Burlingame shares a common history with neighbors San Mateo, Millbrae and Hillsborough, but only up to a point. Like the surrounding communities, Burlingame was once the site of native Costanoan villages and then part of a Mexican land grant (Rancho Buri Buri to the north and Rancho San Mateo to the south). Burlingame’s history diverges from that of nearby Peninsula cities in the late 1800s, when Francis Newlands, son-in-law of landowner and Nevada Senator William Sharon, came up with a plan to turn this stretch of real estate into a playground for San Francisco’s wealthiest residents.
Burlingame gets its name from Abraham Lincoln’s Ambassador to the Chinese Empire, Anson Burlingame. Ironically, Anson Burlingame only visited his namesake city once, as a guest of prominent San Francisco banker William Ralston in 1866. Ralston was at the time the owner of a country estate in Belmont and an enthusiastic promoter of growth and development in the area.
Burlingame is named after Abraham Lincoln’s Ambassador to the Chinese Empire, Anson Burlingame.
Anson Burlingame, convinced of the Peninsula’s glory by his host, purchased approximately 1,000 acres of land just north of today’s Burlingame Avenue from Joseph Henry Poett for $54,757.50. According to early Burlingame historian Constance Lister, the purchase was “a good investment for Mr. Burlingame, as in our opinion the same land at the end of ten years (was) worth $200 per acre (approximately $200,000 total).” It has since continued to appreciate.
After his California visit, Burlingame continued on to China and Europe. It was there, on February 23, 1870, while in St. Petersburg, Russia, that he died.
In 1875, Ralston was enthusiastic about creating a new town; he even drew up a map in 1875. But it wasn’t until after a series of events—including Ralston’s financial ruin, sudden death and the subsequent takeover of his assets by William Sharon—that Francis Newlands finally arrived upon the solution for creating a new town.
The idea was simple: Newlands, who’d assumed control of the Ralston-founded, Sharon-run Palace Hotel after his father-in-law’s passing, thought Burlingame’s charms would prove irresistible to San Francisco’s elite class. All they needed was something tangible to show them what “life in the country” could be like.
While still undeveloped, Burlingame was primed for growth. The area became more accessible after the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad began running trains down the Peninsula in 1863. Soon after that, early Hillsborough resident Joseph H. Redington began commuting daily to San Francisco by flagging the train down at Oak Grove. By the mid-1870s, Minnesota-born John Donnelly, likely Burlingame’s earliest permanent resident, had built a home at the corner of Burlingame Avenue and Primrose Road on 4.5 acres he’d purchased from landowner William Corbitt. Corbitt was the owner of the San Mateo Stock Farm horse breeding ranch, which was located on today’s Burlingame High School site. In 1875, famed landscape architect John McLaren began planting trees—most of which still stand—to line the county road (El Camino Real) and to mark the perimeters and entrances to the country estates of Ralston (in Belmont) and Howard, Easton and Mills (in San Mateo, Burlingame and Millbrae).
By 1890, most of the Burlingame area was still comprised of sprawling country estates, dairy farms and horse stock farms. As of 1893 William Howard’s effective “Town of Burlingame” plan was still three years away. Most of its land was being used as dairy farms or horse stock farms.
Drinks were liberally served and thus began the Burlingame Country Club.
Armed with his idea and some powerful friends, Francis Newlands hatched an idea to build five “cottages” on what had once been Anson Burlingame’s land but was now a dairy serving Newlands’ Palace Hotel in San Francisco. He hired socially ambitious architect A. Page Brown to design the residences. In 1893 Newlands and his friends held what was essentially a brainstorming picnic: “Drinks were liberally served,” recounts Joanne Garrison’s 2008 history of Burlingame (Burlingame Centennial 1908–2008), “and thus began the Burlingame Country Club.”
Newlands’ cottages (with the exception of 141 Pepper, which was moved to Burlingame), which did not sell upon their initial marketing, are now part of Hillsborough. Hillsborough had been resisting incorporating with Burlingame in 1908, but then incorporated as a separate entity in 1910.
Still with only a handful of permanent residents in 1894, Burlingame had a country club and an impressive new train station. By 1904, Burlingame was considered “where San Francisco society has its country headquarters.”
By then there were already hints that the era of country estates had peaked. Large landowners had begun subdividing their acreage, thus opening up the area for development. United Railroads had already begun electric streetcar service between San Francisco and Burlingame, making Burlingame within a reasonable commute of the city. Subdivisions began to pop up overnight.
Burlingame’s greatest catalyst for growth wasn’t the country club or the electric street car; it was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. With its infrastructure already in place and lots selling for $600 and up ($25 down and $10 per month), Burlingame became a favored spot for spooked San Franciscans looking to flee the city. Two years later, the city was incorporated on June 6, 1908.
Burlingame experienced rapid growth after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
Burlingame continued to grow rapidly through the 1920s. In 1910, already with a growing downtown area along Main Street (present day Lorton Avenue) and Burlingame Avenue, it annexed the town of Easton, formerly the Ansel Easton estate “Blackhawk.” By 1920—the same year Henry Ford introduced the Model T—Burlingame had a population of 4,000. Five years later the city had a dozen car dealerships on California Drive— “Burlingame’s Auto Row”—and 11,500 residents.
The city’s last period of physical growth came after World War II, marking the end of an era. Photos from that time show the area just north of Burlingame’s city limits—the 1,500-acre Darius Mills Estate—still intact, despite Mills himself having died in 1910. Shortly after World War II, the Mills family decided to sell the estate, sparking a land battle between Burlingame and its neighbor to the north, Millbrae. Ultimately, Burlingame received land located south of Mills’ mansion (the same mansion visible to Francis Newlands from his dairy 75 years prior) and Millbrae received all of the land located north of the mansion. The entire area was developed as Mills Estates.
Burlingame is unique among Peninsula cities in that its physical infrastructure was almost entirely complete within a few years of the end of World War II. Its most easily recognizable neighborhoods—Easton Addition, Burlingame Park, Burlingame Village, et al.—were its first, built shortly after the town’s original estate owners subdivided and sold their land. Recent changes to the town have been subtle, most obviously, the continual updating of Burlingame Avenue.
Over the past century Burlingame has become one of the most special small towns in America. Proudly retaining its character and respecting its heritage, it has grown with the times. Excellent schools, an abundance of parks, trees, a quaint downtown with shopping, tasty restaurants, and sunny weather continue to attract those looking for a quality of life rarely found elsewhere.
It is my hope that after experiencing all Burlingame has to offer, much like the mural hanging in the reference room at the Burlingame Public Library, that you will agree that living in Burlingame is indeed a special privilege.
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