Lafayette projects its distinctiveness in many ways: diverse topography, small town atmosphere, access to a variety of recreational activities and established neighborhoods. Throughout the community from downtown districts to hidden valleys, there is an obvious emphasis on preservation of the natural surroundings. There is an emphasis on maintaining a well-balanced distribution of services and products as witnessed in the town's huge variety of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and specialty stores. There is a tangible emphasis on community as seen in the services, activities and associations that support and define Lafayette's exceptional texture.
The history of Lafayette dates back to the mid-1800s. Elam Brown, one of the first Yankee settlers in Contra Costa County, led a fourteen family wagon train through the Donner Pass just days before the ill-fated Donner party. When he arrived in 1847, Brown bought a 3,329-acre Mexican land grant called Rancho Acalanus, which is now almost all of present day Lafayette. He built his first of three homes in February of 1848, making it the first community in central Contra Costa County.
Brown and his neighbor Nathaniel Jones became farmers. Tired of the 7-10 day trip to San Jose to the nearest mill, Brown built his own horse-drawn grist mill. With business going well, Brown decided to build a steam powered mill on Lafayette Creek near First street. Once that mill was built, the commercial center of Lafayette began to grow at the present day intersection of Mt. Diablo Boulevard and Moraga Road. These first businesses were a blacksmith's shop, a bar, a general store and rooming houses.
During the 1850s, redwood lumber, harvested in Canyon and Moraga, was hauled to Martinez for shipment to San Francisco. Lafayette became the ideal spot for people to rest, eat, drink, and repair their wagons during this long trip.
Benjamin Shreve came to Lafayette after failing to make a fortune in the Gold Rush. He built and ran Lafayette's first school. In 1857 Shreve became postmaster of the town and he decided to give it a name. It was previously called Acalanus, a different spelling of the land grant, but the town wanted an identity of its own. Previously assumed names were Dog Town, Brown's Corner, Brown's Mill, Acalanus, and Centerville. He requested the name Centerville, but it was rejected because there was another Centerville in the state. So he used his second choice, La Fayette. In 1932, it was changed to today's spelling, "Lafayette". The most historic event that occurred in Lafayette was in the early 1860's when the Pony Express rode through town stopping to get a fresh horse at what is now the intersection of Moraga Road and Mt. Diablo Blvd. It remained a quiet farming village until the post-World War II building boom when many houses were built.
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