San Mateo County History

Peninsula Ambulance Service
Published by permission of Michael Ratliff Lutz

As remembered by
Michael Ratliff Lutz


Peninsula Ambulance Service circa 1960
Ralph H Ratliff 1950s

Michael Ratliff Lutz Collection
From the Collections of Michael Ratliff Lutz, Donald Ratliff and Joanne Ratliff unless otherwise noted.

Ralph H. Ratliff and Nina Mardel Ratliff (Lutz) 1960

Most of the information in this document came from the records of my mother,
Nina Mardel Ratliff (Lutz) (Womer), sister of Ralph H. Ratliff.

Copyright © 2006


When I began researching my family’s history in Redwood City, California in the year 2004 I was certain that I would be able to find a lot of information about my uncle, Ralph H. Ratliff since his death in March of 1963 was front-page news in The Redwood City Tribune. To my surprise, he was nearly a forgotten man. The local historical societies only had a couple of old newspaper clippings. I only had the clippings and photos that my mother, Nina Mardel Ratliff (Lutz) (Womer), had saved in her scrapbook over the years to work with.  With the help of a few relatives I have been able to reconstruct the story of Ralph Ratliff and his Peninsula Ambulance Service.

Above are Ralph H. Ratliff and family about 1940.
Below is a 1948 Peninsula Ambulance ad.

Ratliff Enterprises as described in a 1961 Redwood City Tribune article:

Twelve women in three shifts work around the clock with their fingers virtually on the pulse of a vast segment of professional and business life. These women answer a monthly average of 38,000 telephone calls.

They are employees of Ratliff Enterprises, Inc a family owner corporation occupying its own two-story building at 1260 Marshall Street. Ratliff Enterprises operates the Redwood City Telephone Answering Service, which embraces the Sequoia District Physicians Exchange. It also operates the Peninsula Ambulance Service and the Peninsula Hospital Rental Service. Its ambulances respond to 500 calls monthly. The County of San Mateo subsidizes peninsula Ambulance Service.

Its rental service rents out anything needed for the care of patients in the home…such things as oxygen, refrigerated tents, wheel chairs, therapy lamps, traction equipment and beds.

The officers of the corporation are Ralph H. Ratliff, president: his wife Irene I. Ratliff: vice president their two sons and a daughter, K. Harold Ratliff and Ralph J. Ratliff, and Mrs. Virginia Collins, directors. Mrs. Ratliff manages the answering service with Mrs. Collins as the assistant manager. Harold is the manager and bookkeeper of the ambulance and rental divisions.

Mateo County uses a subsidy system with Peninsula Ambulance Service so they could discontinue their own emergency ambulance service. If the company couldn’t collect from individuals, the county would reimburse them $20 per call for all service ordered through police systems. Most calls came through the Sheriffs Office.

In 1960 Peninsula Ambulance received a subsidy of $18,000, a considerable savings compared to what it would have cost to operate their own system. Ambulance employees were taught advanced Red Cross first aide, basic obstetrics and oxygen therapy.

As to obstetrics, Ralph Ratliff personally delivered 10 babies while working shifts with his ambulance crews, three of these births occurred in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. It just happened that 10 mothers waited until the very last minute. Unlike in the storybooks, none of the babies were named after him.

The ambulance fees are $25 per call plus supplies used at the accident scene like splints and oxygen, and $12.50 if a second patient on a stretcher was involved. A third person with minor injuries could ride with the driver for free.

I was able to find reports of two of those baby deliveries in the San Mateo Times archives, one in La Honda on July 14, 1949, and another in the back of the ambulance on August 21 1957. It is true that neither baby was named Ralph after my uncle, but then again, they were both girls.

Oops, I nearly missed the boy he delivered on July 2, 1954. He wasn’t named Ralph either.

Recent generations probably don’t realize that emergency medical service used to be provided by private ambulance companies. Until the late 1970s when EMTs were stationed in firehouses, private ambulance services like Peninsula Ambulance Service and Harold Ratliff’s California Ambulance Service would respond to medical emergencies. Ambulance personnel received advanced first aide training from the American Red Cross. In fact, Ralph Ratliff was a first aide instructor for the Red Cross for several years.  The classes were taught at the Sequoia Chapter of the American Red Cross, 3540 Middlefield Road in Menlo Park. There were six, two-hour sessions taught in the evening, ending in a Red Cross certificate for those who passed the course.

I’m probably not the best person to tell the story of Peninsula Ambulance since my contact with this part of my family was rather inconsistent over the years. My mother was half owner of Home Creek Resort at Huntington lake in Fresno County so except for two years in 1951 and 1952 when we wintered over with Ralph Ratliff’s family in Redwood City, my contact was limited to a couple of weeks on vacation every year. In my senior high school year, 1962-63 we moved to Redwood City, but that was just a few months before my uncle died. There was a time when you couldn’t go anywhere in Redwood City without bumping into a member of the Ratliff family, but now it seems I’m the only one left. Fortunately, my mother saved numerous newspaper articles and photographs that should be helpful.

Ralph H. Ratliff was born in Tallula, Illinois on November 05, 1903 to George O. and Carrie Ratliff of Jacksonville, Illinois. The family, including his older brother Frank Jerry Ratliff, and younger sister and my mother, Nina Mardel Ratliff later moved to Los Angeles then to San Francisco in the 1920s. My grandfather, George O. Ratliff was in the real estate business but Ralph found working on cars more to his liking, so for several years he worked as an auto mechanic in San Francisco.

Prior to leaving Los Angeles, Ralph had a brief marriage to Mildred Hensley, and a son Ralph H. Ratliff Jr., born October 14, 1922. Ralph Jr. moved to San Francisco with the rest of the family and was cared for by my mother and grandmother until Ralph married Irene I. Haseltine of Redwood City in Palo Alto, California on May 8, 1925. Their first son, Kenneth “Harold” Ratliff was born November 04, 1925. They had two additional children, Ralph Junior Ratliff, born January 25, 1927 and Virginia Lois Ratliff, born May 21, 1928.

Irene Haseltine was a Redwood City girl, her emigrated to Redwood City from Wisconsin in the early 1900s. Ralph and Irene Ratliff continued to live in San Francisco until 1939 when, with financial assistance from his father George Ratliff, he opened the Peninsula Garage in Redwood City.

The first location of the Peninsula Garage was near Bayshore Highway, near Main and Bradford today. This section of Bayshore is now Veteran’s Blvd. The location near the highway made it easier for both the towing business and the ambulance business to respond quickly. When they moved to 432 Middlefield Rd. they were about the same distance from the highway as they were at Main and Bradford. There were no freeways then. The highways all had stoplights at major intersections. Bayshore Highway had only two lanes in each direction with no center divider. There were very few buildings along old Bayshore but there were a lot of billboards

Phone Book ad from the early 1940s

1948 phone book ad

Towing was a large part of the Peninsula Garage business. It was the towing business that got Ralph Ratliff started in the ambulance business. Ralph’s tow trucks were arriving at auto accident scenes long before the ambulance arrived. In 1944, Mickey Collins, then chief of police, asked my uncle to provide the community with some kind of ambulance service. Ralph purchased a used ambulance from a taxicab company, took first aide classes, and went into business. It’s not clear why a taxi company had an ambulance.

At first the Peninsula Garage and Peninsula Ambulance coexisted at the same address at 450 Main St., Redwood City. They also shared the same phone number for a while which probably caused some confusion, but there is no record of a tow truck responding to an ambulance call.

During the early 1940s the Ratliff family lived on Oxford Street in Redwood City. Oxford Street was pretty much out in the country then. There were very few other houses around.  Later they moved to a large white house at 432 Middlefield Rd. near the corner of old Bayshore Highway. That location is now a county parking lot. That house also served as the base for the ambulance service.

This article about my cousin Harold Ratliff’s wedding reception pretty much sums up the Ratliff family in Redwood City during World War 2. My mother was living with the Ratliff’s on Oxford Street then. My father was away in the army and I was just born a month before or so before the article was written so it was easier for her to live with relatives. I was at this reception but don’t remember much.

Ironically, I was born in San Francisco. My family was from San Francisco but by 1944 my grand parents had moved to Burlingame and my mother was living in Redwood City. They all decided to go to a fireworks display at Kezar stadium in 1944, and that’s when and where I was born.

Redwood City Tribune, August 1944:
A large wedding party and reception was held in honor of newly wedded Mr. and Mrs. Harold Kenneth Ratliff, the former Miss Virginia Alberta French of San Francisco, at the home of the groom’s grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Alva Haseltine of 479 Sequoia Ave. last week.

Because of Harold’s short leave from the navy, in which he is a seaman second class, the couple was married in Reno on Aug. 23. They met several years ago when Virginia visited her aunt, Mrs. Tom Kelly of Redwood City.

For her wedding the bride chose the navy colors of navy blue and white. She wore a navy blue suit with white accessories and a gardenia corsage.

Harold is the son of Mr. and Mrs. R.H. Ratliff of 1474 Oxford St.  He is the brother of Ralph and Virginia Ratliff who attend Sequoia High School and Ralph Harold Ratliff Jr. who is now in the U.S. Army at Camp Haan. Harold also attended Sequoia High School.

At the reception the table was decorated in blue and white centered with a tiered wedding cake topped with a miniature sailor and his bride. Many gifts were received by the newlyweds.

Attending the reception were Mr. and Mrs. George Ratliff, grandparents of the groom, Mrs. Nina Mardel Lutz, aunt, and son Michael Lutz; Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Keyser, aunt and uncle, and cousins, Bonnie, Phillip and Jimmie Keyser; Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Haseltine, aunt and uncle, and Neal and Dale Haseltine; Mrs. Jasper Haseltine, aunt, and Joanne and Freddie Haseltine, and Sgt. and Mrs. Herbert England, cousins, and daughter, Sharon Lee.

Also attending were Sgt. and Mrs. John Whittington, Mr. and Mrs. Tony Alvis and sons, Mr. Norman Peterson and Kenneth Peterson, USN.

Unable to attend were Mr. Jasper Haseltine, uncle, who is now overseas with the merchant marine, Sgt. Eddie Thoemke of the U.S. Army, and Mrs. Thoemke, uncle and aunt; and Sgt. Richard Lutz, uncle, who is currently stationed in Roswell, New Mexico.

This is my cousin Virginia (Ginny) Ratliff behind their home at 1474 Oxford St in Redwood City about in the late 1940s. That area behind her would be covered with houses by 1950.
Unfortunately, Harold Ratliff’s Marriage to Virginia French only lasted a couple of years. He later married Carol Sufczynski Dierks of Redwood City on March 26,1949.

Around 1948 the Ratliff family and the business moved to a new location at 432 Middlefield Road, now a parking lot for the San Mateo County Offices. The garage was sold and they purchased an answering service, Sequoia District Physicians Exchange.

Both the businesses and the family occupied the same large house. The answering service occupied what was a large living room. Fortunately the house must have had two living rooms, because there was another room of equal size with a connecting door. The upstairs served as quarters for the ambulance crews.

There was enough room in the house to accommodate my mother and me the winters of 1951 and 1952 during the off-season for my mother’s business, Home Creek Resort at Huntington Lake, CA. From November to March we lived in Redwood City. I attended Monroe School, and mom worked shifts at the answering service.

On October 08, 1949 my uncle Ralph was nearly killed in a three-car pile up on old Pacheco Pass. He was on his way to Home Creek Resort at Huntington Lake in Fresno County. The resort was co-owned by my mother, and uncle Frank “Jerry” Ratliff. Every fall the family gathered at the resort during deer season.  I can remember my uncle in what was nearly a full body cast lying in a hospital bed in the living room of that house on Middlefield.

Location of Peninsula Ambulance Service in 1955

Getting to Monroe School was an easy walk then because Bradford connected Middlefield Rd. and Allerton St. Ralph Junior Ratliff and his family lived at 730 Allerton diagonally across from Monroe School so they were available to point me in the right direction when I got lost my first day. In one of those little coincidences that happen now and then, my cousin’s landlady at 730 Allerton was Mrs. Mary Tesolin, the mother of Carmen Tesolin, my future wife, though I didn’t actually meet her until 1963. In 1955, my cousin Ralph Junior Ratliff and family lived in the old carriage house on property at 726-730 Allerton Street. It sat next to an old farmhouse also owned by Mary “Sironi” Tesolin, Carmen’s mother.

Both of Ralph Ratliff’s sons worked shifts for the ambulance service as well as working other jobs, so Ralph Jr. and Harold were always descending the stairs to raid the refrigerator. One of Harold’s sons, Kenny, also lived there. Ralph and Irene Ratliff assumed the responsibility of caring for Kenneth Ratliff after Harold’s divorce from his first wife Virginia. They continued to care for Kenny until he joined the Navy in 1965.

Kenny and I slept in the glassed in front porch of the house. I remember it being quite cold, especially since my aunt Irene insisted on an open window, even in mid winter. Something about the health benefits of fresh air. It was also noisy. The police radio was always on in the living room for some reason. I didn’t understand why the radio wasn’t upstairs with the ambulance guys. The house was also very close to Bayshore Highway, and there was a stop light at Middlefield and Bayshore.  Trucks that stopped at the light had to rev up their engines to get moving again. On the other side were the trains. The tracks were, a few blocks away, but the trains ran all night. I don’t think I got a lotta sleep.

In the late 1950s Harold and Ralph Junior Ratliff purchased the Flying “A” service station at the corner of Middlefield and Bayshore. Ralph Sr. helped with the financing.

In 1959 Ralph Junior Ratliff left the business and eventually moved his family to Oregon leaving Harold Ratliff the sole owner of the business.

In the late 1950s the County of San Mateo decided it needed the block that housed both Peninsula Ambulance Service and Ratliff’s Flying “A” so the Ambulance Business moved to a new location, and built a new building at 1260 Marshall St., and Harold Ratliff rejoined the Ambulance Company.  The building on Marshall is still there and currently occupied by Aloha Flowers (2005).

Before the Kaiser Medical Center was completed in 1968 we used to set off 4th of July fireworks in front of the Ambulance Service. Kaiser was virtually built in our front yard. During the 1960s while Kaiser was being built my entire family worked at 1260 Marshall. My uncle ran the businesses, my cousins drove ambulances, and my mother ran the medical supply for a while. My aunt ran Sequoia Physicians & Surgeons Exchange in the same building. I even worked there when I was in high school in 1963.

After I was discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1967 I used the skills that I learned as a hospital corpsman to moonlight for various ambulance services while I was attending San Francisco State University. The skills required by civilian ambulance employees were nearly identical to those skills used by a field medic (corpsman) with the U.S. Marines.  I worked in the operating room at the old Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California. That made it possible for me to moonlight some nights and weekends for Bob’s Ambulance Service in Oakland while still on active duty.

Often, history is what is going on in the background of a photograph so the following photographs not only show some vintage Peninsula Ambulances from the 1940s and 50s, but also shows a large facility that belonged to the Mobil Oil Company. The Mobil facility was directly across Middlefield from both Peninsula Ambulance and the Flying “A” station. You can also see a tower appears close but was actually several blocks away at Frank’s Tannery. Just across the Highway from the Flying “A” was the Redwood City Rodeo Grounds. That’s about where the Department of Motor Vehicles is located now.

This would appear to be one of the earlier ambulances, maybe late in the 1940s. That’s the Mobil Oil complex that used to be at the corner Middlefield and Bayshore Highway in the background.

More Peninsula Ambulances, maybe in the early 1950s. That’s the Mobil Oil complex again. It was across the street from the ambulance service. The house in the lower photo was at the corner of Bradford and Middlefield Road.

This 1950s Peninsula is parked in front of the vacant lot between Peninsula ambulance and the Flying “A” station at the corner of Middlefield and old Bayshore Highway. The vehicles in the lot are a mixture of Peninsula Ambulances and vehicles from the service station.

This Peninsula Ambulance came to a bad ending when it met a train. I don’t know the details of the accident. I tried to find the story of this accident in the newspaper archives but wasn’t successful. I did find a record of an accident between a Peninsula Ambulance and a car at Bayshore and Holly road in 1949, and another in 1953 at the corner of Ralston and El Camino Real.

Ralph Ratliff taking delivery on a new ambulance about 1960

Ambulance purchase was an annual ritual. There were some price and tax benefits to picking up the ambulance at the factory, so once a year Ralph Sr. and one of his sons would fly to Detroit to pick up a new ambulance. Ambulances usually stayed in service for about five years.

Ratliff Family Christmas Dinner at 432 Middlefield Rd. in 1948

My parents Nina Mardel (Ratliff)  & Richard Lutz standing in front of what my uncle called the “Crash Wagon” at Ralph & Irene Ratliff’s home 1007 Katherine St., Redwood City. Living patients were not transported in this vehicle.
In 1961 Ralph Ratliff was voted president of the California Ambulance Association. On September 6th of that same year the San Mateo Times reported that my uncle and a California Highway Patrol Officer named Fred Hagen climbed down a 400-foot cliff on Tunitas Road to rescue a 16-year-old boy who was thrown from a Jeep when it hit a tree. My uncle was 57 years old at the time and had several younger drivers on his payroll, but he enjoyed the work so much that he was still taking regular turns behind the wheel of the ambulance.

People forget that before Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) and specialized rescue vehicles, ambulance services did it all. Peninsula Ambulance Service covered most of San Mateo County, from delivering a baby in La Honda to rescuing a teenager coastside. I remember hearing my uncle’s voice on the ambulance radio informing the hospital that he was coming in from Half Moon Bay with one up and two down. That meant that he had two patients on gurneys and one on a hammock like device used only in extreme emergencies.

In most cases there were no freeways, so when an ambulance was coming in from coastside, it was traveling narrow twisting roads often in the fog.  Some of those roads are still no fun to drive today.

The old Five Points Hotel at 2015 El Camino Real was the location of frequent calls. There was always trouble and ambulance calls to that location were always seen as dangerous. My uncle used to always complain about employees being injured on calls to the hotel.  Some of the legendary danger may have been exaggerated, but the Redwood City Police closed down the hotel in the early 1950s.

My uncle was credited with saving the life of a man whose throat had been cut in a knife fight in the “five points area” on January 17, 1955. Somehow he managed keep the man from bleeding to death from a severed jugular vein on the way to the hospital, this according to the San Mateo Times.

It wasn’t always people who were rescued. When a 16 year old boy hit a dog with his motor scooter in 1957, he not only delivered the boy with a broken leg to the hospital, but he also delivered the dog to a vet.

That same year Uncle Ralph had to descend on a sling from a crane into a concrete vat to rescue a worker with a fractured spine. The worker was a welder working on a Bayshore Freeway overpass when he leaned too far into the vat.

On May 17, 1962 Ralph Ratliff represented Redwood City at the annual hearing conducted by the California State Chamber of Commerce. The Issues were the completion of the Five Points Overpass, the Junipero Serra Freeway (280), the Skyline Freeway and the Bayfront Freeway (101). There was also resolution offered by the City of Half Moon Bay seeking to continue the so-called San Bruno Freeway (380) to Half Moon Bay.

I’m not sure where my uncle stood on the last issue. This was just a couple of years after the City of Pacifica was formed to keep from being annexed by San Bruno, and a couple of years before Pacifica tried to annex all of the communities of the coastside down to Princeton By the Sea. Development was popular then. There was even a plan to make Montara into another Linda Mar.

Unfortunately, his election to the new post came shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer. His death in March 1963 was front-page news in the Times Tribune on March 18, 1963:

Ralph H. Ratliff, whose Peninsula Ambulance Service has provided Redwood City’s emergency transportation for 19 years died Saturday afternoon after a long battle with cancer. Mr. Ratliff, 59, came here in 1939 to establish a garage and towing service at the corner of Main Street and Old Bayshore.

In 1944, Mickey Collins, then chief of police, told Mr. Ratliff that the community should be provided with some kind of ambulance service. Mr. Ratliff decided to go into the business. He began with one vehicle and today, with headquarters at 1260 Marshall St., has five.

A native of Springfield [actually Tallula], Ill., Mr. Ratliff came to Redwood City from San Francisco. He has been identified with many civic activities throughout the years, notably as the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Highway and Traffic Committee.  It was for this group that he campaigned for the widening of Jefferson Ave. and Woodside Rd., the extension of Edgewood Rd. to Half Moon Bay, and many of the local provisions of the local in the proposed city-county highway bond issue.

Mr. Ratliff also was a member of the Redwood City Exchange club, Redwood City Elks lodge, Modern Woodmen of the World and United Commercial Travelers. He was a charter member and past president of the California Ambulance Association, and was awarded a 20-year pin as a first aide instructor by the Red Cross.

Mr. Ratliff’s family will continue to run the ambulance firm.

Survivors include his widow, Irene, at the family home, 1007 Katherine St.; Sons Ralph J., Menlo Park and Harold K., Redwood City; a daughter; Mrs. Virginia Collins, Los Altos and a son by a previous marriage, Ralph H. Ratliff Jr. of Los Angeles. A Sister, Mrs. Mardel Womer [My mother’s married name with her second husband] resides in Redwood City. There are 15 grandchildren.

Private Funeral Services were held at Lyng & Tinney Funeral Home, 717 Jefferson Ave. Mr. Ratliff willed his body to Stanford Medical School for research.

The family prefers contributions to the American Cancer Society, 1517 South B St., San Mateo.

And in another article on March 25, 1963:
Ralph H. Ratliff, A Valuable Citizen
It was no longer news to his friends when it appeared in Monday’s paper that Ralph H. Ratliff had succumbed.  Mr. Ratliff had been stricken with cancer more than a year ago, and hope for survival disappeared long ago but Mr. Ratliff refused to give up.

He knew that there were many jobs to be done, and he was going to do his best to get some results while he was still able to do so.

Mr. Ratliff was one of the developers of an excellent ambulance for Peninsulans. He wasn’t merely satisfied to transport to the hospital; he became an expert in first aide and his careful handling of patients was in many cases the difference between life and death.

Mr. Ratliff didn’t confine himself to matter involving his own profession. He was civic minded, and in this too he put in his best effort. Hi thorough study of Redwood City’s street and traffic problems, made at the request of the Chamber of Commerce, has been used as a model by both city and county governments in planning for the future.

Much of his best work came after he knew that he would never be able to shake the cancer that was spreading through his body.

This effort and enthusiasm ….the will to keep working for the public’s benefit even while knowing that he would reap none of the benefits…made Ralph H. Ratliff one of Redwood City’s most valuable citizens.

The entire community shares with his family this deep loss.

The family tried to continue the business together, but as often happens in these situations, there was disagreement about how the business should be run, so Harold Ratliff established a competing service, California Ambulance.

Above: 1970 Phone book ad

Below: Harold Ratliff and a California Ambulance

Harold Ratliff in the California Ambulance Office about 1970

California Ambulance Service was moderately successful but the move by San Mateo County to station emergency medical responders to fire stations left only non-emergency transport work to private ambulance companies. Eventually, both Peninsula Ambulance Service and California Ambulance Service merged with Mercy Ambulance Service in Daly City to form Mercy-Peninsula Ambulance.

Irene Ratliff retired and moved to Oregon to be close to her children. Harold worked at Raychem in Menlo Park until his death on May 06, 1985. He died of a heart attack behind the wheel of his car on El Camino Real.

Times Tribune May 08, 1985

Harold Ratliff, 59, Known as “Ratliff the Magician” to scores of Peninsula children and church groups, and a resident of Redwood City for over 40 years, died Monday in Mills Memorial Hospital after a sudden illness. He was a native of San Francisco.

He was a Navy veteran of World War II and served in the Pacific. In recent years he worked for Raychem in Menlo Park.

As a magician he performed for churches, children’s parties and many organizations.

Survivors include his wife Carol, his wife of 37 years; his sons, Kenneth of San Jose and Donald and Robert of Oregon; daughters Donna Knerr of Texas, Sandra Ebaugh of Mountain View and Barbara Ferriera of Florida; brothers Ralph J. of Oregon and Ralph H. of Los Angeles; a sister, Virginia Collins of Pasadena; his mother, Irene Ratliff of Oregon.

Private services have been held with internment in Golden Gate National Cemetery at San Bruno under direction of the Redwood Chapel, Redwood City. The family suggests memorial gifts to the American Heart Association.

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