Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

Returning to the memorable days of yesteryear

by Kathy Bodovitz

As local legend has it, the people who figured most prominently in the birth of what is now Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park and Stanford were a Spanish explorer, a wealthy San Francisco socialite, two brothers-in-law from Ireland and a former California governor.

Their names: Don Gaspar de Portola, who camped next to "El Palo Alto" in 1769; Dennis Oliver and D.C. McGlynn from Menlough on Lough Corib, Ireland; Faxon Dean Atherton, who built his vacation home on the Peninsula; and railroad tycoon Leland Stanford.

Actually, the history of the area dates back far beyond the arrival of Portola and his expedition, but local history texts make only passing mention of the Costanoan Indians who greeted Portola.

The Indians of this area were a mix of tribes whose names evolved from a series of misreadings of Costenos, the Spanish term for the coastal natives around Half Moon Bay and Pescadero. The Oljon or Ohlones tribelet of San Gregorio is one of that group. Some dozen Indian mounds have been discovered, many along Middlefield Road, but few artifacts remain.

The sad truth is that the history of the Indians fizzled out when the white man arrived.

The first Europeans to arrive in the area did so accidentally, in their unsuccessful search for Monterey Bay. Don Gaspar de Portola and his men reportedly camped in 1769 beside San Francisquito Creek, under the twin trunks of "El Palo Alto," the tall tree. Although some historians cast doubt about the authenticity of this arbor, it is generally accepted that a portion of that famous tree still stands next to the railroad bridge near Palo Alto Avenue and Alma Street.

Five years later, a second group of Spaniards arrived, clothed in brown habits and led by Padre Palou. In search of a good location for their mission, the Franciscans set a cross at the foot of El Palo Alto, but later decided that the creek was too dry and moved on to Santa Clara and a more dependable water supply.

That left much of what is now Palo Alto up for grabs, and Don Rafael Soto, born in San Jose, gained permission from the administration of the Santa Clara mission to settle in the curve of San Francisquito Creek. His 2,229-acre Rancho Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito extended from El Palo Alto to the bay and from south of the present Stanford Stadium to the current Bayshore Freeway.

As historians tell the story, Soto's daughter Maria Luisa is the romantic heroine of the 1850s.

Maria Luisa married a former British navy lieutenant who, having also served in the Mexican government, was granted 12,545 acres--Rancho Canada de Raymundo--in the Searsville area. But after his death a few years later, Maria Luisa moved back to her father's house at what is now Middlefield Road and Oregon Avenue.

Then along came an Irish sea captain named John Greer. Greer had left his brig to explore San Francisco Bay in 1850 and sailed into what is now the Palo Alto harbor.

Historian and newspaper editor Elinor Cogswell writes that, "Captivated by the beauty and fertility of the country, he quit the sea and began to explore inland.

"Captivated even more by Maria Luisa, whom he met at the Soto place, he won the widow's hand and settled down to make a go of a new kind of life." The Greer family's mission bell cattle brand is the oldest recorded brand in the state.

While the Spanish aristocracy was settling into what is now the Palo Alto area, two Irishmen, whose wives were sisters, purchased 1,700 acres of the 35,250 acre Rancho de las Pulgas, the largest land grant on the Peninsula.

The area is believed to have received its name, "las pulgas" or "the fleas," from an incident in 1769 when the Portola expedition was camped near the mouth of Purissima Creek. Some soldiers reportedly decided to leave the camp and sleep in deserted Indian huts on the north bank. But they fled from the huts before the night was over, crying "las pulgas!" Portola's army engineer used the name to identify the Indian village and it stuck.

But back to the Irishmen. They built two houses with a common entrance among the oak-dotted landscape and erected a tall wooden gate with three arches over the entrance. On the gate they inscribed the name "Menlo Park" in foot-high letters, and the date, 1854.

The men named their new homes after their old, in Menlough on Lough Corib, County Galway, Ireland. No one knows whether they abbreviated the name to "Menlo" because the space on the arch precluded the longer version, because it was their way of Americanizing the name or because they just couldn't spell.

The gates stood on the west side of El Camino Real, about 500 feet from Santa Cruz Avenue, until they were destroyed by a motorist in 1922.

Not long after the gates were built, in the 1860s and 1870s, the beauty of Menlo Park attracted wealthy San Franciscans to the area, including Faxon Dean Atherton, Timothy Hopkins, James C. Flood, Edgar Mills and Charles Felton. They bought large tracts of land and built vacation estates, which brought many laborers and servants to Menlo Park. Eventually, they also brought the railroad.

As Menlo Park blossomed with the estates of its new San Francisco aristocracy, the area farther south was still populated by Spaniards enjoying the good life on their ranchos.

From 1773 to 1800 some 16 land grants had been made, ranging in size from two or three acres to tens of thousands of acres. Twenty or more were given prior to 1821, when Mexico severed connections with Spain but hung on to the Californias. Under Mexican rule, land grants were easier to get, and the total of 36 grants in 1821 grew to more than 800 over the next 25 years.

The Palo Alto Historical Association writes that "These rancho days were famed for beautiful senoritas, daring and handsome lovers, brave hunters, brutal sports, lavish hospitality. Fiestas at the hacienda of Don Secundino Robles, which stood until 1906 near what is now the intersection of Alma Street and San Antonio Road, drew guests from all over Alta California for bear baiting, bull fighting, feasting and dancing."

However, the earliest settlement in what is now Palo Alto was the old town of Mayfield, which grew up around James Otterson's hotel, which opened on El Camino Real at California Avenue in 1853. "Uncle Jim's Cabin" was patronized by travelers en route between San Francisco and San Jose and by lumbermen driving down from the hills.

For people to the north and south of San Francisquito Creek, May 1861 was a landmark--groundbreaking for the railroad. On Oct. 18, 1863 the first train traveled from San Francisco to Mayfield along the San Francisco and San Jose Railway. The line was bought by the Southern Pacific in 1868.

The railroad affected everyone. It provided wealthy San Francisco barons faster transportation to their country homes--a round-trip ticket from Menlo Park to San Francisco cost $2.50 and a one-way ride took 80 minutes, compared to the stagecoach, which took four hours from Redwood City to San Francisco.

The railroad also gave the area's farmers a rapid way of sending their produce to the markets in San Francisco and, most importantly, spawned industry and growth that otherwise would probably have gone elsewhere.

A newspaper advertisement in December 1863 lauded the many benefits of living in Menlo Park.

"There are few, if any, places within one hundred miles of this large and growing metropolis, which combine so many natural advantages for a country residence. The soil is excellent, it is wooded with large, splendid live oaks, and other evergreen shade trees. The climate is unsurpassed, extremes of heat and cold are never felt and the harsh summer winds and fogs never reach here. Good well water can be obtained at thirty feet . . .

"Those who are alive to the importance of a home in the country with all its advantages for health, education, etc., are earnestly requested to look at this lovely spot."

The Menlo Park train station, as it stands today, is one of the earliest railroad stations built in California. It opened for business in August 1867.

As Menlo Park grew and spacious mansions sprouted up, a resident arrived who later was to buy himself a town--740 vacant acres that he named Palo Alto.

When Leland Stanford settled on his Palo Alto Farm, he had already achieved distinction as a merchant, governor of California during the Civil War and president of the Central Pacific Railroad (now part of the Southern Pacific). A year before the railroad was completed, his wife, Jane Lathrop Stanford, gave birth to their only child, Leland Stanford Jr.

But to the tremendous grief of his adoring parents, Leland Jr. was stricken with typhoid fever while the family was traveling in Italy and died in Florence in 1884 at the age of 16. His parents then decided that they would dedicate their fortune to educational pursuits and Stanford proclaimed, "The children of California shall be my children."

So in 1885 the founding grant for Leland Stanford Junior University was executed. Construction began in 1887, and the university opened its doors to students four years later.

When the university first opened, faculty members rode the train to work, debarking at either Menlo Park or Mayfield. Between the two stretched fields broken only by the oaks and the tall spire of a redwood tree.

Stanford soon decided that his faculty and students needed a nearby town in which to reside, but he wanted one free of the saloons that thrived in Menlo Park and Mayfield. So, through Timothy Hopkins, believed to be the son of railroad mogul Mark Hopkins, Stanford bought some 740 acres of land between Menlo Park and Mayfield for roughly $300,000. Except for a barn and three houses dating from the 1870s, the land was vacant.

The original site extended from San Francisquito Creek south to Embarcadero Road, and from El Camino Real to a ragged eastern boundary on the bay side. The new town was originally known as University Park, but Stanford preferred "Palo Alto," so he bargained to get the name from the area that is now College Terrace.

University Avenue was ankle-deep in mud in winter and dust in summer, but businesses soon began to spring up along it, with the first being a real estate office erected by L.D. Henry. By the time Stanford University opened in 1891, Palo Alto's population was up to 76 and the town hummed with activity. By 1892 the population had grown to 318 permanent residents with 400 students living there during the school year.

On April 9, 1894, Palo Alto's residents, on a vote of 98 to 21, decided to incorporate. Official papers making Palo Alto a city were filed on April 16, 1894. The Midpeninsula communities thrived, with the arrival in 1906 of the Toonerville Trolley that linked the new town of Palo Alto to the Stanford campus, and the continuing growth of the Menlo Park residences.

But the year 1906 was also a year of destruction for the young towns, with the big earthquake destroying much property but claiming no lives in Palo Alto or Menlo Park.

Looking on the bright side, local residents turned the disaster to their advantage and encouraged San Franciscans who had lost their homes to move south. A newspaper article asked merchants and citizens to "give refugees from the metropolis the best possible treatment in order to encourage them to make their new homes on the Peninsula."

With that invitation, the communities picked up the pieces of fallen debris, mended the damaged buildings, and headed confidently into the 20th century.