In the early days, grizzly bears were more abundant around here than we can ever imagine. The Indians had a sort of truce with them.  After all, going after a 1000 pound animal wielding four inch claws with only a bow and arrow would be a formidable undertaking.  Little wonder that the Indians feared, revered and avoided them. So for centuries, grizzlies and Indians coexisted. An occasional bear would kill an Indian and vice versa.

With the arrival of the Europeans in the 1850s, the truce ended.  It became apparent that the two species couldn’t adapt to one another.  So the bears had to go. Destroying bears became an obsession for some of the rancheros.  Partly it was to protect their cattle, and partly it was for sport. And partly it was for self-preservation in a chance encounter.

Countless bear stories have been left by early settlers of our area.  So amazing are some of them that the line between fact and legend has blurred over the years.  The details you read  come directly from an early local settler or an observer who passed through the area. You can decide whether you’re reading fact or legend.

From William Heath Davis: [1840s]  “In the mountain forests and on the prairie country in back of and on either side of San Francisquito Creek, there were hundreds and hundreds of black, cinnamon and grizzly bears which roamed the county, living on acorns from the live oaks studding the flat lands.  In the season of matanza [slaughter of cattle for the hide and tallow market] they feasted on the rejected meats …  At this season vaqueros and their masters amused themselves in the exciting night pastime of lassoing and strangling the brutes to death, … One night soldiers from the San Francisco Presidio lassoed and killed forty bears in the woods at San Francisquito Rancho [today’s Stanford campus].”

The preferred method for killing in an individual encounter was to shoot the bear at close range. Rancheros didn’t have repeating rifles, so if the first shot wasn’t fatal, before the man could reload with his ramrod, he would doubtless be dead. Thus, with courage, determination, and  a steady hand, the successful hunter would wait for the bear to advance near enough to be certain the first shot would kill. Having the bear rise up on his haunches ready to spring was the recommended time to fire.

The rancheros also used a unique kind of trap. Rafael Soto, who lived on the Corte Madera Rancho for a while, and whose own rancho, Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito, encompassed most of today’s downtown Palo Alto, was famous for his skill with it. Step one was to dig a large hole and cover it with logs.  Step two: leave a large chunk of raw meat on the logs. Step three: climb into the hole with gun and wait.  Step four:  kill the bear from below when he comes for the bait.

The most exciting method was to capture the bear alive for a bear and bull fight.  Vaqueros would kill a steer for bait and drag it about a bit so that its scent would permeate the area. As a hapless grizzly would approach, three or four vaqueros, expert with lassos, mounted their well-trained ponies and lassoed the bear with two ropes, one around the neck choking him and one around a hind leg, lifting him partially off the ground. Pulling in opposite directions, they would drag him to the fighting arena.  There the bear would either kill the bull or die in the attempt.

Lucas Greer told of one self-preservation encounter which involved a Frenchman named Barbone.  As he was fishing, he met a grizzly which grabbed him by the thigh before he could escape.  He broke the bear’s hold, only to have it bite into his arm.  At this point, Barbone grabbed the bear by the nose with his teeth; the bear let go.  So did Barbone, and each went their separate ways.

By far the most famous story is one verified by no less a personage that Dr. Tripp of the Woodside Store. The hero’s name is “Grizzly” Ryder.  He was looking for stray oxen in the vicinity of Searsville Lake when darkness settled in. Walking a trail back to Woodside by the light of a young moon, he stopped for a drink at the stream now called Bear Gulch.  As he arose, he saw a large object near him.

“To my horror and surprise, the thing arose upon its hind feet and grabbed me around the body.  I realized that I had met a grizzly bear. Fortunately, the animal was probably as greatly surprised as I was, and grabbed me quite high up about the shoulders, so that my right arm was comparatively free.  I at once loosened my sheath knife and proceeded to plunge it into the beast.”

Well, the bear let go, two cubs appeared, and the bear struck Ryder a fierce blow which sent him sprawling down an embankment. He played dead, lost consciousness, and the bear and her cubs left. Eventually a rescuer found him and sewed up the profusely bleeding gash in his thigh with a sail needle and string. Ryder survived to age 85 with his body covered with scars and the upper portion of an ear torn away.

By the 1880s the grizzlies were nearly gone. David Bromfield has told his version of the last bear in San Mateo County. George Harkins’ father set out poison in Whittemore Gulch for a grizzly making raids on his calves.  “Soon roars were heard proceeding from the canyon. These lasted one whole day and night but finally on their subsidence, an examination was made and a dead bruin found.”

The Greers had another version.  It must have been in the late 1880s or 1890s when Robert Greer saw the last grizzly bear in the Woodside area. He was riding unarmed when he came upon it drinking at a stream.  It was old and lame. He went back to the ranch for his gun and some help. When he got back, the bear was gone.

…………..  Nancy Lund

Rowland Tabor

Rowland Tabor

In 1962, when the Santa Maria neighborhood was a place of summer cabins, Rowland Tabor bought a 1920s era house from the valet of a wealthy person. It was a good half-acre site, but ever since the purchase, he’s been working on improvements. Meanwhile, the two Tabor boys played in the meadow above Woodside Highlands. Rowland served on the committee that led to Portola Valley’s incorporation in 1964. In the 1970s, he was one of the geologists who pointed out the danger of the San Andreas Fault and who started the movement that resulted in the sale of Portola Valley School, sitting astride the fault, to the Town.

John Schulte

Sequence-011403_John Schulte
John Schulte,  June 9, 2010

Veterinarian John Schulte has known our area, its residents and pets for decades. Getting his love of the land from his father, he came here at age 6 and grew up studying nature on twenty acres on Family Farm Road and at Jasper Ridge. Once in a rainstorm, he rode San Francisquito Creek all the way to the bay. Another highlight of his youth occurred when a teacher at Portola Valley School took John and other students on a 9-week trip across the United States. He opened his practice here because he believed no other place offered all Portola Valley’s benefits. He and his wife bought property on Los Trancos Road in 1980.





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.

………………Nancy Lund

Sam Halsted

Sam Halsted 2010

Sam Halsted is the last surviving member of the first Town Council. The Palmer Lane house on ten acres that the Halsteads bought in 1961 cost $55.000. Although family members thought they were making a mistake to move so far in the country, they loved the quiet and openness. Their six boys grew up here. As a civil engineer, his expertise was very valuable in those formative years of the town. It was he who proposed the concept of Portola Valley as an “urban open space preserve.”


The Littons

Martin LittonMartin Litton, February 8, 2010

Esther and Martin Litton bought four acres in Alpine Hills in 1958 for $9000 and built their home there. For thirty years Esther was the Instructional Materials Clerk in the school district. Martin, interested in the outdoors and conservation since he was a boy, was the Travel Editor for Sunset Magazine and led dory trips down the Colorado River for decades. He has been honored nationally for his leadership in environmental protection and is a Blues and Barbecue honoree



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.

…………Nancy Lund

Mary Ann Thompson

Mary Ann Thompson 2009

The fact that Mary Ann Thompson has two grand pianos in her living room is a clue that music has been important to her all her life. She began lessons at eight and later studied in Italy. Even as she grew frail, her living room has continued to be a venue for musical groups to meet and share music. She and her husband Victor found Portola Valley looking for horse country. When they found the property overlooking the Stanford triangle, she knew that was the place. [It was $4500 for 3 acres.] Vic, an architect, designed their house. “How ideal it has been,” she has said, “to be always looking at trees. And the deer prancing through our side yard is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.”


Dr. Walter Cole

Dr. Walter Cole
Dr. Walter Cole 2009

Walter Cole, a physician, a carpenter, a professional dessert maker, and a horseman is one of our area’s earliest residents.  He started working cattle around here in 1949, including in the “Stanford Wedge,” the rugged triangle between Westridge and the eastern slope of Golden Oak. He, his wife Peg and their sons all rode, over toward Jasper Ridge or on Woodside trails, avoiding or killing rattlesnakes on a regular basis.  Or they might stop at Mama Garcia’s, Alpine and Hillbrook, for an Italian dinner and to listen to the young Kingston Trio.  Having fallen a few times, eventually having a metal rod inserted in his back, he had to give up riding and spent his last years as a Shack Rider driving to the Shack and playing dominoes with his pals.



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.

                             ……………..Nancy Lund

Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California