Horseracing has a long history in the San Bruno area as the Spanish soldiers had raced there since the 1770s. The area at the north end of San Bruno is one of few flat spaces that existed for many miles north and south of the site.
There had been numerous smaller, private race tracks on estates around the Peninsula, and there was a large public race track at Ingleside in the south-western part of San Francisco.
Due to police corruption and moral problems that existed in San Francisco at that time, the Ingleside race track was forced to close in the late 1890s.
The county of San Mateo had its main population at Redwood City with only a few isolated communities to the north. In the San Bruno area there existed only about a dozen families, such as the Sneath family who had a 2000 acre dairy to the west of this property, and the Jenevein family that ran a hotel to the south of the property.
The idea of a race track farther south of San Francisco in the "Tanforan area” was credited to Prince Pontiatonski, builder of a canyon home "Skyfarm” In Hillsborough.
The prince was William Crocker’s brother-in-law and he was a rich, influential person. Many of the stockholders purchased 120 acres of the land from the South San Francisco Land and Improvement Company in northern San Bruno. Here they would be free of San Francisco control, and virtually free to do what they wanted to do in rural San Mateo County.
On May 9, 1899, an article of incorporation was filed by the Western Turf Association with a capital stock of $250,000. One of the directors, W. J. Martin, was a real estate man for the South San Francisco Land and Improvement Company who sold the land for the race track. Another of the directors, F. H. Green, was the secretary of the Pacific Coast Jockey Club. The site was a very auspicious one and would have the advantage of the Southern Pacific railroad train to bring racing fans from San Francisco for to the track. (Three years later, the # 40 Trolley Line would be built and would have a stop at the Tanforan race track).
Immediately after opening, the race track became the rendezvous location for the society leaders of the San Francisco Bay. All of the wealthy men of San Francisco raced their horses at Tanforan, including A. B. Spreckels, Leland Stanford, George Hearst and Charlie Fair. The first horserace at the race track was won by a Dan ‘White Hat’ McCarthy, a wealthy San Franciscan.
However, horseracing did not keep the track in use all year long, so other forms of entertainment were devised. The automobile was becoming a public phenomenon and, in 1907, auto races were started at Tanforan. The auto races were sponsored by the Olympic Club. The cars at this time had approximate 70 hp engines and could race at breakneck speeds up to 60 mph. The auto races continued for a number of years.
In 1909, gambling at race tracks became illegal in California.
In the early 1900s, the first lighter-than-air machines were being perfected. By 1910 they were appearing in California, first in the Los Angeles area.
It was in the Bay Area that Lt. Paul Beck improvised a bombsight and dropped weights as simulated bombs from an airplane flown on Jan. 24, 1910, by a Frenchman, Louis Paulhan (who included himself on the short list of the world’s 12 men who knew how to fly). Paulhan was the first to fly an airplane in the Bay Area.
He flew for over eight minutes, traveling 8 miles at 60 miles an hour and rose to an altitude of 700 feet, skirting the range of hills to the west of Tanforan. On Jan. 15, 1911, at a civilian flying meet near San Francisco, Lt. Crissy dropped a live bomb in the marshes to the east of Tanforan.
On Jan. 18, 1911 history was made when Eugene Ely, a 24-year-old ex-farm boy from Iowa took off from the Tanforan race track in a Curtis ‘pusher’ airplane and headed towards the Bay. Ely had previously taken off and made a successful landing on a ship, the U.S. cruiser Birmingham, at Hampton Roads, Virginia, and he was here in California to duplicate that feat while visiting his wife’s sister in San Bruno.
He succeeded in landing on the armored cruiser, the USS Pennsylvania, and returned to the Tanforan track unharmed making aviation history at Tanforan.
In 1917, near the end of the WW I, Tanforan was used as a training area for the California ‘Grizzlies’ soldiers.
In 1918, the first Tanforan race track was razed.
Public horseracing ceased in the area until the next Tanforan race track was constructed in the early 1920s.
Rediscovering the Peninsula appears in the Monday edition of The Daily Journal.
Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum
Auto races were popular uses for the Tanforan race track when it wasn’t being used for horse racing.