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.

Chapter 2


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 past.


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 laborers.


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 Spanish settlements.

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 San Francisco.

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.


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 end.

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 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 era.

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 the cemetery.


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.

San Gregorio

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 Chute.

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.


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

Post-War Development

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 Slide.

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
This material provided by [email protected] (june morrall)