air cars (they called them "gravity cars") were detached from the train and periodically sent coasting down the mountain, operated by a brakeman. This was the thrill ride of its day, an E-ticket down the mountain past the famous “double bowknot” where the trackbed turned back on itself twice on the way back to Mill Valley.

There’s not much left of the old railroad today. Some of the Tavern’s cement foundation still exists (the building burned down twice), the former trackbed is now the Old Railroad Grade trail, but the West Point Inn remains. The railroad closed down in 1930 when an automobile road to the top made the trains unprofitable. The inn struggled on until 1939 but eventually it shut, too.

The property was owned by the local water district and plans were made to demolish it, but a group of passionate hikers, chiefly from the Tamalpais Conservation Club, created an organization to run it that exists today. Originally the West Point Club it is now the West Point Inn Association, and it has maintained and improved the old inn for many decades.

You can stay up there if you are willing to hike in about a mile and a half. Check the website at It is an amazing experience. It makes waking up to go to the bathroom at 2 a.m. a desirable thing: the night Bay Area is twinkling in the distance, or alternatively there is a blanket of gray fog below you. Sometimes you get both views in one night. There are seven rooms in the inn and five cabins outside, one of them was built by a survivor of the Titanic sinking. Very historic.

I tell you that to tell you this: The West Point Inn for my money is the best place to play music on the planet. The acoustics up there are magic. The inside is all paneled in old redwood and the sound of stringed instruments is wonderful.

But the real enchantment happens outside on the deck, with an amazing view of the East Bay and San Francisco and the Marin Headlands spread out below. It’s a covered porch and the roof gathers in and disseminates music such that a PA is totally unnecessary. And the sound carries across the mountain. Hikers arrive saying, “I could hear your music way down the trail. It sounded so good.”

Recently the WPI Association asked me if I could bring some musicians up to play after the annual meeting. Various bands I have been in have played fund-raisers for the association over the years, but this is the first time I’ve been asked to entertain the membership. I tend to like to get paid (at least a little) but the inn is such a magic place and they offered us a free overnight on Sunday night so I started casting around for pickers.

My usual suspects were busy but I did find some friends (and one stranger) who had never met, but agreed to give it a shot. It turned out to be an "occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way" the very definition of serendipity.

My friend Steve Rubenstein is a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who is now teaching elementary school. He plays trumpet (not applicable here), harmonica (especially well), fingerstyle guitar and banjo. Another old friend and long-ago band buddy, Steve Scott, is a wonderful mandolin player. And the innkeeper turned me on to her brother, one Tim Sarter, to play bass.

I was a little nervous about a bass player whom I had not met, but when I called him and he said, “I checked my schedule, I have no gigs that day,” I was reassured.

And so we assembled.

The meeting adjourned and people began going through the buffet line and heading out to the deck. Mandosteve started playing “St. Anne’s Reel,” and the amazing acoustics of the inn deck kicked in. Tim was right there with the bass, Guitarsteve moved back and forth to harmonica, and my new Williams Kenny Ingram banjo was sounding fine.

Then it turned out that both Steves are into 1920s, ’30s and ‘40s swing and pop stuff. I can play some of that and Tim the bass player just needed a brief heads up on the chord progression and he was all over it.

And then we got into novelty songs of various genres and the afternoon sped by. People finished eating but didn’t leave. We still had a small audience after three hours. Finally most people were gone and the cleanup crew had tidied up the kitchen. We went in and I put a frozen lasagna in the oven and we made a salad and some garlic bread and popped a few bottles of wine and had a lovely supper with the innkeeper and a few family members who were staying over with us.

And then we tuned up again and played music late into the night.
Posted:  5/10/2012

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