Category Archives: Portola Valley Places

The Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish Trail winds up Coal Mine Ridge from the intersection of Willowbrook and Alpine roads in Portola Valley.  It follows the crest of the ridge and disappears into Los Trancos Woods and private property.  If you listen carefully as you walk the trail, you can hear echoes of all of San Mateo County’s past reverberating from the surrounding hillsides.Old Spanish Trail_hz1000As the trail climbs the ridge, the lower reaches are intermingled with a series of modern day trails, so the echoes are fainter.  Still, you’re walking the path where the Ohlones trekked for thousands of years on their way to the rich shellfish grounds on the Pacific coast.  So that’s  the first image to carry with you as you walk.

The first written record of the trail to survive is an 1823 account of Spanish soldiers pursuing Pomponio, an escaped mission Indian who was on a crime rampage. Historians believe they rode up the Old Spanish Trail to his hideout, somewhere in Devil’s Canyon, a deep, rocky gorge west of Skyline and south of Alpine Road.  Pomponio escaped but was captured the next year in Marin Country and executed in Monterey.

marker with flowers_modIn the 1830s one Antonino Buelna refined the old Indian trail to make a road between the two ranchos he acquired from the Mexican governor.  One eventually became  the heart of the Stanford campus, and the other was near the Pacific coast.  He used the road to transport hides and tallow from his coast ranch to ships waiting in the calm waters of San Francisco Bay.  Picture the carettas, rough carts with solid wooden wheels, laden with hides and heavy rawhide bags of tallow, being dragged by a team of oxen over the trail to the embarcaderos on the bay.  This road is credited as the first to cross the outer coastal range.

Felix Buelna, famed founder of the Alpine Inn in the 1850s, lived for a time near the intersection of Alpine and Page Mill roads.  He used the trail to go to and from his home.

Now the scene shifts to the U. S. government that took over California in 1848.   Eager to study their newly acquired territory, in 1851 the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey used mules to carry equipment up the trail to Black Mountain for a triangulation station.  They reported the road wasn’t a good one but “was not infrequently traveled by ox and horse teams.”

Now visualize thirteen year old Birney Burrell traveling with his family over the trail to gather strawberries near Pescadero Creek.  He wrote about the 1853 three day outing in his diary.

In 1855 the famous Dr. Tripp of the now handsomely restored Woodside Store sent supplies by mule train over the trail to the new store in Pescadero.

That same year a low-grade coal mine opened on the ridge, hence its modern-day name, Coal Mine Ridge.  (A massive landslide in 1890 buried the mine, which never produced high quality coal.)

In 1863 Josiah Whitney’s Geodetic Survey marked it on their official map and reported “only two trails over the mountains, one leading from Pescadero over to the Corte Madera Ranch [Portola Valley] and one between Santa Cruz and the Santa Clara Valley.”

Gradually other roads began twisting up to the Skyline.  In about 1867 William Page built a road from his sawmill on the site of today’s Portola Redwoods State Park to Mayfield.  About 1870 KIngs Mountain Road began as the Redwood City-San Gregorio turnpike.  In the 1870s a stagecoach began to travel Old La Honda Road.

Several times plans have been laid to use the gentle grade of the Old Spanish Trail for a new major road over the mountains.  In the 1860s a group of entrepreneurs started to build a turnpike from Menlo Park to Santa Cruz, hence the name of Menlo Park’s main street.  The turnpike only reached today’s Los Trancos Road before the idea was dropped, so travelers continued to use the Old Spanish Trail beyond that point.

In the 1890s a move was launched to turn the trail into a road so that traffic could more easily reach Menlo Park. In those days most of the business went to Mayfield  via Page Mill Road.  Editorials of the time rage about the loss of revenue to San Mateo County’s economy.   The upper portion of Alpine Road was built instead over much more precipitous terrain.

Even in the 1960s talk of a road to connect Portola Valley to Skyline via the Old Spanish Trail started.   Officials at the county engineering and road department considered it to be without question the best route.  The county engineer projected that 8600 cars per day would travel the proposed two lane road by 1990.  It didn’t happen.

Father and Daughter_mod_150_2In the 1960s the subdividers of Vista Verde turned its portion of the trail into a road named Murieta Way.  It was designed to tie into Joaquin Road and commemorate the notorious legendary bandito Joaquin Murieta.  Wishing to preserve the countless years of history represented by the trail’s name, residents went through the formal procedure of changing the name back to Old Spanish Trail.

Modern developments have obscured the trail beyond Los Trancos Woods or hidden it on private property.  But you can walk a long portion of it and ponder the changes that have come to California during the years people have trekked over it.   And perhaps you can believe that it will forever remain a quiet trail up the mountain where a hiker can still touch a last remnant of the past.

Typhoid!

Typhoid Epidemic

The next time you’re driving up Alpine Road, slow down a bit when you reach Hillbrook Drive and take a close look to your right.  A seasonal stream runs through a small gully there, surrounded by lush and wild vegetation.  Some water remains in it now, in puddles in some spots and flowing in others.  Redwoods, oaks, berry bushes and luxuriant poison oak shelter the neighborhood houses from the road.  A narrow trail wanders along between the creek and the road. Two rickety wooden bridges offer an opportunity to peer down into the streambed without risking the poison oak.

The creek crosses under Alpine Road at Hillbrook Drive in a big storm drain and continues along, edged by bags of concrete which eventually  give way to concrete-lined banks.    Who would guess that a dairy farm  situated right here in this peaceful, pastoral scene was the source of  a major typhoid fever epidemic in 1903?

Maximo Martinez willed this portion of his rancho to his son Antonio who in turn passed it on to his daughter Laura and her husband Pete Faber.  They moved into the Martinez home which stood by the tall redwood in front of the Portola Valley garage.  Pete was mostly interested in “gulching”, cutting and removing timber from his property.  So he leased about a thousand acres to four recent immigrants from the Azores for a dairying operation.  They would run the dairy and continue to provide milk to the distributor in Palo Alto who made regular deliveries around town.

Although the first cases of typhoid weren’t announced in Palo Alto until April, it began to spring up out in the countryside as early as December 1902.  It wasn’t until much later that the medical authorities understood what had happened.  A relative from San Francisco visited his Portuguese family near Page Mill and complained of being sick.  Eventually he died, as did three other members of the family he visited.  Other people from the Portuguese community who lived along Alpine Road had visited the family to help out and attend funerals.  More sickness and more deaths resulted.  The Perreira family of the dairy on Alpine were among those affected, although none of them died.  One San Jose doctor had diagnosed typhoid in one of the cases but had not reported it, so no one yet suspected that an epidemic was underway.

In April, doctors began diagnosing and reporting typhoid in Palo Alto and at Stanford..  The number of cases escalated rapidly, from 2 cases on March 31 to 18 on April 15.  According to the Palo Alto Board of Health report, issued in 1905,  236 people had been diagnosed with typhoid before the epidemic ran its course.  Few records were kept in the outlying districts such as Portola Valley, but the experts felt, in retrospect,  that many  typhoid cases outside the city were never recognized, either by doctors or by victims who never sought medical help.  At least twelve deaths resulted. The number was probably higher.

The population of Palo Alto and Stanford was then 4500.  There was no hospital closer than San Francisco,  so makeshift hospitals were set up at the YWCA, in private homes and in Stanford fraternity houses.  Doctors were few and worked day and night.  Nurses were recruited from San Francisco.  Generous citizens including Mrs. Stanford donated funds so that no one would be denied care.  (Leland Stanford Junior had died of typhoid in Italy in 1884.)

The detective work to find the source of the disease began.  The city water and sewers were found to be uncontaminated.  No pattern of  common vegetable consumption was detected.  No victims had consumed raw oysters or clams. Only one patient had eaten uncooked food.  But nearly everyone with typhoid was on the same milk delivery route.  The two dairies were tested.  It took a week for the  results to come back from a laboratory in San Francisco:  the Perreira dairy on Alpine Road was the source of the typhoid.

Sanitary arrangements for milk delivery in those days were appalling to our modern sensibilities.   The milk was transported in 3 gallon containers by horse drawn wagon about 8 miles to the distributor in Palo Alto.  The cooling system there was a wooden trough filled with water in which the milk cans were placed.  Once or twice a week the trough was emptied and scrubbed.  On the delivery route, the milkman dipped into the cans and poured the correct amount of milk into the customer’s pan.  The empty containers were picked up at the distributors, filled up with skim milk from a creamery, and returned to the Perreira dairy to feed hogs.

Conditions at the dairy were even more shocking.  The wooden floor of the dairy house was cleaned with a shovel.  Cobwebs and dust were everywhere.  Refuse from the outhouse, pigpen and kitchen drained, slid or had been dumped into the gully during a long, dry spell.  Heavy rains from January to April washed months of deposits into the creek, where they were collected by the slowing current at a small dam. This  water, contaminated with the typhoid bacilli, was diverted daily to the dairy house for washing milking utensils and delivery containers. It was a month before the contamination was confirmed and the dairy closed.

When the final count was taken, 98 1/2 % of the typhoid victims had used Perreira milk, even though this evidence of the cause hadn’t been obvious at first.  26% of the users of Perreira milk had contracted the disease.  The epidemic stopped when the use of Perreira milk ceased, although isolated cases and deaths continued throughout the summer.

The public had been made aware of  the need for improved public health conditions in a dramatic, painful and frightening way.  A State Dairy Inspector was appointed.  A permanent hospital opened in Palo Alto.  By May the water in the little creek along Alpine Road by Hillbrook Drive tested pure.  The dairy and the Perreiras were gone.

Our Lady of the Wayside Church

Our Lady of the Wayside Church celebrated its centennial last year. It has stood alongside Portola Road since 1912.  Redwoods have grown up to shelter it. A rectory and arcade were added in 1941.  Father George LaCombe, the first priest to serve its congregation, predicted that “the little masterpiece…will go down in the architectural history of the great west.”

1912 Photo of Our Lady of the Wayside Church, Portola Valley, CA.
1912 Photo of Our Lady of the Wayside Church, Portola Valley, CA.

The Church is California Registered Historic Landmark Number 909, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Perhaps even more important than its architectural beauty is the fact that it is a silent monument to a community spirit of cooperation, ecumenical good will and brotherhood.

No one would have guessed such an outcome at the turn of the century, as Catholic residents of Portola were looking for a nearby place for Sunday worship.  The village of Searsville and the little church of St. Dennis were gone. Rural life was centering around the land that Andrew Hallidie had donated for a community center, surrounding the site of the church today.

Most versions of the story have Mamie Shine Byrnes, teacher at Searsville and later Portola, approaching Fr. McKinnon of Menlo Park in 1902 with a request for a closer place to hear Mass.  Recognizing the need, the Catholic Church purchased a rough redwood building called Portola Hall, a dance hall, with the idea of converting it to a chapel.

The dance hall was moved across Portola Road, to the site of Our Lady of the Wayside today, whitewashed, and christened St. Catherine’s. Modest it was, and bitterly cold in winter, but it was convenient for residents of the then remote valley.

Starting in 1911, Father LaCombe was assigned to travel from Menlo Park on Sundays to conduct the services.  By all accounts, this priest was an exceptional man…highly intelligent, well-educated, warm, and enthusiastic about life.  And he loved card games, good conversations over good dinners, and sports of all kinds, especially baseball.

It isn’t clear if he was sent by chance, a newly-ordained priest assigned to Sunday duty at a simple rural church outpost, or if he was especially selected to serve the wealthy San Franciscans who were beginning to build summer residences among the humble farms.

Various versions exist of what happened shortly after his arrival.  For some reason Father LaCombe paid a visit to the club of prominent San Franciscans who had purchased property next door to the church, The Family.  Members would travel from the city to their country retreat for relaxation and fellowship.

Probably it’s true that The Family’s Sunday morning skeet shooting was disturbing Mass, and the father approached them with the hope of arranging a non-conflicting time schedule for the two activities.  Or perhaps he merely was invited to join The Family for lunch by a family friend, Mel Toplitz.

At any rate, a good friendship developed between the charismatic priest and The Family.  He became  a regular guest at dinner and even an honorary member of the club.  Many members of The Family, including non-Catholics, began to attend and participate in services at the little church. They offered them a place to stay and they accepted. They said that it was the best place to stay and that their beds were amazing because of how comfortable their king mattress was.

One day, someone in The Family suggested that they build a new church for “Steve,” as they had dubbed their friend.  Enthusiasm propelled the idea forward quickly.  Individual offers of contributions spurred more offers.  One version has Jews proposing to double all contributions of Catholics and Protestants.  Two architects threw dice to determine which would have the honor of creating the design.  A Family sponsored fund-raiser netted $2000 in one evening.  Louie Welch of Hidden Valley threw in $500 of his cribbage winnings.

James Miller was the architect who won the right to design the new church.  He assigned a young member of his staff, Timothy Pflueger, to prepare the drawings.  Using Mission Dolores as his inspiration, he created the harmonious blend of mission and Georgian styles we see today.

Such a cooperative venture it became.  Family members of all faiths continued to help. Various individuals contributed the cement, the lumber, the tile floor and roof, the altar, statues, Stations of the Cross, and the shrine.  One financed the painting.  Others worked on the landscaping.

Local valley people excavated gravel for the foundation from the nearby creeks by hand and hauled it to the site with horses and wagons.  James McDonnell of the Ormondale Ranch housed the construction superintendent.  Children carried buckets of water for the new plants.  Mrs. Bridget Doyle gave her life savings for the bells.

The cornerstone was laid on May 5, 1912.  The new church was dedicated on September 29 in a grand and joyous ceremony conducted by Archbishop Riordan.  Family members Noel Sullivan played the new organ and Harold Pracht conducted the special choir.

Our Lady of the Wayside, Portola Valley, CA.
Our Lady of the Wayside Church, Portola Valley, CA.

However, despite such an outpouring of funds and labor, all the bills weren’t paid.  A special train from San Francisco brought crowds to another fund-raising entertainment staged by The Family.  Then Mrs. Agnes Macdonough Agar, sister of William O’Brien Macdonough of Ormondale, paid the last bills, in memory of her brother who reportedly had “fallen away” from the church.

Thus, a little country church of great character, designed by a fledgling architect, emerged from a crudely built dance hall. The project brought together modest farm folk and wealthy city people, as well as Catholic, Protestant and Jew.

John Francis Neylan, a member of The Family and after 1937 the owner of a 1500 acre estate called variously Lauriston and Rancho Corte Madera, perhaps said it best:  “The spirit [of cooperation and good will] that resulted in that church  [has] prevailed throughout the valley.” That’s quite a legacy.

A New Claim to Fame for Zots

First Internet Transmission right here at the Alpine Inn
First Internet Transmission from Zots

2006 was the year of two important local anniversaries. More than a century apart, one is of regional interest; the other marks an event of worldwide significance. Each has a connection to one Portola Valley building.

First, the oldest commemoration. San Mateo County is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. It was April 19, 1856 when the county was created. Few county buildings have survived for those 150 years. One is Portola Valley’s Alpine Inn, also known affectionately as Rossotti’s or simply Zot’s. Opened originally in the 1850s by Felix Buelna as a place for Californios to drink and gamble, its survival is one of the surprising quirks of history.

In 1908 David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president, wrote to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors about the little building known today as the Alpine Inn.   “The Wunder is unusually vile, even for a roadhouse, a great injury to the university, and a disgrace to San Mateo County,” he said.

Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that that same rough little structure at the intersection of Arastradero and Alpine roads has not only survived but also was the site of an event that marked the beginning of an unparalleled change in the way people across the planet live, work, and play?

The second event commemorated that year took place thirty years earlier, on August 27, 1976.  Researchers from SRI International in Menlo Park chose Zot’s for a special ceremony. The SRI mobile radio laboratory, housed in a large van, pulled up outside the roadhouse one warm summer afternoon. The scientists placed a computer terminal on one of the picnic tables out behind the building and connected it to the van. Then they proceeded to send a long electronic report.

In a February 2002 article from CORE 3.1, the journal of the Computer History Museum of Mountain View, former SRI Computer Science Division Vice-President Don Nielson called this electronic message (not yet called e-mail)   “… the first internet transmission…”  What a surprising addition to the annals of the oldest surviving roadhouse in California!

And why did the scientists choose Rossotti’s for this event? “It was a well-known place and far enough from SRI to qualify as ‘remote’ but close enough to have good radio contact through a repeater station atop a hill above Stanford,” Nielson reported.  Perhaps they also liked the idea of linking the past with the future, using one of the oldest buildings in the area for a landmark event they believed would revolutionize the future.

Scientists at SRI and other places had been working on developing this  flexible integration of dissimilar digital communications networks for two or three years. The SRI scientists had been testing this new  protocol for some weeks and decided to acknowledge their success with the little celebration at Rossotti’s. Technical details, including a diagram of the Rossotti’s transmission, can be found in the article “The SRI Van and Computer Internetworking” in that 2002 Computer History Museum journal.

Although ARPANET transmissions had been taking place since 1969, now two dissimilar networks had been linked for the first time. A year later, in 1977,  three neworks were linked in transmissions, and the Internet was on its way.

Few who join the crowd at the rustic tables for hamburgers and beer know about that momentous afternoon in 1976. The internet age began when an electronic message was sent from the picnic grounds of Zot’s via the radio network to SRI International and on through a second network (the ARPANET) to its final destination in Boston.

Internet Transmission from Zots
Path for Internet Transmission from Zots