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

1906-1920: Prelude to a modern era

by Kathleen Donnelly

To the boosters of most Peninsula cities, the 1906 earthquake was not something to brag about.

It was in Palo Alto.

Excited by the prospect of attracting skittish San Franciscans to new homes south of the shaky city, Palo Alto's board of trustees printed 200 posters bearing the legend "Why not live in Palo Alto?" These they posted on the crumbling walls of San Francisco's ravaged buildings. Then they sat back and waited for the new citizens to arrive.

Why not live in Palo Alto? After all, the town of 4,500 had been little damaged by the earthquake, compared with San Francisco. No lives were lost. Chimneys fell, a few shop windows broke and a couple of buildings did collapse, but the damage was not extensive, and what had been damaged was repaired quickly.

That is, except for one collapsed building, which had been completed so shortly before the earthquake that there was some question as to whose loss it was, the owner or the contractor. While litigation dragged on, the building remained collapsed. Unfortunately, it remained collapsed in full view of passengers on the trains that ran from San Jose to San Francisco, convincing many of them that Palo Alto was indeed hard hit by the earthquake and would be again should another quake strike.

The city fathers despaired. They began plans to erect a high billboard--inscribed, of course, with "Why not live in Palo Alto?"--that would hide the wreck from the train passengers. But the building was cleared away before the billboard could be set up.

Eventually, it became clear that San Franciscans could think of good answers to the question "Why not live in Palo Alto?" Crowds of new citizens did not arrive. Neither did they show up in Menlo Park or Atherton. In fact, life in the towns continued at the same pace as before the earthquake until the arrival of another earth-shaking event, the First World War.

But until then, Midpeninsulans concerned themselves with more local affairs. As historian Arthur Coffman noted in his book "An Illustrated History of Palo Alto," the big news of 1906 included the issuance of the first ticket for speeding (the driver was traveling on El Camino Real, below the statewide speed limit of 10 mph, but above Palo Alto's local speed limit of 8 mph); a crackdown on unlicensed dogs (including the expensive bulldog of a town trustee) and the opening of Palo Alto's electric streetcar line (cause for a citywide holiday).

The red streetcars, soon nicknamed the "Toonerville trolley" after a popular cartoon of the day, ran the length of University Avenue with a branch down Waverley Street. Elinor V. Cogswell, a longtime editor at the Palo Alto Times, remembered them "as a social and cultural center. Faculty and students rode back and forth between town and Quad, studying, making dates, chatting with friends, weaving plots and plans . . .

"If the regulars failed to board the car at the usual corners, the motorman would wait for a few minutes while ears strained to hear hurrying footsteps. When the 'Toonerville' left the scene (in 1929), we townsfolk lost a sort of community center. And Stanford students lost a source of more-or-less innocent merriment derived from pulling the trolley off its wires, detouring the cars from established routes and pushing peanuts along the tracks with their noses."

Stanford University and its students still governed the actions not only of the trolley, but of the town that was created to serve them. Since university land couldn't be sold to anyone, much of Stanford's faculty turned to Palo Alto, building their houses on the streets branching off from University Avenue. They became active citizens, serving on the boards that governed the town.

Perhaps because of their participation, Palo Alto gained a reputation for being progressive. In 1908, for example, Palo Alto established its own city-owned utilities.

The complications of city-owned utilities made it necessary for Palo Alto to write itself a charter, outlining the powers of city government. After much community debate, the charter was approved in July 1909, and it established a 15-member City Council to replace the board of trustees. A Planning Commission followed in 1918.

"Under this charter," wrote City Clerk Frank Kasson in 1919, "Palo Alto has enjoyed a clean, progressive government and has attained such success in the management of its utilities that it is quoted throughout the United States as a model of efficiency."

Meanwhile, in an article titled "Town and Gown" by Charles Marx, a professor of civil engineering and vice president of Stanford, readers were assure that no controversy existed between the university and Palo Alto.

"Palo Alto is fortunate indeed that no such feeling of antagonism, except to a very slight degree, has ever developed in the community," wrote Marx, who also served several terms on the board of trustees and the board of (public) works.

At Stanford in the early part of the century, faculty and administrators were just emerging from a period jocularly referred to as "the stone age," when much of Stanford's sandstone walls were cut and erected. In 1906, the university was still under the leadership of its first president, David Starr Jordan. But by 1909, Jordan was spending more and more time on the cause of world peace and took a series of leaves of absence. He became the university's first chancellor in 1913 when geologist John Branner took over the presidency for two years.

By 1916, enrollment at Stanford was more than 2,000 and Ray Lyman Wilbur had become Stanford's third president. Wilbur worked toward making Stanford a major university, promoting faculty research, expanding graduate study and developing professional schools.

The major effect Stanford had on its northern neighbor, Menlo Park, during the early part of the century had very little to do with higher education. It mostly had to do with lower behavior at saloons, where Stanford's students would congregate. Palo Alto remained a dry city in accordance with Governor Stanford's instruction.

But despite the number of saloons, Menlo Park before World War I was a quiet town where life revolved around agriculture and the railroad.

The town was a center for strawberries, grown in fields that stretched out from Santa Cruz Avenue to the creek. Menlo Park farmers also grew violets to sell in San Francisco. Many of the fields were located on the Hopkins estate, the same land on which Menlo Park's Civic Center now stands. The violet is now the official city flower.

The bigger estates, like one owned by Timothy Hopkins, which stretched from Menlo Park across the creek to Palo Alto, included their own orchards, dairies and gas manufacturing plants, among other conveniences.

Understandably, estates like Timothy Hopkins' employed many workers, many of whom settled in Menlo Park. But it took the First World War and the arrival of Camp Fremont to really spur growth in Menlo Park, and in Palo Alto.