San Carlos History

The City of San Carlos has a rich and exciting history. We're pleased to offer this section of our web site, which will bring you more information about the history of San Carlos. For even more information, please visit the Museum of San Carlos History website.

San Carlos in Early California History

The first known inhabitants of San Carlos were the Ohlone Indians. Ohlone is the name that has been given to the many related groups of Native Americans living along the coast between Monterey and San Francisco.

The Ohlone hunted deer and small game and relied largely on the bay and ocean for food. They used tule reeds that grew near the bay and along the many creeks in the area to build their homes and canoes.

Since food, clothing and shelter were plentiful, the Lhamshin tribe lived a peaceful life; preferring trade to war.

Life abruptly and dramatically changed for the native people of the San Francisco Peninsula when Spanish military and civilian settlers arrived to establish military garrisons (presidios), Franciscan missions and civil settlements (pueblos). By 1810, introduced diseases, forced labor and efforts to indoctrinate the indigenous peoples into an alien society and religion led to a tragic destruction of the Ohlone way of life in this "time of little choice.”

San Carlos and the Explorers

European discovery and exploration of the San Francisco Bay Area and its islands began in 1542 and culminated with the mapping of the bay in 1775.

Colonization, along with the conversion of the Indians, followed closely on the heels of exploration. Although San Carlos lies some distance from either Mission Dolores in San Francisco or the Mission in Santa Clara, the local inhabitants were undoubtedly affected by mission life, which brought increased travel by padres, lay people and soldiers.

San Carlos in the 1700’s

In August 1775, Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala brought his sailing ship, the San Carlos, into San Francisco Bay and anchored in what is now Ayala Cove. His mission was to develop a map of the bay on which future Spanish ship captains could rely. Ayala has the distinction of being the first navigator to enter our port.

According to city lore, San Carlos got its name from one of the three sources:

  • The San Carlos, the first ship to sail into the San Francisco Bay; or
  • King Charles III of Spain; or
  • The Portola Expedition that discovered the bay on the Feast of St. Charles, November 4, 1769.

San Carlos in the 1800’s

Eventually lands in the bay area were granted by the Spanish Government to deserving individuals. The 35,420-acre Rancho de Las Pulgas at one time stretched from San Francisciquito Creek (near Palo Alto) to San Mateo Creek and from the bay marshes to Cañada Road. It was granted in 1795 to Captain Don Dario Arguello, Commandante of the Presidio in San Francisco and later ninth governor of Alta California. His son, Don Luis (Presidente from 1822-25) was the first native-born governor to serve under Mexican rule. After Don Luis's death in 1839, his widow, Dona Maria Soledad Ortega Arguello, had an adobe home believed to be at the corner of the present Magnolia and Cedar Streets until 1854. To help her supervise the large rancho, Dona Maria sent to Puerto Rico for her attorney, S.M. Mezes, who received 15% of the land in payment for his services.

In 1854, Timothy Guy Phelps, a San Francisco mercantile owner and 49er (the original kind), was the first American to purchase and occupy land in San Carlos. He started his estate with 200 acres of the Arguello adobe, where he lived until his board-and-batten house was built next to it. He eventually increased his holdings to 3,500 acres of rancho lands, on which he raised cattle that were shipped to San Francisco by barge. Phelps became the first president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, a U.S. Congressman in the 1860's, and an early Regent of the University of California at Berkeley. Later he was appointed Collector of Customs in San Francisco. His employee, Julius Johnson, planted the eucalyptus trees along what is now San Carlos Avenue near Cordilleras Avenue.

Still later, John Brittan, a hardware dealer in San Francisco, bought for his estate 3,000 acres of the rancho, extending from Cordilleras Creek (near Redwood City) to Pulgas Creek (between Arroyo Avenue and Olive Street) and west to Canada Road. After inheriting a third of the estate, his son Nathaniel built a home on the present Pine Avenue; the elaborate gardens even included a bear pit to house a bear acquired on one of his trips to Alaska!

When the San Francisco-to-San Jose railroad was being laid in 1864, Nathaniel Brittan granted the right-of-way through his property, with the stipulation that a station agent and telegraph office be maintained at all times. Brittan was a friend of Leland Stanford who arranged to lend his University stone masons for the building of the San Carlos depot in 1888. This is how our now famous landmark, the San Carlos Depot, came to be built. It is a rare example of the use of the Richardson Romansque style in California railroad station architecture.

In the 1890's, Nathaniel was President of the now-prestigious Bohemian Club of San Francisco and offered a site on his San Carlos property for a "Country Jinx" club house and Bohemian Club retreat. A corner stone was laid on "Druid's Hill" near the present intersection of Orange and Elizabeth Streets, but the clubhouse was never constructed. Brittan also had a huge hunting lodge built on the present Dale Avenue near his elaborate home so as not to disturb Mrs. Brittan when he entertained his cronies.

A brickmaker, William Hull, came to San Carlos in the 1880's to look for better clay. He bought 40 acres from T.G. Phelps and built brick kilns on the property, as well as two houses. Bricks from San Carlos were used in many important buildings of the day, such as Fort Mason and San Quentin Prison. Hull's son Asa, one of his four children, stayed at home to run the dairy started by his brother Guy. Grain was grown on vacant lots in town. Milk was sold locally for five cents a quart if the customers brought their own containers!

People Who Helped Build San Carlos

With the coming of the railroad, three attempts were made to develop a town. First, in 1888, the San Carlos Land Company tried to subdivide and sell lots on the lands once owned by T.G. Phelps. In 1907, the San Carlos Park Syndicate used an elaborate sales campaign to try to make San Carlos a second Hillborough, calling the area Oak Park. Mr. Frederick Drake, of the Mercantile Trust, arrived in 1917, taking over the San Carlos Park Syndicate. He was more successful in developing San Carlos. He improved the water supply and piped water to the lots; he also installed gas and electricity and paved the streets.

Then came the first school, where 20 pupils met in a house. By 1918, a new two-room schoolhouse accommodated eight grades.

Mr. Drake is known as "The Father of San Carlos". The Spanish-style cottages seen in the flat area south of San Carlos Avenue (on the tree named streets) reflect the typical architecture popular in the 1920's.

Early Industry

Along with the housing development, a few businesses had begun in town by this time. Many social events of the 20's and 30's were held at the Devonshire Club, which was located at the top of Club Drive. It "went to war" as the Service Club for the World War II Dog Training Center on the old H.H. Ranch. In 1952, it burned in a spectacular fire that could be seen as far away as the Oakland Hills.

In 1919, a hangar and a flying field were built between San Carlos Avenue and Brittain Avenue east of the railroad. Near there, the old tower of the 1929 San Carlos Feed and Fuel still stands. Other commercial establishments followed, clustering west of the depot in the first two blocks of Cypress Avenue (as San Carlos Avenue was then called) and spreading out along El Camino Real.

In the 1920's, at the northeast edge of town, was a lumberyard owned by James Hugh Martin, who served as the first mayor of San Carlos from 1927 to 1930. Arroyo Avenue marked the southern edge of development.

In 1923, a volunteer fire department was formed using a fire truck composed of a white taxicab chassis with a chemical truck body donated by the San Francisco Fire Department. So successful were the fundraising card parties and dinners given by the volunteers and their wives that a firehouse was erected in the same year!

Burton Park was the first public recreational facility established by the City. Along with other community developments, land for a city park was purchased in 1936 and the park was financed in March 1938 when citizens passed a 20-year bond issue for purchase of designated property. Interesting fact: a provision in the sale precluded the land from being used for the game of baseball!

In 1938, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) constructed the amphitheater and the adobe brick building. The San Carlos Men's Athletic Club, through its president, Edward R. Burton, Sr., successfully argued for the baseball issue, which led to the purchase of an additional 3.38 acres for the park where the game could be played. The park was dedicated in 1940 and re-dedicated in June 1960 to honor Edward Burton, Sr., a councilman for eighteen years and a mayor for four.

The Incorporation of San Carlos

The citizens of San Carlos voted to incorporate in June 1925. Frederick Drake, known as the "Father of San Carlos", continued to promote the town and coined the motto "The City of Good Living". Drake also founded the San Carlos Enquirer (now the Independent Newspaper). He was a key organizer of nearby Sequoia High School and established the Chamber of Commerce in 1926.

San Carlos is a general law city established by and subject to State law. The City Council adopts local legislation by ordinance, affecting areas of health, safety and welfare regulations, traffic laws, building regulations, etc., of the city.

The Early Days of the City of San Carlos

In 1925, the San Carlos Police consisted of one man: Ed Wheeler. The department grew over the years. However, due to budget constraints, the City now contracts with the San Mateo County Sherriff's Department to provide police services to the community, which is led by the Chief of Police.

In 1925, when the San Carlos Fire Department was composed of volunteers, Ed Wheeler doubled as Fire and Police Chief. In 1979, the City of San Carlos and the Belmont Fire Protection District entered into a Joint Powers Agreement, which created the South County Fire Authority. More recently, the City of San Carlos joined with the City of Redwood City to provide fire services to the community.

In 1926, the phone company built an $11,000 building in the 500 block of Laurel Street. In that same year, Southern Pacific built a spur track servicing San Carlos.

During that same period, 20-year-old Mary Kay Davis began the $60 per month job as San Carlos's first postmaster. As a requirement for the job, Mrs. Davis had to provide a post office. Using money she and her husband had saved, she had a small post office built in front of her home in the 700 block of El Camino Real. As the population increased, the post office moved three times to larger quarters before settling at its present site at 809 Laurel Street.

Not until 1940, did San Carlos experience its first big spurt in population growth, growing to 3,520 residents. In 1944, Dalmo Victor established the city's first large electronics plant, followed soon after by Eitel McCullough.

Establishment of these two firms was a factor in the quadrupling of San Carlos's population in the decade after 1940. In 1950, when the population was 14,371, the city boasted a total of 89 industries-wholesalers, manufactures and distributors of a variety of commodities from electronics to cosmetics. By 1958, the electronics industry comprised a substantial segment of the city's industrial area.

In the late 1940’s when Bayshore was a two-lane road, the San Carlos Airport was moved from its former location between Brittan and San Carlos Avenues to its present site. The airport was bought by the county from Cal West Yacht Harbor in 1964 for $990,000.