Coastside Cultural Resources of San Mateo County
An Approach to Developing A Protection Program for the San Mateo County Coastal Zone.
Prepared by the Department of Environmental Management, Planning Division, San Mateo County, Redwood City, California. September 1980.
This project is supported by a grant from the National Endowment For The Arts, Washington, D.C. a Federal agency.
DEVELOPMENTAL HISTORY OF THE SAN MATEO COASTSIDE
The San Mateo Coastisde has a rich history. Its early inhabitants--the
Costanos Indians, Spanish explorers, early Mexican and Anglo settlers,
Yankee immigrants of the gold-rush days, loggers, farmers, ranchers,
dairymen, and fishermen--all left historic, architectural, and
archaeological remains which remind us of the conditions and life styles of
The earliest inhabitants of the San Francisco Peninsula were American
Indians who predated the first European explorers by thousands of years. It
is estimated that Indians have lived in the area for at least 3,000 years;
however, we have little knowledge of these first settlers. The earliest
Coastside inhabitants, of which we have knowledge, were Indians which the
Spanish called Costanos, meaning "Coast People."
The Costanos lived in an area which extended southward from the Golden Gate
to Monterey and Soledad, and eastward to the Diablo Range in the East Bay.
According to estimates by anthropologists, over 7,000 Costanos may have
lived in this territory at the time the first European explorers arrived.
Nature on the California Coast, particularly in the Bay Area, was kind of
these early inhabitants. A mild climate required only a minimum of shelter
and created no season of scarcity for which people must prepare in order to
survive. This resulted in an easy life style of which there are few
tangible reminders of a culture that survived for so long.
The Costanos were among the first Indians in California to feel the impact
of the European arrival and lose their cultural identity. Seven missions
were established in their territory, at which their life styles and native
culture were discouraged and soon forgotten under the strict rule of the
Spanish padres. After the missions were abolished, there followed a
whole-sale granting of land to private owners who used the natives as
DISCOVERY AND EARLY EXPLORATION
European explorers had sailed past and charted the San Mateo Coast since
the middle of the 16th century. Among the first European place names in
California were two along the San Mateo Coast: Pillar Point, charted by the
Spanish mariner Francisco de Gali in 1585 and Punta del Ano Nuevo, mapped
and named by Sebastian Vizcaino on New Year's day in 1603. Early explorers,
including Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and Sir Francis Dranke, all sailed by
without landing because of the turbulent coastline with its offshore reefs
and fog. It was over 165 years before Europeans actually set foot in what
is now San Mateo County.
In search of Monterey Bay, in October, 1769, the expedition of Captain
Gaspar de Portola first entered the southern end of the County, along the
beach at the base of Chalk Mountain. The land partly had unknowing bypassed
Monterey Bay. They traveled northward until they were stopped by the great
estuary which we know today as San Francisco Bay. The significance of their
discovery, one of the greatest harbors in the world, failed to register
with Portola and his expedition. To them, it was an obstacle which
prevented the party from traveling northward to find Monterey. Discouraged,
they returned to San Diego from where they had started.
The following year, in 1770, Portola once more set out to locate Monterey
Bay; this time he was successful in identifying it. With the establishment
of a presidio and mission at Monterey, it became the captial of Alta
California and a base for further expeditions to locate and establish other
In 1774, Captain Fernando Rivera, who had been a member of the Portola
expedition, explored the San Francisco Peninsula with a small party. His
reports convinced the heads of state in Mexico that the tip of the
Peninsula was undoubtedly the place to establish a presidio and mission.
The Spanish authorities in Mexico, concerned about rumored British and
Russian interest in California, decided to establish a fort and mission to
hold San Francisco Bay and to christianize the local Indians. Two years
later, in l1776, a large party set out from Sonora, Mexico under the
command of Juan Bautista de Anza to establish a settlement at what today is
On June 27, 1776, the party made camp at the chosen site for the mission.
The following day, just five days before the Continental Congress formally
adopted the Declaration of Independence 3,000 miles away in Philadelphia,
the first Mass was celebrated by the colony at Laguna de los Dolores. This
represented the beginning of European development and the start of the
Spanish-Mexican Era in the Bay Area.
THE SPANISH-MEXICAN ERA
Suitable as it was for military defense, the new settlement at San
Francisco lacked construction materials and warm weather for the growing of
crops. Looking southward, the Spanish were attracted to the San Mateo
Coastside with its warmer valleys and abundance of natural resources.
For the construction of needed buildings, logs from the Santa Cruz
Mountains were hauled by oxen to the mission and presidio sites. Limestone
ws also hauled from a quarry at Calera (presently Rockaway Beach in
Pacifica) for foundations, trims, and facing of the more important
structures at the mission and presidio in San Francisco.
Because the principal purpose of the San Francisco Mission was to convert
the Indians to Christianity, the Spanish fathers lost little time in
visiting the nearby villages with gifts of trinkets and food in an effort
to spread friendship and religion. The padres's glowing accounts of life in
the mission with the luxury of better food (served on a regular basis),
warm clothing, and better housing brought many converts into the fold.
With the increased population to feed, Mission Outposts were established to
help provide the additional food required. The first of these outposts was
established in 1785 in the San Pedro Valley, now a part of Pacifica, where
earlier Portola had camped prior to climbing Sweeney Ridge to first view
San Francisco Bay. The fertile valley produced crops so well that soon all
the Mission's plantings were transferred there.
Herds of both mission and presidio cattle were kept on the Coastside,
roaming over the grasslands of the coastal terrace. At round-up time, this
stock were herded into corrals near Miramar and then driven the hazardous
route over the mountains to San Francisco.
The control of the Spanish and the missions over the Indians and land was
relatively short. The harsh, disciplined life of the mission was not
compatible with the life style of the native Americans, and many escaped to
live deep in the mountains away from the ever watchful eye of the padres.
The Europeans also brought with them diseases to which the Indians had no
immunity. Severe epidemics of the measles and syphilis, among others,
drastically reduced the Indian population at the missions. In 1821, Mexico
won her independence from Spain, and Spanish rule in California came to an
Under Spanish rule, the ownership of land was vested in the Crown and there
were no private holdings. With the establishment of Mexican rule, the
pattern of land ownership changed. Vast tracts of land were given to
settlers from Mexico and to important men who had aided in the revolution.
The best property was divided into ranchos. This began the era of Mexican
Ranchos, when vast tracts of land in private ownership were devoted
primarily to the raising of cattle.
Life for the rancheros was not arduous. Cattle raising, which provided
food, hides and tallow for export, as well as for local use, dominated the
economy. The cattle, always identifiable by their brands, ranged freely
with little or no watching. Usually a little wheat, beans, and corn were
grown for home consumption, but cultivation was kept at a minimum.
For a brief decade, the ranchos flourished, but signs of their coming
demise increased as the number of foreigners--especially Yankees--appeared
on the scene. The outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846 signaled the
beginning of the end, and by the time gold was discovered in 1849, the
American occupation and control of California were complete.
THE AMERICAN ERA--THE BEGINNING OF COASTSIDE DEVELOPMENT
The trickle of Yankees who came to California prior to its acquisition by
the United States increased to a mighty flood when gold was discovered in
1849. They initially headed for the mines, but by 1851, many were seeking
land for settlement. By 1855, gold-mining had definitely declined and more
people were turning to agriculture. San Mateo County, close to the center
of the Gold Rush activity, felt the impact sooner and more violently than
other parts of the state.
Land Ownership Disputes
The ranchero's lands were often occupied by squatters who had little or no
respect for Mexican ownership. Also, under U.S. laws, the burden of proof
was on the one who claimed ownership. This automatically saddled everyone
who owned land in California with the heavy burden of litigation. As the
rancho boundaries were poorly described by "hills, creeks, trees, or
protruding rocks," each case had to be fought in the courts. The rancheros,
land-rich but money-poor, were caught in a fatal trap, between the U.S.
Government and unscrupulous lawyers and money lenders who were out to take
advantage of those who could not defend themselves. In the end, after years
of litigation, many rancheros lost most or all of their land to these
newcomers under a legal system which was alien to their life style and
culture. Not only was grave injustice done to the rancheros, but the long
uncertainity of land titles became a serious obstacle to growth in the new
Establishment of Towns
During the Mexican War, many Spanish-speaking families had moved from San
Francisco to the Coastside for refuge and seclusion from hostile Americans.
There, at what today is Half Moon Bay, they founded the first town in the
County, which was named San Benito. It was later dubbed Spanishtown by the
American settlers, a name that stuck for many years. So isolated was the
village that even the Gold Rush had no effect on it until 1853. At that
time, James Johnston, a member of one of the first American families on the
Coastside, undertook to build his home south of the village. His house was
the most lavish and luxurious in the area and was the center of social life
for the community. The Johnston House still stands today on a commanding
position overlooking the ocean.
Four miles south of Spanishtown, on a narrow strip of disputed land,
American squatters formed the village of Purisima. It was intended to rival
Spanishtown as a prosperous business center. In time, a thriving village
grew up on the site which showed great promise of becoming the economic
center of the Mid-Coast. In the 1880's some oil was discovered in the
vicinity and the town experienced a small boom. The high hopes of its
residents soon faded, however, as Spanishtown's superior location at the
cross roads attracted more peope. The once thriving town fell into
obscurity and all that remains today is the hull of the old schoolhouse and
Farther south in the Pescadero Valley, another American pioneer, Alexander
Moore, built his home in 1853. The rich, fertile soil of the valley had
attracted other settlers and in the 1860's a prosperous farming community
developed. Pescadero, which means fishing place in Spanish, is said to have
been named by Spanish settlers who noted that it was a favored fishing spot
for the local Indians. From the 1860's until the turn of the century, the
area around Pescadero was a favored summer resort for San Franciscans.
The broad San Gregorio Valley, north of Pescadero, was also a rich farming
region. Indications are that the name San Gregorio was first applied to the
valley when it was used as a sheep ranch by Mission Santa Cruz early in the
19th century. The samll village established at the head of the valley in
the early 1860's became a major agricultural center. Its hotel, built in
1865, served the new stagecoach trade between the coast and the Bayside.
Dairies and Lumbering
In the 1860's dairy ranching became a major enterprise in the San
Gregorio-Pescadero region. The biggest dairymen were the Steele Brothers,
who came from Marin County in 1862. They set up several dairies along the
South Coast and manufactured cheese and butter for export to San Francisco.
By 1860 logging also became important, the redwood forests on the east
sides of the County had been leveled and lumbermen moved to the Coastside.
Here stood great stands of magnificient trees which furnished a resource
for lumbermen into the 20th century.
Need for Transportation
With the forests producing lumber, the fertile soil growing an incredible
variety of produce, and milk and cheese coming from the herds of cattle
grazing on the coastal grasslands, the Coastsiders sought a better way to
get their products to market. Hemmed in by the mountains, with poor roads,
it was extremely difficult to get wagons over the surrounding ridge to the
Bayside and San Francisco. Many looked out over the water and envisioned
the ocean as their best chance. With no natural harbors to shelter ships, a
few enterprising individuals built long wharfs at which ocean going vessels
could dock. The best known of these were Waddell's Wharf at Ano Nuevo and
Ames Wharf at Amesport, now Miramar. At Tunitas Creek, Alexander Gordon
conceived the Coastside's most daring attempt to create a port. Here, he
built a chute from the tope of the cliff to the water below on which goods
could slide down to the waiting ships. The venture was not successful, and
today nothing remains but a few bolts in the rocks that supported Gordon's
Lighthouses were built along the Coast to improve the safety of ocean
transport. In 1853, the clipper ship Carrier Pigeon went aground off the
point that now bears her name. Boats were sent to salvage the cargo, for
there were not yet wagon roads. That same year, the first survey for a
lighthouse on the South Coast was undertaken by the U.S. Government. A
recommendation was made for a light station at Ano Nuevo but the lighthouse
was eventually constructed at Pigeon Point in 1872. A whistle was installed
at Ano Nuevo the same year. Ano Nuevo acquired a light in 1890. A steam
whistle was also placed at Point Montara in 1887, but was replaced in 1900
when a squat metal tower was constructed to house a light.
The need for better links to the outside has been a central theme of
Coastside history. In the 1860's and 70's, stage roads were built to
connect Redwood City and San Mateo on the Bayside with Half Moon Bay,
Purisima, San Gregorio and Pescadero. Completion of the San Francisco-San
Jose Railroad in 1863 was also a major event for Coastsiders. San Mateo and
Redwood City then became the main connections between the railroad and the
stage lines to the Coastside. Besides better communication and freight
service, the stage roads brought tourists to the South Coast to fish, camp,
and enjoy the beach and forests.
As transportation improved, people on the South Coast, which was then part
of Santa Cruz County, petitioned for annexation to San Mateo County because
of the lack of roads to the County seat at Santa Cruz. In 1868, the
legislature authorized annexation and San Mateo County's land area
increased nearly one fourth. But despite the annexation and new stage lines
to San Mateo and Redwood City, development languished. The Coastside
remained the center of farming, lumbering, dairy production and recreation
for the County. Only Half Moon Bay, Pescadero and San Gregorio survived
into the mid-20th century as viable towns.
COASTSIDE DEVELOPMENT SINCE 1900
Ocean Shore Railroad
The first years of the 20th century held great promise for the Coastside.
In 1905, the Ocean Shore Railroad Company began building a line down the
coast from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. For years, talk of a railroad along
the coast had stirred local hopes for increased development. Speculators
lost no time planning townsites with picturesque names like Vallemar, El
Granada and Rockaway Beach. The rails had reached Mussel Rock on the north
coast when the 1906 earthquake struck. Much of the line was obliterated and
construction equipment was carried into the ocean. The quake dealt a
staggering financial blow to the fledgling railroad and plans for the
railroad were scaled down. At the same time, however, land speculators
expected the quake and fire which destroyed San Francisco to produce a
boom. They envisioned an exodus from the city to the coast, with thousands
of persons building on the newly subdivided lots. To their disappointment,
San Francisco quickly rebuilt. Although many of the Coastside lots were
sold, few were developed.
By 1908, the Ocean Shore Railroad had tunneled through San Pedro Point, cut
a precarious route along Devil's Slide and extended beyond Half Moon Bay to
Tunitas Creek. It then ran out of funds. The 26-mile gap between Tunitas
and Davenport in Santa Cruz County was never closed and passengers had to
ride in touring cars between the two points. In spite of deep financial
troubles, the railroad survived until 1920 by hauling freight between
coastal towns and farms and San Francisco. But by 1920, the roads had been
improved and cars and trucks cut into business so deeply that the line was
forced out of business.
Prohibition and Bootlegging
The year the Ocean Shore Railroad folded, Prohibition began, bringing new
life to the coast. Restaurants, boarding houses, hotels and inns that had
been built to serve rail travelers adapted to the auto traffic along the
north part of the new coast road during the Prohibition years of the 20's
and 30's. Its isolation and remoteness made the coast an ideal spot for
rumrunning, speakeasies, bootleggers and moonshiners. Under cover of fog
and darkness, boats from Canada unloaded cargo at numerous points. Millions
of dollars of liquor were smuggled into thirsty San Francisco by cars and
vans or consumed in Coastside roadhouses catering to customers from San
Francisco and the Peninsula. Rumrunning and bootlegging became the County's
biggest business during the period, a business that was punctuated by a
number of shootouts between rumrunners and federal agents.
Following prohibition repeal in 1933, the effects of the Depression hit the
Coastside hard. The local economy was boosted somewhat with jobs and money
when the State undertook completion of the Coast Highway, much of which ran
along the old Ocean Shore Railroad route.
World War II
The attack on Pearl Harbor late in 1941 brought other changes to the
Coastside. The Army, Navy and Coast Guard moved in to prepare for a
possible Japanese invasion. They constructed gun emplacements,
communications posts, barracks, airstrips and other facilities. Some
existing buildings were taken over for military use. Soldiers and Coast
Guardsmen kept a 24-hour watch along the beaches. Coastsiders also felt the
impact of wartime measures because of the blackouts and housing shortages
resulting from the influx of defense workers from Bayside war industries
After the war, the north coast, because of its proximity to San Francisco,
exploded with development. New housing tracts spread rapidly over what had
been sand dunes, farm fields and grazing land. Artichokes, flowers and
dairy cattle disappeared. In their place rose rows of almost identical
houses. Ground which the San Andreas Fault had split open in 1906 was
graded and covered with homes, as were magnificent but unstable bluffs
overlooking the sea. A popular folksong of the period, "Little Boxes,"
described the changing character of the County's north coast. The land
hunger of the squatters of the 1850's was matched by that of the home
seekers and developers a century later.
The population of the area doubled and then doubled again the two decades
after 1940. Pacifica, which did not exist before the war, incorporated in
1957 as a collection of north coast subdivisions, and Half Moon Bay, the
County's oldest town, incorporated in 1959. Soon after, with the aid of
federal funds, the first real harbor on the San Mateo coast was completed
at nearby Princeton. The rapid post-war growth of Pacifica ended by the
late 1960's when available land disappeared. The absence of a cross-county
freeway helped prevent rapid development of the area south of Devil's
In the mid-1960's, Henry Doelger, a developer who had built many
subdivisions in San Fraancisco, Daly City and Pacifica, announced plans to
build a community for 30,000 people in the area north of Half Moon Bay.
Most of Doelger's plans never materialized, but they did draw attention to
the vacant townsites platted by the railroad promoters 50 years earlier. As
a result, other investors moved in during the 1970's and the pace of home
building north of Half Moom Bay accelerated, more than doubling the area's
population. However, the limited availability of water, sewers and other
facilities eventually slowed construction to a virtual halt.
During this same period, a strong environmental movement developed to
preserve the coast. A new Statewide awareness arose as people realized that
the rapid pace of post-war development had destroyed irreplaceable
resources. A State coastal conservation initiative was passed by California
voters in 1972 to establish measures to control further development of the
coast and retain for future generations much of its remaining beauty. The
1976 Coastal Act and the San Mateo County Local Coastal Program are the
result of that 1972 Initiative.
Chapter 3, Community Design & Architectural Styles
back to Chapter 1
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