A Brief History of San Mateo

Raziel Ungar

Raziel Ungar

August 1st, 2019 - 4 min read

San Mateo Booklet Cover

California was a year away from statehood when de Peyster began squatting on land owned by the San Francisco-based business team of Mellus and Howard, who’d purchased 6,000 acres of Rancho San Mateo from its grantee several years prior. Resisting pressure to move, de Peyster operated the “San Mateo House” for two full years before moving operations across San Mateo Creek and re-establishing his business at what is now the corner of Second Avenue and El Camino Real.

San Mateo House thrived for the next decade, for a time becoming the regional Butterfield Stagecoach stop— an honor that lost its luster in the 1860s, when the new San Francisco-to-San Jose rail line began operations. Soon San Mateo had its own train station, located several blocks from the San Mateo House, at the present-day corner of Second and Railroad Avenue. Downtown San Mateo grew up from there.

Rail travel made it possible to get from San Mateo to San Francisco in 37 minutes. Suddenly, a comfortable “country” home in San Mateo County was a real option

for San Francisco’s business leaders. They built homes up and down the Peninsula, from Atherton (then known as Fair Oaks) in the south to the future Millbrae in the north. San Mateo’s role in this was to welcome titans like John Parrott and Alvinza Hayward (the Howard family was already established in the area by the

time rail came to San Mateo) to the area. Eventually, following the early subdividing of some estates, San Mateo became a convenient spot for a thriving economy of trade, commerce and service to take root. Merchants, tradesman, gardeners, drivers, household staff and stablemen, serving the great estates of San Mateo and Hillsborough, bought small pieces of land and built modest homes in adjacent San Mateo. 

El Cerrito, the Howard family property, was the first of the great estates to subdivide. The resulting tract was called “The Eastern Addition,” and was located just north of the new downtown. The Eastern Addition included homes, schools and churches. According to one late-19th- century booster, “its advantages (were) unsurpassed.”

Subdivision gave the working and middle class entrée to San Mateo County, but this wasn’t the first time landowners had thought to sell. Growth would have been impossible without a clean, reliable water source, which arrived concurrent with Howard’s subdivision in 1889. The Crystal Springs Dam created a reservoir atop what had been the Crystal Springs Resort. Six years later, urged on by the founders of San Mateo’s first newspaper, The Leader (also established in 1889), the nascent town incorporated. San Mateo became an official city on September 3, 1894. 

San Mateo’s growth, already brisk, hit overdrive following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. By then, the era of great estates was already on the wane. Following Howard’s lead, Parrott, Hayward, Borel, et al. had already subdivided, creating more opportunities for “regular” homebuyers, including those unnerved by the earthquake and those tired of San Francisco’s predictably foggy weather. 

Spooked San Franciscans flocked to San Mateo following the 1906 earthquake and fire. 

Not all who came south were middle-class. In 1902, part of Howard’s estate became San Mateo Park, an affluent neighborhood whose grand homes still rival those in neighboring Hillsborough. Hayward Park, less grand but still impressive, debuted that same year, built on subdivided sections of Alvinza Hayward’s estate. 

In 1927, 375 acres of Parrott’s estate, called “Baywood,” were subdivided and turned into a housing development called, logically, “Baywood.” The lots sold for between $3,150 and $4,250, a tidy sum even during the height of the Roaring 20s. Sales were brisk; half of the available lots were gone after one week. 

San Mateo’s history has been defined by prominent families and big thinkers. 

If San Mateo’s early history is defined by a few wealthy families, its later history is equally defined by a handful of visionary businessmen, which is not surprising: San Mateo has always had its share of big thinkers.

The Roaring 1920s, in particular, were an era of schemes and plans for San Mateo. At one point, developers built

a Coney Island-style amusement park at Coyote Point; other dreamers established a movie studio, Pacific Studios, on Peninsula Avenue in San Mateo. Legends persist to this day of silent movie stars bunking in the stately Spanish-style homes of nearby Idaho Street. Unfortunately, San Mateo never became “Hollywood North.” Pacific Studios only lasted a few years. Pacific City Amusement Park, which reported a million visitors in 1922, was gone by 1925.

San Mateo’s final, and most dramatic, period of growth came in the years leading up to and just after World War II. Three developers—Axel Johnson, Thomas Culligan and, most notably, David Bohannon, bought hundreds

of acres of undeveloped land between San Mateo proper and Belmont. On it they built thousands of new homes and, in Bohannon’s case, San Mateo’s first shopping mall, the Hillsdale Shopping Center, which opened in 1954. Eventually, all of this land was annexed by San Mateo.

Bohannon’s vision was to “take care of the forgotten man, the guy in the middle-income bracket.” His plan was to build some 6,000 homes priced between $5,000 and $6,000, spread among six subdivisions, each called

“Hillsdale,” giving his buyers “the custom-built feeling at mass construction prices.” The plan worked; San Mateo’s population grew by 33 percent after World War II. By 1963, 77,250 people lived there. 

Bohannon envisioned taking care of the “forgotten man.” 

It’s unfair to call San Mateo “unchanged” since Bohannon’s time. Growth has slowed but change has continued. The latest project is the massive mixed-use development on the site of the old Bay Meadows horse racing track. When it is complete, the new Bay Meadows neighborhood will add businesses, parks, restaurants, commercial space and 1,100 new residences to San Mateo. 

Bay Meadows is scheduled to complete its build out in 2018, 124 years after San Mateo’s incorporation.

Plenty has changed since the days of Parrott, Howard, Borel and others. In place of their country homes is a fully realized, thriving city with distinct neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown and an enviable quality of life. 

This article is copyrighted by Raziel Ungar and may not be reproduced or copied without express written permission.

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