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Paved roads on the Peninsula
December 10, 2012, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum On Aug. 7,1912, the first shovel-full of dirt dug up by the Highway Commission signals to the steam-engine operator (in the background) to begin the paving of El Camino Real.

Ever since Nicolas Otto built the first effective gas motor, internal combustion, four stroke engine in 1876, man has been improving on this design. More than 100,000 patents have created the modern automobile after the engines were adapted to the horse carriages in the 1800s (thus called "horseless carriages”). Carl Benz of Germany designed and built the first practical automobile in 1885 and, in the United States, Charles and Frank Duryea, bicycle makers, put the first auto on the streets of Springfield, Mass. in 1893.

It was, however, Ransom E. Olds who started the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1893 and, in 1902, started the first successful auto production line in the United States. Their auto became the rage of the times and even a song, "In my merry Oldsmobile,” touted the thrill of a ride in an auto. Henry Ford began producing the ever popular Model T Ford automobile in 1908 after introducing a planetary transmission and a pedal-based control system. This went into his improved assembly line and, by 1927, 15 million to these Model Ts were on American roads. This was followed by the Model A Ford which added four million more autos to American roads. By 2006, more than 135 million passenger cars were registered in the United States.

All of these autos needed roads to travel on, but first a bureau had to be created to develop these roads. In 1895, the State Bureau of Highways was created by the Legislature and the 65-mile Lake Tahoe Wagon Road, a pioneer toll road, was acquired. This was the beginning of a long development of the highways and byways in the state of California. At the same time the State Bureau of Highways was created, the governor was empowered to appoint three members of the Bureau of Highways. During 1895 and 1896, after purchasing a buckboard wagon and teams of horses, these three men traveled throughout the state and made their report to the governor that spelled out the extent of the highway system needed to tie this great, diversified state together. One of their recommendations was to develop a road system starting from San Francisco, develop roads to the south, through San Mateo County, etc. In 1897, the Bureau of Highways was dissolved and a Department of Highways was created. In 1910, after preliminary work had been completed to provide necessary legislation to purchase land for roads, an election by the public provided funds of $18 million for the beginning of a paved state highway system. The first Highway Commission was convened in 1911.

The sum was considered completely inadequate by the engineers and, in 1915, a second bond issue of $15 million was passed. Many more bonds were passed later to continue the work of the Bureau of Highways.

In early 1900, this main route down the Peninsula was given the name of El Camino Real, the Royal Road. It was an unpaved, dirt road that became a quagmire in the winter when it rained. Repair was constant but it seemed that as soon as a bridge or road was repaired, another one needed immediate work. Trees were planted to break the wind along this path and give shelter from the sun that could beat mercilessly upon the travelers. Some of these trees can still be seen along the road in the city of Burlingame.

In 1912, Contract #1 was issued for the paving of El Camino Real from Orange Avenue in South San Francisco to San Mateo. In front of the ever-popular and well-patronized Uncle Tom’s Cabin roadhouse, the state began the project of paving El Camino Real. A huge celebration was called for to announce the beginning of a system that would allow better and more rapid transit up and down the Peninsula. Speeches were made, food consumed and, the next day, the project began. Gunnysacks full of cement and bags full of sand were laid beside the road waiting for the men with their mixers to turn the concrete into a firm road that would accommodate the rapidly increasing number of automobiles that were becoming popular.

In 1915, James Martin of San Francisco solicited the cooperation of the San Mateo Development Association to hold a successful parade down El Camino Real on April 23. The Grand Parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West annual convention in San Francisco wanted to sponsor this grand parade that would include more than 1,000 Native Sons in 250 automobiles on a drive down the Peninsula that would start at Mason Street. They toured around the Presidio, to the Cliff House, Golden Gate Park, and then  the group headed south to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in San Bruno for lunch. After lunch, the group would tour to Crystal Springs and various points in San Mateo County.

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