San Mateo County History

Tales of the San Francisco Peninsula
Theron G. Cady
A series of articles first published in 'Peninsula Life Magazine'
Published by C-T Publishers, San Carlos, California, 1948

El Camino Real

        El Camino Real, the King's Highway, which stretches in a wide ribbon of asphalt from the tip of the Peninsula through fertile valleys and over lofty mountains to San Diego, was named long before the road was ever built.  Even before the road was a well defined Indian trail and before it was hacked out of the wilderness by pious labor, it was destined to bear the name, El Camino Real.
        The story behind the King's Highway dates back to the days of the Roman Empire.  When Rome was the religious center of the world, many roads spread in a huge spider-web from the ancient city to all parts of Europe.  They were known as "Royal Roads" and were built so the faithful might come from the fields, descend from the hills, and travel along these religious pathways to worship at the shrine of the saints.
        Perhaps the choicest of these roads was the one which skirted the coast of Tuscany, following along the Ligurian Sea to Nice and then across Southern France tothe Pyrenees.  From there it traversed the lenghth of Spain and halted at Seville on the Guadalquivier.  This road, known as El Camino Real the Royal Pathway, connected with all main and lesser roads leading into and out of Rome, and because of this we have the old saying that "all roads lead to Rome."
        Before the decadence of the Roman Empire, great pilgrimages were led annually by priest along El Camino Real to the city of worship.  When the Roman Empire crumbled, these great pilgrimages ceased and the roads became neglected.  In Spain, however, the Castilians were unwilling to give up the pleasure of these outdoor jouneys along the highway, and the roads were kept in repair.  With the coming of the carreta (cart), the roads were graded and widened to accomodate the new method of transportation.  The improvements and upkeep of these roads were paid from the treasury of the King of Spain, and the camino reals soon became known as "The King's Highways."  Laws were passed for the protection of travelers.  To molest a wayfarer or do damage to the road usually brought severe punishment.
        When the Franciscan Fathers came to America, they pushed their way westward, and in 1769 they built their first mission in the uncharted wilds of California.  As each new mission was founded, a road was opened between the old and new.  Indians were put to work blazing and grading the new trails, and for their labor they received 10 to 20 cents a day from the mission treasury.  Since this money and the land on which the roads were being built belonged to the King of Spain, they were naturally regarded as the King's property and also became known as King's Highways.  None of these roads compared with the highways of Spain.  At first the roads between the missions were nothing more than foot-paths, but with the coming of the carretas portions of the new trails were broadened and graded into beautiful boulevards.
        On the Peninsula there remains a section of the old King's Highway which was converted into a beautiful boulevard.  It is that two and one-half mile link between the Santa Clara Mission and the Pueblo of San Jose.  A section familiar to the padres who ambled along behind pack mules and carretas with ponderous wheels of solid oak squeaking and groaning under heavy loads.  Known to the padres as the "Alameda" (tree-lined road), this highway was 100 feet wide with a forty-foot roadway.  Along each side of the road were double rows of Pollard willows, a graceful native shade tree, of which the padres planted over 16,000 to serve as windbreaks and as protection against wild cattle.  In the branches of the willow were dove-cotes, and on festival days, according to old records, the doves were released with trailing ribbons tied to their feet to fly in front of little girls scattering wild flowers along the road.  Two of these old willow trees, planted in 1799 by Padre Magin Gatala, O.F.M., are still standing on the east side of the Alameda in San Jose--living monumnets of days past.
        Today little remains of the original El Camino Real.  The King's Highway over which passed so much of California's early history has faded into the dim past.  The road which welded California's twenty-one missions into a solid chain has vanished except for one short link at the Mission San Juan Bautista.  Here behind the old mission and running parallel to the narrow trench containing the remains of some 4,000 Indians is all that is left of the original King's Highway.  Perhaps 200 feet or more of the old road, which has been carefully preserved by the mission padres, can be traversed before it becomes lost in a clump of underbrush in the distance.  On each side of the road and around the old mission are many gnarled olive trees that date from the mission's founding.  These trees, it is claimed, are the great-grandparents of California's famous olive trees.
               The present El Camino Real, a wide, well paved road over which speed thousands of automobiles, bears little resemblance to the road of the padres.  It has been rebuilt, enlarged, and relocated so often that hardly a vestige of its former appearance remains.  This old route of the King's Highway is well marked by guide-posts surmounted by a mission bell, the emblem that was always erected first when the padres took possession of the unkempt wilds and later used to summon the Indians and others to worship.  One of these guide-posts, with its bell, was erested at the corner of Broadway and El Camino Real, Redwood City, by the Redwood City Woman's Club in 1909.  Others can be found standing like sentinels along the highway, reminding travelers of the early history of the road they now travel.
        El Camino Real doesn't end at the Mission de los Dolores in San Francisco, but continues on across San Francisco Bay to the north.  In the days when Dolores was a flourishing mission, sickness suddenly struck the Indian neophytes and the padres were compelled to seek a change for the many sufferers.  They selected a site across the bay and erected a hospital mission under the name of San Rafael Archangel.  Two hundred and thirty of the sick from Dolores Mission were transported across the bay to the new hospital.  Indians that had survived the attack of sickness helped the weaker along the trail that leads from Mission Dolores, down Folsom Street to Third and Clay, and then to the foot of Montgomery, where the party embarked for their new home.  This path from the Dolores Mission to the landing became a camino real, and today mission bells mark the route taken by the sick.
        In 1832, when it became apparent that the Mission Dolores could not last, and that San Rafael could not stand alone, another mission was founded to take the place of San Francisco de Asis.  It was completed on July 4, and was known as "New San Francisco."

© 1948 Theron G. Cady. All rights reserved.
Posted here with permission of his granddaughter, Andrea Van Norman.
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