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By Lee Foster

(Author’s Note: I am out exploring California as I update my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition. This chapter is about the San Mateo Peninsula, the bayside land immediately south of San Francisco.)

In Brief: The spirit of Billy Ralston is one of the best introductions to San Mateo County, the strip of land immediately south of San Francisco.

Ralston struck it rich in the silver rush that followed the Gold Rush. He was an investor in the Comstock Lode silver holdings in Nevada.

In the 1870s Ralston became a symbol of the good life. He raced the train on horseback from San Francisco to Belmont, often beating the train with relays of mounts. At his fabulous Ralston Hall mansion in Belmont, he entertained notable travelers of the era with sumptuous feasts, setting a style for California hospitality.

The famous Garden Court public room at Billy Ralston's Palace Hotel in San Francisco
The famous Garden Court public room at Billy Ralston’s Palace Hotel in San Francisco

Billy Ralston’s San Francisco architectural jewel was his Palace Hotel, one of the most lavish lodgings in the West when it opened in 1875. The hotel actually opened shortly after Ralston’s untimely death, which might or might not have been a suicide by drowning, as he swam in San Francisco Bay, shortly after his financial empire collapsed due to various shenanigans. The story of his Palace Hotel can be read in fascinating detail at http://thepalacehotel.org. Today a San Francisco visitor may enjoy a pause at the famous Garden Court dining room at the hotel to recall this famous earlier era.

Today, on the Peninsula, you can go to the Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, 1500 Ralston Avenue, stand in front of Ralston Hall, and meditate on Billy Ralston, symbol of the good life. Belmont is still home for the well-to-do commuter to San Francisco. After seeing Ralston Hall, you can peruse an eclectic mix of historic sites in the area.

The Historic Story: Several gems of historic discovery await you on the bay side of the San Mateo peninsula.

First, the fitting place to begin an exploration of peninsula history is on Sweeney Ridge, a two-mile-long, 1,200-foot-high hillside above Skyline Drive in San Bruno. From Sweeney Ridge, Gaspar de Portola and his party in 1769 became the first Europeans to see San Francisco Bay. Portola and his 63 men walked all the way from San Diego through the roadless wilderness to this upland, where they were confronted with a large body of water never before reported. For 200 years sailors had passed near the Golden Gate without discovering the bay. You can get up to Sweeney Ridge by driving on Skyline Boulevard to Skyline College, parking in Lot B, and ascending through the gate and up the winding gravel road to the ridge.

Second, the San Mateo County History Museum offers an introduction to area history. The museum is located in the old Redwood City courthouse at at 2200 Broadway; 650/299-0104; www.historysmc.org.  A large reed canoe shows how the Ohlone Native American fishermen maneuvered in the bay and ocean. In 1777, the Ohlone population in the greater Bay Area was estimated at 9,000. An exhibit on the Mexican period details the trading pattern of Boston ships, whose captains sought cattle hides in exchange for goods such as tea, sugar, spices, and clothing. In another display on the American period, which followed the annexation of California, the industries of lumber, oysters, whaling, and farming are detailed.

Third, in coastal Pacifica, visit the whitewashed Sanchez Adobe, completed in 1846 during the Mexican era. Today the adobe serves as a museum where the daily life of the early settlers is preserved. Call 650/359-1462 for the current schedule of hours at the site, 1000 Linda Mar Boulevard, or visit online www.historysmc.org/main.php?page=sanchez.

Fourth, the Filoli Estate in Woodside is a 43-room mansion with 16 landscaped acres of gardens built 1916-1919. This preserved home and gardens of William Bourn, heir to the Empire Gold Mine and head of the local water company, is one of the few grand houses from early 20th-century peninsula life now open to the public. The property, located off I-280 at 86 Canada Road in Redwood City, is open for guided tours, with reservations required. Contact: 650/364-8300, www.filoli.org.

Fifth, the Woodside Store, a general store opened in 1854, is now a museum housing many artifacts from the era. The history of the store and area rests on lumber, and inside you’ll find the lumbering saws and oxen harnesses used when draft animals pulled logs down the mountain roads. The Woodside Store museum is meant to be a hands-on experience, so you can examine closely the bean sorter, apple press, scales, blacksmith tools, traps, and furs. Call ahead to check visiting hours 650/851-7615, www.historysmc.org/main.php?page=woodside. The store is located at the corner of Kings Mountain and Tripp roads in Woodside.

Billy Ralston would race his horses against the train to arrive from his San Mateo estate to his Palace Hotel in San Francisco.
Billy Ralston would race his horses against the train to arrive from his San Mateo estate to his Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

Sixth, and finally, the history of aviation in Northern California included many interesting firsts. San Francisco Bay was the first place ever that an airplane landed on a ship, envisioning the later grand era of the aircraft carrier. Northern California was also the first place where an airplane did a loop-to-loop maneuver. For these and other feats, it’s enjoyable to peruse the aircraft, photos, and interpretive effort at the Hiller Aviation Museum, found at the San Carlos Airport (601 Skyway Rd.; 650/654-0200; www.hiller.org).

Getting There: San Mateo’s Peninsula side is located immediately south of San Francisco between Highway 101 on the east (bay side) and I-280 and Highway 1 to the west (Pacific Ocean side).

Be Sure to See: Set up an itinerary for yourself that considers any of the mentioned stops for a drive: Ralston Mansion, Sweeney Ridge, San Mateo History Museum, Sanchez Adobe, Filoli Estate, Woodside Store, and Hiller Aviation Museum.

Best Time of Year: Any time of the year is good for San Mateo County.

Lodging: The bayside and coast-side of San Mateo are close together, with the coast-side an interesting place to lodge and dine. For accommodations, try the Beach House Hotel in Half Moon Bay. Their ocean-side rooms show the Princeton Harbor and a walking/jogging path along the water. Beach House Hotel is at 4100 N. Cabrillo Highway; 650/712-0220 or 800/315-9366; www.beach-house.com.

Dining: Also on the coast-side, try the eatery known as the Moss Beach Distillery, 140 Beach Way and Ocean Boulevard in Moss Beach; 650/728-5595; www.mossbeachdistillery.com. Coastal seafood is the specialty. Located in what is known as Haunted Bay, the restaurant is well known not only for it’s great food and views but for its ghosts. Over the years a colorful history and strange occurrences have imparted a mystical element to the restaurant. Opened in 1927 as “Frank’s Place,” it operated as the coast-side’s most successful speakeasy.

For Further Information: Contact the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, 111 Anza Boulevard, Suite 410, Burlingame; 650/348-7600;  www.visitsanmateocounty.com.

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.
See Lee’s books/ebooks
on his Amazon Author Page and in Independent Bookstores

The San Francisco region figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.

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