Old City Hall Martinez

Twins for 40 Years! Dunbar & Martinez.

Dunbar-Martinez Sister City 30th Anniversary, April 2011

(updated April 2021 by Will Collin for 40th Anniversary)


Visitors coming in to Dunbar by road learn that Dunbar is twinned with Martinez, California, and Lignières in France. The Californian connection predates that with Lignières by 13 years for Dunbar and Martinez have been ‘sister cities’ since 1981.  It is one of only a few partnerships linking the United States and Scotland.  However the connection between the two, over 5,000 miles apart, goes back another hundred years.  Needless to say the association is due to links with John Muir.

John was born on 21 April 1838 at 126/8 High Street, Dunbar, where his father Daniel ran a dry goods store, a ‘Dunbar trader’. John moved to California at the age of 30 and married Louie Strentzel, the daughter of a Martinez fruit farmer, in 1880. From then until his death that town was his home base. By the time of his only return visit to Dunbar, in 1893, two sisters, a brother and their families had joined him from the Muir’s original settling place near Portage in Wisconsin.

When he went back to Martinez, John corresponded with a number of Dunbar folk and annually sent a sum of money to a cousin to be used for the poor in the town.  However his death in 1914 brought an end to these links and through time he was virtually forgotten in the town and county of his birth.

In the 1960s, a visit by a Californian couple, Muir bibliographers Bill and Maymie Kimes, led to a plaque being placed on the wall of his birthplace at 126 High Street. Then in the 1970s East Lothian’s county planning officer Frank Tindall visited California and discovered Muir for himself.  On his return, he persuaded the county to create a small museum in the house at 126/8 High Street.

It was while a dialogue regarding the setting up of that museum was being conducted between East Lothian’s council and Martinez that a twinning link between the two towns was suggested. Dunbar’s John Muir Museum was opened in 1981 and on 18 April of the same year Martinez mayor Eric Schaefer publicly proclaimed Martinez and Dunbar ‘sister cities’.

Martinez, California

Martinez, with a population of just over 35,800 (2010 census), is the county seat of Contra Costa county which lies on the north of the San Francisco Bay Area:

  • The area was colonized by the Spanish in the 18th century, hence the Spanish place names – Contra Costa means ‘opposite shore’, Martinez is ‘son of Martin’;
  • The county has an area of 802 sq mls, nearly four times that of East Lothian (206 sq mls);
  • It has a population of just over 1 million; East Lothian’s is around 106,000;
  • The county employs almost 10,000 Martinez residents.

Martinez is about

  • 30 miles from San Francisco, which has a population of around 875,000;
  • 20 miles from Oakland (425,000);
  • 65 miles from the California state capital Sacramento (501,000);
  • 200 miles from Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada, the ‘snowy range’.

Martinez is a retail centre and transportation hub.  Rail lines from San Francisco pass through Martinez before heading north to Sacramento and beyond, or south to Los Angeles – over 40 Amtrak trains use Martinez station daily.  A 4-lane freeway, California 4/John Muir Parkway, links the Bay Area to the Central Valley and beyond.

Other than ‘the county’, Martinez’s major employers are a Shell oil refinery with around 750 employees and Kaiser Permanente, the USA’s largest managed care organization, with around 720.  Many Martinez residents commute to work, particularly in Oakland and San Francisco.

Among the leisure pursuits are:

  • sailing (there is a marina and harbour),
  • golf (two 18-hole courses nearby and a 9-hole course within the ‘city’),
  • walking (a network of walks including those in Martinez Regional Shoreline park)
  • and bocce, a game with the same roots as bowls, but more like petanque.

 Another famous resident was Joe DiMaggio, baseball star and husband of Marilyn Monroe.  He was born on 25 Nov 1914.  His father, an Italian immigrant, was a fisherman.

 Twinning links

In the years since 1981, connections between the towns have been fairly tenuous, although initially there were individual senior student exchanges between Dunbar Grammar School and Alhambra High School, Martinez, and a group from the Martinez Senior Citizen Center visited Dunbar in 2001.

With the re-opening of John Muir’s Birthplace in 2003, the Muir-inspired links increased.  Visitors to Martinez have included ELC’s Chief Executive Alan Blackie, Director of Education Don Ledingham, Cultural Services Manager Margaret O’Connor and Liz McLean, Head of Property Management. Among incoming visitors have been the Superintendent of the JM Historic Site, Martha Lee; Garrett Burke, designer of the California quarter; and at least two former presidents of the US’s Sierra Club which boasts a membership of 1.3 million.

Recently there has been a considerable increase.

  • In 2004, Dunbar Grammar School began its biennial visits to California, through which over 100 senior students and 20 adults have spent time in Martinez with local families.  The last visit, to be in June 2020, was cancelled because of the corona virus pandemic.
  • In 2007 Birthplace staff member Pauline Smeed spent a month working at the JM House in Martinez.
  • In 2008 Birthplace manager Jo Moulin travelled to Martinez to receive a John Muir Conservation Award on behalf of the Birthplace.
  • In 2009 ELC leader Paul McLennan and family visited Martinez while on a holiday in California.

Benefits for Dunbar

However, the twinning is a civic link, not simply a John Muir one.  There are benefits for many areas of our two towns and surrounding districts, primarily in education, cultural exchanges and tourism. Looking at Tourism:

  • The number of US visitors to Scotland increased from 340,000 in 2008 to 566,000 in 2017;
  • They contributed £556m (18% of visitor spend that year) to the Scottish economy;
  • At the Birthplace, the 9,000 visitors of 2008 increased to 12,500 in 2009 and held up in 2010, although Scotland experienced a fall in numbers;
  • Apart from the UK, the US is the prime source of visitors to the Birthplace (around 20% of all adults);
  • California provides around 20% of these and a significant number come from Martinez, most because of the John Muir link.

Comparisons between Dunbar and Martinez

As well as the similarities mentioned earlier, the two towns have

  1. councils,
  2. schools (each has 1 high school and 5 primary schools),
  3. churches (Martinez churches include Episcopalian, Baptist, Catholic and Methodist),
  4. Dunbar Trades Association and Martinez Chamber of Commerce,
  5. history societies,
  6. senior citizen organisations,
  7. golf clubs,
  8. masonic lodges,
  9. harbours, harbour master and sailing clubs,

and others.