The History of Redwood City
In the 1920's, early residents of Redwood City sensed tremendous opportunities for the growth and success of their city. The population was doubling and attracting businesses became a major goal of the city's leaders. The Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Board each sponsored contests to find a slogan to represent and publicize the city's finest qualities, but it was the Real Estate Board which produced the winner. In 1925, the Board awarded Wilbur H. Doxsee a prize of $10 for his entry: "By Government Test, Our Climate is Best." This was later shortened to read: "Climate Best By Government Test" and placed with pride on the city's signs for all to see. So who exactly performed this government test? Starting before World War I, the United States and German governments began conducting climate surveys and gathering meteorological data. Their findings revealed Redwood City to be at the center of one of the world's three best climates (The other two? The Canary Islands and the Mediterranean Coast of North Africa). These findings were printed by local newspapers and read by a happy public delighted to discover their climate to be the best by government test. For more information, news clippings, and photos, please visit the local history archives at the Redwood City Public Library. For a thorough and fascinating review of this story, ask for The Sign of Our Times Project by Dr. Jeffrey K . Filippi.
The land and people of Redwood City have been involved in the progress of San Mateo County since its inception in 1856. In that year, Assemblyman Horace Hawes, owner of the property where Sequoia High School is now located, introduced a bill before the State Legislature to consolidate the boundaries of the City and County of San Francisco. Called The Consolidation Act, the legislation set apart all of the rural areas of San Francisco County into a new unit to be known as "San Mateo County". One of the terms of the act called for residents of the new county to hold an election of officers and to select a county seat. The first election was declared invalid after it was proved that a group of organized crime leaders tried to get themselves elected using fraudulent votes. They also wanted Belmont to be the county seat. But under the guidance of an honest Redwood City citizen named Benjamin Fox who had won the position of county judge, a second election was held in April of 1857. This time Redwood City was declared the legal seat of government. Fox held his position as a judge for four years, and was a powerful voice for law and order in the new county.
Simon Mezes, the man who had founded Redwood City, donated an entire city block of land for the construction of a courthouse. The property (between what is now Broadway, Hamilton, Marshall, and Middlefield) was located midway between the embarcadero and the County Road (now El Camino Real). Four different buildings have since occupied the block: Courthouse No. 1 was finished in 1858, Courthouse No. 2 in 1882, Courthouse No. 3 in 1905, and Courthouse No. 4 in 1910.
Through the years, county government has played a major part in the lives and activities of the people of Redwood City. Until the first courthouse was built, county officials conducted business in the upper story of a warehouse on Main Street owned by Redwood City merchant John Diller.
The County's first sheriff, John Ackerson, was a resident of Redwood City, as were two of his successors - Thomas Lathrop and John Edgar. Benjamin Lathrop, San Mateo County's first county clerk, recorder, and auditor, built a large house which is still standing across the street from the Hall of Justice and Records.
The Eikerenkotter Family was also closely connected with the political history of the County. During the late 1800's, five Eikerenkotter brothers held county offices. And Judge George Buck, famous for his length of service on the county superior court bench, lived at 1231 Jefferson Avenue from 1875 until his death in 1938.
The county has provided many other types of jobs for Redwood City residents, especially in the area of construction. A WPA project in 1939 employed many men in the building of two additions to the courthouse. And in 1958, an 8-story building called the Hall of Records and Justice was built on the site of the California Square, a plaza which had been designed and donated to the county by Simon Mezes.
The Redwood City Public Library was founded in 1865, when funds raised by private subscription provided for a Town reading room. The first reading room was located in a two-story building on Main Street that was shared with the Times-Gazette newspaper office. For the next three decades, the library was moved to several different locations and was staffed by members of an informal citizens committee. In 1889, the Redwood City Library Association was formed for the purpose of establishing a public library that was supported by municipal, as well as private funding. The first Town Librarian was photographer James Van Court, who also donated part of his studio for a reading room. In September of 1900, after increased community use and support of the library, the Town Trustees levied a special library tax, and in November of the same year, Ordinance No. 30 was introduced and passed providing for the establishment of a free public library in Redwood City.
Laura Barton, who had been in charge of the reading room, became the first City Librarian. Under her direction, the Library Board was granted a bequest form the Carnegie Foundation for the construction of a Carnegie Library on Broadway. Less than a year after its completion, the new library suffered severe damage during the 1906 Earthquake. Additional funds from the Foundation, however, enabled total reconstruction of the building by 1907.
Wilhelmina Harper, a noted children's librarian, was appointed as the Head Librarian in 1930, and supervised an extensive reorganization of the collection. She increased the purchase of non-fiction and children's books, and also introduced the Dewey Decimal system to the library. More books and more patronage created a serious space problem for the Carnegie building. In 1938, a City bond issue was passed to build a new library at the corner of Jefferson and Middlefield Road. Dedicated in 1939, the library was part of of Public Works Administration project which also included the construction of a new City Hall and an addition to the County courthouse.
The library adapted to post-war population growth with increased holdings and expanded community programs. The concept of branch libraries was also implemented in Redwood City. The Friendly Acres Branch operated out of a room at Fire Station No. 3 from 1952 to 1960. In 1957, the Schaberg Branch was completed, utilizing funds from a private donation. Fair Oaks Branch opened in 1974 as part of the Fair Oaks Community Center. And in 1988, a new 45,000 square-foot main library was built on the site of the old Fire Station No. 1 in the downtown area.
The area now referred to as Redwood Shores is a 1,500-acre piece of land surrounded by Highway 101 on the west, San Francisco Bay on the east, Belmont Slough on the north, and Steinberger Slough on the south. The site was originally part of an extensive marshland system that bordered the Bay along what is now San Mateo County. Oysters and clams were plentiful in the area, and there is evidence that the local Native Americans living on the Peninsula gathered much of their food from the surrounding tidal waterways.
From 1795 into the 1850's, Redwood Peninsula as the area became known, was part of the Rancho de las Pulgas owned by the Arguello Family of Mexico. The site was used primarily for cattle grazing. After California became part of the United States in 1848, this land as well as the rest of the Pulgas Ranch, was sold off in sections to various individuals and commercial interests of the rapidly increasing Anglo population.
In the late 1870's, the Morgan Oyster Company began importing and transplanting live Eastern oysters to the bay waters off of the Redwood Peninsula. Two oyster watch houses were constructed on the south side of the Belmont Slough in 1877 and 1884. Morgan's headquarters was located on Steinberger Slough. Because of an increase in bay pollution, however, oyster harvests dropped dramatically after 1900 and the industry collapsed.
According to official San Mateo County maps, by 1877 about half of the land was owned by San Francisco jeweler John W. Tucker and the rest by millionaire and U.S. Senator George Hearst. The maps also indicated that Hearst had purchased all of the acreage by 1894. A partnership between three local individuals - Hall, Dungan, & Allard - had purchased 1,200 acres of the site by 1909, and the Mobil Oil Company owned the remaining 335 acres.
Sometime in the early 1920's, a group of entrepreneurs formed the San Francisco Bay Terminal Company. The syndicate bought several thousand acres of bay front property, including all of Redwood Peninsula, with the idea of building several deep-water docking wharves for ships. Public protest caused the investors to abandon the harbor project, however, and in 1928, the Leslie Salt Company acquired the land. Leslie was originally located in San Mateo, but by this time had moved its center of operations to the Port of Redwood City. Leslie built a series of earthen dikes which protected the land from the tidal action of the Bay. The salt conglomerate also owned Bair Island, the area to the south of the Redwood Peninsula between Steinberger Slough and the Port of Redwood City, and for many years the two land masses were referred to as Redwood Shores and used by Leslie as salt brine evaporation areas.
After rejections from the cities of San Carlos and Belmont, Redwood City accepted the proposal from the Leslie Salt Company to annex Redwood Shores in 1959. Four years later, Leslie Properties, Inc., a subsidiary of Leslie Salt, unveiled a proposal for a planned community of housing, parks, and commercial sites, to be built at Redwood Shores. Modeled after Foster City, the plan projected a population of 60,000 and 20,700 housing units in the Shores by 1980.
In support of the project, the Redwood City City Council authorized the creation of a general improvement district in 1964. General Improvement District 1-64 consisted of $65 million in bonds that were generated from private sources for capital improvement projects in Redwood Shores. This included development of the land, lagoons, beaches, streets, sewers, and water systems. The most important of the improvement projects was the reinforcement of levees along Steinberger and Belmont Sloughs. Storm-water drainage was another critical project that had to be completed before construction could begin.
The first phase of development involved the 1,500 acres of Redwood Peninsula. Leslie Properties retained ownership of the land, but control of the administration, financing, and other elements of the project were the responsibility of Redwood City. City services like parks, a fire station, a community center, and a library branch were to be paid for by the city.
As construction of the first homes began, so did the building of a $10 million, 60-acre aquatic amusement park. Marine World opened its doors in July of 1968. It was located on a site at the northern part of the Shores, near Foster City. The park was built on four man-made islands with interlacing waterways, and was financed and run by the American Broadcasting Company. ABC sold the park to Resorts International in 1972, and a wildlife park and 3,000-seat jungle theater were added under the new management.
In the midst of development, however, the FHA suspended home loan guarantees for Redwood Shores, citing concerns over potential earthquake hazards. The moratorium lasted for 13 months, during which time several seismic studies found that earthquake-damage risk for the area was no greater than that of the rest of the Peninsula. The FHA lifted its moratorium in 1970, but the stoppage had taken its toll on Leslie Properties. The company was on the verge of bankruptcy and could not invest additional capital for development.
In February of 1973, Mobil Oil Estates, Ltd. purchased the property from Leslie. A subsidiary company of Mobil Oil called Redwood Shores Properties, Inc. administered the development from then on. The revised plan, included as part of the 1975 General Plan for Redwood City, called for a population "build-out" of 20,000 residents instead of 60,000, and an emphasis on more commercial development than initially planned.
Even under the revised plan, however, by 1978, only 500 homes had been completed. There were no commercial establishments besides Marine World, and development of city services was slowed by the implementation of Proposition 13. Leaders from Redwood City and Redwood Shores Properties held several meetings to discuss how best to proceed with the project.
The following year, on the advice of Redwood Shores Properties, Mobil Oil decided to invest enough capital to finish the promising Shorebird subdivision. Redwood City then agreed to an $11.6 million public works bond issue, which prompted more construction and building. By 1980, two major housing projects and two large commercial developments were underway. A road linking Ralston Avenue to Holly Street was finished and the first two Shores traffic signals were installed in 1981.
One of the most important public works projects was the restoration of the 76-acre central lagoon. During the 1970's, wildlife was almost non- existent in the man-made lagoon, and the County Health Department had warned against public use. The funds from the bond issue, however, provided for the installation of a more efficient circulation system which greatly improved the chemical content of the water. Today, wildlife is prevalent and the lagoon is one of the most widely-used recreational facilities on the Peninsula.
The economic recovery which began in 1982 also spurred development in Redwood Shores. Housing began to sell rapidly. The homes and businesses on the Redwood Peninsula were now called Redwood Shores, and the proposed construction on the vacant marshland of Bair Island was referred to as South Shores. The latter development never materialized, however, as a citizens referendum narrowly defeated the project in 1982. Redwood Shores Inc. then turned 1,000 acres over to the State for a wildlife refuge, and the remaining part of Bair Island was purchased by the Peninsula Open Space Trust in 1997. The entire piece of property between Steinberger Slough and Redwood Creek is now protected habitat.
Marine World/Africa USA moved from its Redwood Shores site to Vallejo in 1986. The Campeau Corp. bought the property intending to build an office complex. Because of a corporate takeover, however, Campeau had to sell. The new owners, Wilson & Associates, built the Centrum Office Complex, completed in 1989. Their first tenant was a fast-growing software company called Oracle Corporation, who moved its finance and administration departments from Menlo Park to the two new 11-story office buildings. Oracle eventually purchased the complex and built additional buildings for its other divisions.
In 1988, the Shores had 2,400 housing units and a population of over 7,000. A corporate complex called The Shores Center, opened in 1989, and attracted companies like DHL, Oral-B Labs, Fluor Mining & Metals, Hotel Sofitel, and many high-tech companies. By 1993, the population had increased to 8,500 as new residents were attracted to award-winning housing, parks, hiking and bicycle trails, fitness circuits, and the modern Pacific Athletic Club. Redwood Shores Properties sold the last commercial property available in the Shores to Flatiron Funds two years later. Electronic Arts now occupies that site.
The past 15 years have been exciting for Shores residents as facilities for which they had been waiting so long were finally built. Sandpiper Elementary School opened in September of 1997 at the 11-acre Sandpiper Park site, the result of a joint effort between the Belmont School District and the City of Redwood City. Marketplace Shopping Center, which includes several shops and a grocery store, opened the following month. Redwood City completed the construction of a fire station and the Sandpiper Community Center in 1998.
The latest services for the 15,000 residents is a state of the art library branch, operated by the Redwood City Public Library. The 24,000 sq. ft. branch located on the Belmont Slough opened in 2008 and includes a full service library, café, interpretive center and many meeting rooms for community use. In 2010, another elementary school opened.
Compiled from sources in the Local History Collection at the Redwood City Public Library
April, 1999; last updated in 2011
Port and Industry
In 1851, a deep-water channel that ran inland to what is now Redwood City was discovered off of San Francisco Bay. Named "Redwood Creek," this channel was used by the lumber companies to ship wood and logs from the redwood forests in the peninsula hills to San Francisco. Lumber products of all types were brought to the waterfront for export, and Redwood City became famous for its workable port where materials could be shipped without the delay or expense of overland travel. The port also generated the beginning of the ship-building industry . The first schooner was built in 1851 by G.M. Burnham and appropriately named "Redwood." Shipbuilding remained an active industry until the 1880's. The last wooden ship built in Redwood City, called the "Perseverance," was launched in 1883.
Many different types of businesses found the proximity to a deep-water channel of benefit, and wharves and businesses soon occupied the entire length of Redwood Creek. Commercial shipping of products other than lumber thrived, especially shingles, grains, and livestock. There were three main wharves. The two largest were on opposite sides of the creek at Broadway (then called Bridge St.) The third wharf, owned by Frank's Tannery, was farther down the creek near where the present-day Mervyn's Plaza is located.
Throughout the years, Redwood Creek was silted in with mud from land erosion caused by the building of wharves and the development of the town In 1896 and again in 1909, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the creek so that it could continue to be used for shipping.
The Redwood City Harbor Company was formed in 1912 by businessmen and civic leaders, but continued growth of the port was inhibited for some time by the railroad and other competing transportation interests. Several industries, however, saw the location as an asset, including the Alaska Codfish Company and the Morgan Oyster Company. The Pacific-Portland Cement Company, which located there in 1924, greatly increased shipping activity at the port.
A 1929 bond issue campaign to improve the channel was defeated. But in 1935, a harbor bond issue of $266,000 was approved by voters and matching funds were obtained from the federal government. With this large showing of support, the channels were dredged and larger piers were built along the sections that parallel what is now Seaport Blvd. In 1937, the first cargo ship steamed into the new Port of Redwood City, and since that year, the Port has operated independently and profitably.