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A History of Rodeo, California and the Role Patrick Tormey Played in its Early Development

by Michael Tormey, April 8, 2006

(Note: Readers may find it helpful to first read the narrative about John and Patrick Tormey before reading this history of Rodeo.)

history of Rodeo (said with a Spanish pronunciation of Ro-DAY-o) or Contra Costa County would be complete without mention of early California pioneers John Tormey and Patrick Tormey, brothers who emigrated from Ireland and settled in California in the mid nineteenth century. Their's is a dramatic story, not unlike many immigrants who preceded or followed them -- full of successes and failures, happiness and sadness, riches made and riches lost.

Contra Costa County (one of the nine San Francisco-Oakland Bay area counties) was incorporated in 1850 as one of the original 27 counties of the newly formed state of California. (California became the 31st state of the Union in September 1850.) It is today the ninth most populous county in California, having grown to a total population of a little over one million residents. In contrast, the town of Rodeo, located on the northwestern edge of Contra Costa County, is a much smaller community of only about 11,000 residents.

Located about 28 miles northeast of San Francisco, Rodeo is a quaint, waterfront town with historic charm. Its downtown is situated on the shore of San Pablo Bay, across the water from Marin County, Vallejo and Benicia (all not far from Napa Valley, just to the north).

Current map showing the communities of Contra Costa County
in relation to San Francisco to the southwest and Napa to the north.

As one might imagine, given its name, cattle ranching played a big role in the early history of Rodeo. Before the town of Rodeo itself was founded, Rodeo Valley had long served as a center for an annual cattle "round-up".

In Spanish, the word rodear means "to wrap up, to encircle, to encompass". Hence, its derivative, rodeo came to mean a "round up" of cattle. In Rodeo Valley, this round up occurred each year in March, when cattle were gathered from a 50-mile area and then sorted, branded, and traded or sold (work that would easily last a week or more). Big years might see 300 or more people gathering for a rodeo, and upwards of 30,000 head of cattle rounded up.

In addition to being a huge economic event for ranchers, such roundups also became an important social event as well. The rodeo, in fact, became a great annual fiesta, a wonderful gala at which the rancheros and their ladies celebrated and reveled in the fruits of their labors.

Prior to John and Patrick Tormey entering on the scene, and long before California became a state, Rodeo Valley, Contra Costa County and the surrounding areas were in the hands of the prominent Martinez family, who received their large properties by way of the Mexican Land Grants of the 1820s. (In 1823, Don Ignacio Martinez [1774-1848], commandant of the Presidio of San Francisco, applied for and received a land grant of over 17,000 acres from the Mexican government.) The vast Martinez estate, which has been referred to as the Pinole Grant or Rancho El Pinole (as it was called by Don Martinez himself), extended over land that today includes most of the Franklin Ridge, Pinole, Rodeo, Hercules, Oleum, Tormey, Selby, Crockett and Martinez (though most of those townships and names did not exist originally, of course). Cattle roamed freely over the ranch, across unfenced hills and valleys that ran for miles; and it was primarily Don Martinez's herd that was the focus of the annual round up in Rodeo.

A line drawing by an unknown artist showing part of John Tormey's ranch
and farm in Contra Costa County, California, as appeared in "Illustrations
of Contra Costa County, California", Smith & Elliott, 1952.


A photo of the Vicente Martinez Adobe, Pleasant Hill and Franklin
Canyon Roads,
Martinez, Costa Contra County. (Vicente Martinez was
a son of Don Ignacio Martinez.) The man in the foreground is a
Dr. John R. Strentzel (unrelated to the topic of this article). While this
is a later photo, taken in 1885, it does give some flavor for how
ranch/farm estates of the period looked. (The adobe and adjacent
structures were noted to have originally been constructed by Martinez
in 1848.)

Photographer unknown. Source: U.S. Library of Congress,
Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Panoramic Photographs. Call Number: HABS CAL,7-MART,2-1. Digital ID:


Don Ignacio Martinez passed away in 1848, and his eleven children inherited his large properties. Seventeen years later, in 1865, John Tormey, by then a successful rancher in Napa to the north, moved to Contra Costa and purchased from some of the Martinez heirs a 2,000-acre tract of the Pinole Grant. (Since 1853, John Tormey had owned an interest in a large ranch in Suscol, Napa County, jointly with his brother-in-law and one other individual. He continued to retain this interest after moving to Contra Costa.)

(As an aside... Interestingly, Contra Costa had become a popular destination for Irish-born immigrants. According to the 1860 census, in fact, Irish-born immigrants made up 20 percent of the foreign born population in the county, clearly the largest ethnic group.)

Two yeas later, in 1867, John Tormey and his younger brother Patrick (John was Patrick's senior by 15 years) pooled their funds and together purchased an additional 7,000 acres from the Martinez heirs.

After successfully acquiring the new, larger tract from the Martinez family, the Tormey brothers divided their 7,000-acre purchase into two portions. It was decided that John Tormey's share would be the western half, which encompassed Pinole (including the original adobe hacienda of the Martinez family in Pinole Valley) and additional parts of the Pinole and Briones Valleys. Patrick Tormey's share to the north and east included the Rodeo Valley and what would eventually become the towns of Rodeo, Oleum, Selby and Tormey. (The town of Tormey was given its name in honor of Patrick Tormey by the San Pablo & Tulare Railroad, which built a railroad station on the site to serve growing transportation needs of the area. Over time, a small town developed around the station. By the late twentieth century, industry had abandoned the town, resulting in its ultimate demise. Today, it it mostly vacant land.)


Close-up map showing Rodeo in relation to nearby communities.


Life in Contra Costa was good to the Tormey brothers. Grain farming and cattle ranching, in particular, flourished throughout the 1870s, helping John and Patrick Tormey both amass enviable fortunes. Soon among the wealthiest in the county, they each constructed elegant mansions, said at the time to be among the most pretentious homes on their side of the bay from San Francisco. Their personalities, however, were anything but pretentious; and John and Patrick Tormey were greatly admired and respected by their Contra Costa neighbors for their generosity and friendliness. It was said of John Tormey, for example, that he was "a man of generous, noble, kind and liberal instincts, a spirit which was displayed on many occasions, not only in assisting his own relatives, but others not of his kin." (*1) And of Patrick Tormey it was written, "To know Mr. Tormey is to appreciate his manly worth. The excellence of his life, his unswerving rectitude of purpose, and undeviating honesty, all go to make up a man to be trusted and honored -- as indeed he is." (*2)

It is no surprise, then, that both John and Patrick Tormey entered lives of public leadership with such ease. In the fall of 1866, John Tormey was elected to the Board of Supervisors of Contra Costa County (representing Township 1, which at the time included the Richmond, San Pablo, Rodeo and Pinole areas). A popular board member, he was re-elected to five consecutive terms before his sudden demise on July 21, 1877, at the young age of 52. (This researcher has not yet found a reference to his cause of death.) That same year, 1877, Patrick Tormey easily won his deceased brother's vacant supervisorial seat. Following in the tradition of his brother, period articles note him to have been one of the most active members of the board. (*1) Earning the respect and approval of his constituents, like his brother, Patrick Tormey was handily re-elected to the board nine times before stepping down in the mid 1890s to focus his attention on business interests.


A line drawing of Patrick Tormey, by E. Wyttenbah,
as appeared in "Biographical Sketches",
W.A. Slocum & Co., San Francisco, CA, 1892.
(Patrick Tormey would have been 52-years old at the time.)


While it is unclear what may have inspired Patrick Tormey to embark on new business ventures, it is clear that, at some point, he became dissatisfied with simply being a successful rancher and farmer.

At some point, prior to 1890, he became involved with the Union Stockyard Co. of San Francisco. The exact details are unknown, but it appears that Patrick Tormey was a large shareholder in the corporation and one source notes him to have been appointed president of the firm.

In partnership with the Union Stockyard Co., by 1890, Patrick Tormey embarked on a plan of aggressive growth and development for his large corner of Contra Costa -- focusing his efforts on Rodeo. He sold a large tract of Rodeo property to the firm and immediately set out building stockyards, a slaughterhouse and large meat packing plants which he leased to two different meat packing and canning concerns. So convinced was he in the prospects of his new venture (he truly envisioned Rodeo becoming the meat packing and canning center of the Pacific coast), that he continued to invest large sums in development in and around the new stockyard facilities. He hired engineers to lay out a neat, functional town (effectively, the birth of the town of Rodeo), had streets plowed and graded and lots prepared to be sold (lots for homesites as well as businesses).

During roughly the same period, Patrick Tormey also sold off other pieces of his Pinole Grant properties. He sold a tract of land near Oleum to the California Lumber Co. for a lumberyard. (The lumber company later sold the property to Union Oil for a refinery site.) He also sold a tract in Selby to the Selby Smelting & Lead Co. (which later became a part of the American Smelting and Refinery Co., also known as ASARCO). It is assumed that Patrick Tormey used proceeds from these large sales to fund investments in his massive Rodeo construction, but there is no evidence to support that assumption. In any case, it is known that Patrick Tormey did expend large amounts of cash to develop Rodeo.

In addition to engineering costs and the costs of grading streets and lots, he personally funded the construction of the packing plants, corrals and a hotel, which he aptly named the Rodeo Hotel. (A historical newspaper account noted that the Rodeo Hotel "opened with a fanfare which, for its time, rivaled the openings which made Hollywood famous." (*3) Given the enthusiasm buzzing through the Bay Area about Rodeo, the hotel was always full, early on, as the town flooded with interested investors, buyers interested in homesites and prospective employees for the stockyard and meat packing operations (Patrick Tormey initially anticipated that 500-600 workers would be needed).

Patrick Tormey was convinced that a very bright future lay in store for his newly developed Rodeo -- so much so that he convinced friends and associates to invest in his vision as well. His own ranch foreman, Jerry Mahoney, was one such individual. Having overseen the plowing and grading of newly engineered streets, Mahoney believed strongly in the prospects of the town. He bought some of the first lots sold and, in 1892, built a quickly profitable saloon, which he named the Rodeo Exchange. In the same year, a Mr. Hawley built the town's first merchandise store. (This store, interestingly, was later sold in 1902 to Patrick Edward Tormey and Mary Trainer Tormey. This researcher has not been able to determine their exact relationship to John and Patrick Tormey of this article.) Patrick Tormey is noted, too, to have persuaded an Ernest Heyman to start a newspaper, The Rodeo Daily News, for the benefit of the plant and town. He loaned Heyman $5,000 (equivalent to approximately $110,000 in today's dollars) to fund the endeavor.

All seemed perfect in Rodeo -- that is, until the economy took a serious turn for the worse, beginning with the "Panic of 1893" (the worst financial crisis to hit the United States in its history to that point). Stock and commodities markets collapsed (including wheat -- a major crop on Tormey's farms). Land values dropped. Banks and investors called in loans at every opportunity. Across the nation, in total, over 15,000 companies and 500 banks failed (many in the west); and unemployment rates soared to nearly 20%. Timing could not have been worse for Rodeo or Patrick Tormey.

With the sharp economic downturn, the two packers who had leased plant space from Patrick Tormey dropped their leases. Business came to a complete stop. Patrick Tormey was left alone to cover his plants' debts and scrambled to raise funds from anywhere he could -- selling off assets and calling in debts. (One account notes, for example, that he sued Ernest Heyman for the $5,000 he loaned him to start the Rodeo newspaper -- the paper having already folded after just two months of publication.)

In 1894, in a last ditch effort to keep his dream afloat, Patrick Tormey mortgaged what was left of his vast land holdings. He raised enough cash to service debt and fund diminished operations for another year; but, alas, it was not enough. By 1895, even the large Union Stockyard Co. failed -- being declared insolvent in bankruptcy court. This last blow was all that Patrick Tormey could withstand. Most of his properties were sold off at auction to cover mortgages and he was plagued with suits over the failed Union Stockyard Co. for the remainder of his life.

While Patrick Tormey's personal fortune wasn't able to weather the economic storm that began with the Panic of 1893, his newly created town of Rodeo was able to survive intact, at least for a time. Despite the loss of jobs at the Union Stockyard and meat packing facilities, many Rodeo residents were able to find work in other nearby towns -- some commuting as far away as the C. & H. Sugar Co. in Crockett and Vallejo's Mare Island Navy Yard. Closer to home, were the Hercules Powder Co. in Hercules, the Selby Smelting & Lead Co. in Selby and the Union Oil Co. in Oleum.

Also surviving the economic collapse that dealt him such a personal blow were Patrick Tormey's reputation and public following. His strength of character throughout tough economic times, his uprightness to cover debts and his unbending ethics earned him great respect from all around him. The people of Contra Costa elected him in 1898 to his old seat on the Board of Supervisors and continued to re-elect him again and again. (In total, he served 26 years on the board, including his initial terms as supervisor, which began in 1877.)

Alas, however, not every story ends on a happy note; and life was never promised to be fair. By the time Rodeo had gotten back on its feet following the difficult 1890s, it was hit devastatingly hard by the Earthquake of 1906 (also referred by some historians as the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906), which occurred at 5:16 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 1906. Most of Rodeo was completely leveled, including all of the then long vacant buildings of the Union Stockyard Co. and Patrick Tormey's meat packing plants.


As an aside... Rodeo being so small compared to nearby San Francisco, there is little first hand documentation available to help understand the magnitude and horror of the 1906 quake, as it relates to Rodeo. Numerous photos and personal accounts do exist, however, that describe the events from the perspective of San Francisco. Following are some links that visitors to this site will find very useful and informative:


In the eyes of some, the destruction of Rodeo marked the end of an era. For others, however, it marked the beginning of a new era, as the town was quickly rebuilt and nearby industry continued to grow.

In any case, for Patrick Tormey personally, the quake marked a poignant conclusion to years of work and a dream long faded. Not only did he lose the bulk of his real estate holdings in the financial crisis of the 1890s, but his vacant and then bankrupt industrial properties were completely destroyed in the earthquake as well. Perhaps most dramatic, if not painful, of all for Patrick Tormey was seeing the bricks of his felled Union Stockyard buildings gathered up and carted away to be sold for construction projects in other cities.

And sadly, Patrick Tormey himself met his own demise barely a year later, on May 7, 1907, at the age of 67. A week earlier, he had unwittingly eaten a piece of tainted corned beef in an Oakland restaurant and slowly succumbed to the grip of a nasty food poisoning.

The highly regarded man he was, Patrick Tormey's funeral procession (which took place in Martinez on May 10, 1907) was one of the biggest ever seen in Contra Costa. Every business in Martinez closed for the day and the procession itself extended over five blocks in length. Following is an account of the funeral from author Nilda Rego's popular Days Gone By series, date unknown, (which was a regular feature of the Contra Costa Times):


County officials led the procession. A horse-drawn wagon carrying an empty chair sat in a field of green. The word "Vacant" was draped over the front and "Gone but not forgotten" on the back. It was the floral remembrance from the county.

After the wagon came a long line of men, women and children, many of them carrying bouquets to put on Tormey's grave in St. Catherine's Cemetery on the hill overlooking the Carquinez Strait.

Eight Rodeo school girls dressed in white with mourning badges of black crepe on their sides walked in front of the horse-drawn hearse. (Tormey was a trustee of the Rodeo school.) (*4)

With the passing of Patrick Tormey, a dramatic era of pioneer Tormey history in California died as well. Yes, the legacies of John and Patrick Tormey live on, in the thriving Rodeo and other Contra Costa communities that were once a part of their vast estates, but until recently, their dramatic personal histories were largely forgotten. A goal of this website is to bring these histories back to life -- in particular, for the many descendants of John and Patrick Tormey who surely still live in the California area.


Goals of Future Research

(Anyone with information that may help answer these questions or locate
missing data, documents, photos, etc., is kindly asked to please contact Michael Tormey.)


  1. Determine whether John and Patrick Tormey (of the "Red Tormeys") were truly related to Jeremiah Tormey (of the "Black Tormeys"). (If they were indeed brothers, it would tie a larger group of California Tormeys to the same family tree and make it easier to connect the dots to prior generations in Ireland.)

  2. Research and post to this website a detailed family tree of descendants of John and Patrick Tormey (and Jeremiah Tormey, if indeed they were brothers), with the goal of uniting now distant branches of the extended family.

  3. Research the details of John Tormey's estate to determine whether he left his Pinole Grant land holdings to his wife and children or whether he left them to his brother Patrick, with whom he originally purchased them.

  4. Obtain photographs of John and Patrick Tormey, their families, their homes and their ranchlands.

  5. Obtain photographs and details of John and Patrick Tormey's grave sites.

  6. Obtain photographs of Rodeo showing how the town appeared before the Earthquake of 1906. Likewise, locate photographs and personal accounts describing the damage the earthquake caused in Rodeo.




(*1) History of Contra Costa County: Biographical Sketches (W. A. Slocum & Co., San Francisco, California, 1882 / republished by Brooks Sterling Co., Oakland, California, 1974), page 682. [Obtained and provided by Tormey genealogist and California Tormey descendent Vicki Lee Koc, of Alamo, California.]

(*2) History of Contra Costa County: Biographical Sketches (W. A. Slocum & Co., San Francisco, California, 1882 / republished by Brooks Sterling Co., Oakland, California, 1974), page 683. [Obtained and provided by Tormey genealogist and California Tormey descendent Vicki Lee Koc, of Alamo, California.]

(*3) Braue, Fred, Big Roundup (originally published in a Concord, California newspaper, c. 1959). [Clipping provided by Tormey genealogist and California Tormey descendent Edward N. Tormey.]

(*4) Rego, Nilda Respected, Wealthy Supervisor Tormey Had Voter Support: Irish-born County Pioneer Lost San Pablo Bay Land in '93 Panic (one of a series of weekly newspaper articles titled, Days Gone By, as appeared in the Sunday editions of the Contra Costa Times, original publication date unknown. [Obtained and provided by Tormey genealogist and California Tormey descendent Vicki Lee Koc, of Alamo, California.]

Related Links of Interest...




The California Tormeys


Their's is a dramatic story, not unlike many immigrants who proceeded or followed them -- full of success and failures, happiness and sadness, riches made and riches lost...

» Read more





John and Patrick Tormey


Brothers who emigrated from Ireland in the mid 1800s, they became California pioneers, traveling westward to California by covered wagon across the western plains...

» Read more





The Rise and Fall of Tormey, California


Lost to the annals of history is the small town of Tormey that, until 1971, thrived in the upper northwest corner of Contra Costa County, about 28 miles outside of San Francisco...

» Read more





City Directory Records of CA Tormeys


Information on Tormeys listed in San Francisco city directories for the period of 1861-1921...

» Read more








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