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History of Redwood City
The first occupants of Redwood City were Native Americans from a tribe called the Ohlone. The Ohlone lived in the area stretching from San Francisco Bay to the Santa Cruz foothills. The main staple of the Ohlone diet was shellfish gathered from the bay, and gradually the shells from the shellfish raised into "mounds" above the surrounding landscape at various village sites.

At one time, there were several shell mounds in Redwood City. A section of Main Street between Maple Street and Woodside Road was originally called "Mound Street" because of a large shell mound located near that area. The shell mounds were leveled and built upon by settlers long ago. Today, Ohlones still reside in the Bay Area.

In 1776, Spanish Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza and his men became the first Europeans to pass through Redwood City on their way up the peninsula. In the area that was later to become San Francisco, Anza selected a site for a presidio and a mission.

Other Spaniards soon followed, primarily soldiers and Franciscan priests to run the missions that were founded throughout California. The priests were dependent on Indian labor for the successful operations of their missions. The priests also attempted to convert the Indians to Catholicism and the Spanish way of life. Unfortunately, the Indians had no immunity to European diseases, and many died. Within fifty years from the first European contact, the Ohlone culture was nearly gone.

With the arrival of more Spanish colonists, small cattle and farming outposts, as well as larger ranches were established on the peninsula. Land was granted by the Spanish government to high-ranking officers in return for their service in the military.

One of these officers, Don Jose Darío Argüello, was granted 69,000 acres between San Mateo Creek to the north and San Francisquito Creek to the south. His property also stretched from the bay to the Coastal Range mountains. Don Argüello named his home Rancho de las Pulgas (Ranch of the Fleas) and it included what is today Belmont, San Carlos, Redwood City, Menlo Park, and Woodside .

The grant was reaffirmed to Don Jose's son, Don Luís Argüello, by the Mexican government in 1822 when Mexico was granted independence from Spain. The Argüellos used their land primarily for grazing cattle and horses, but they also helped support the missions in the area by providing them with supplies of food and animal hides.

The Argüello family lived peacefully on their estate until the late 1840's, when hundreds of Americans began migrating westward in search of gold and land. The Ranchos in San Mateo County, being close to San Francisco, were among the first to be affected by the tremendous influx of new settlers.

The Mexican-American War, from 1846 - 1848, had relatively little impact on Redwood City. As a result of the war, however, California became a U.S. territory, and two years later the 31st state. The Spanish-Mexican property owners were subsequently forced to defend the titles to their land before a U.S. Land Commission.

The Argüellos' defense was complicated by the fact that a deep-water channel off the bay had been discovered near what is now downtown Redwood City, and the Americans had established a wharf or "embarcadero" for shipping lumber to San Francisco. Initially, the logs, cut from the redwood forests along the peninsula skyline, were dragged overland by oxen teams. But the availability of water transport greatly increased the efficiency of the lumber trade.

The laborers connected with this trade built homes and businesses on Argüello land, speculating that the title would be dismissed by the Land Commission. The Argüellos hired an attorney, Simon M. Mezes, who succeeded in establishing clear title for the Las Pulgas Rancho in 1853. Mezes eventually became the owner of the land that now includes most of downtown Redwood City.

By this time, however, so many Americans had settled on the property that Mezes decided to create an official town and sell lots instead of trying to force all of the squatters to leave. Mezes named his town "Mezesville", but the residents continued to call it "Redwood City".

By 1856, when San Mateo County was created, the town of Redwood City had become well-established. Shipping activity along the wharf was heavy, mainly with lumber, but also shingles, hay, and wheat. Other wharfside industries were shipbuilding, blacksmithing, and later, several tanneries. Support businesses for the wharf sprang up along what is now Broadway and Main Streets.

Because of its large business base, Redwood City was selected to become the County Seat when San Mateo County was established in 1856. A courthouse was built two years later on a piece of property donated by Simon Mezes.

The coming of the railroad through Redwood City in 1863 also caused profound changes. Land values spiraled upward and the Peninsula's first commuters, wealthy San Franciscans, came south to build large homes. Many town improvements were made, most importantly to roads, leading the citizens to petition for incorporation in 1867. The State of California approved the incorporation, and Redwood City became the first incorporated city in San Mateo County on March 27, 1868.

During the latter part of the 19th century, Redwood City grew slowly. The town was basically self-contained, employing most of its working populace in a diversity of activities. The embarcadero remained the center of business activity, but many of the townspeople also worked in government, education, and farming. By the turn of the century, the lumber business had moved out of the area, and other businesses like hotels and general stores had taken its place.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 displaced thousands of people, and Redwood City welcomed them with open arms. Real estate companies sprang up overnight, much like the shipping industry had fifty years before. Many of the large estates west of El Camino were subdivided and homes were constructed on smaller lots.

By 1920, the population had increased to 5,500 residents, many of whom were now commuting to jobs outside of Redwood City. Local industries were still the mainstay of the town's employment, however, including tanneries, nurseries, small manufacturing plants, and fruit canneries.

During the next decade, as the population doubled, the demand also increased for various city services. A city-funded fire department and police department were formed and other city departments expanded. And a new building for historic Sequoia High School was constructed in 1923 on a portion of the old Hawes Estate.

As development continued, the hub of commercial activity shifted west to El Camino and Broadway. The creek in downtown silted in and the port of Redwood City was moved further out towards the bay, to its present location. A deep-water channel was dredged to serve the Leslie Salt Company, the Pacific-Portland Cement Company, and the Alaska Codfish Company.

During the 1930's, efforts were intensified to develop a municipal marina and an international port site. The channel was widened, a wharf was built, and railway lines were extended from the main line. By September of 1937, the new facility and channel were ready to handle cargo. The operations at the Port were so successful that further improvements were made, and the Port became an integral part of the Redwood City community. During World War ll, the U.S. Navy leased two docking berths for their ships.

The rapid growth of the 1920's and 1930's seemed dwarfed by the growth explosion that occurred in the years following World War ll. In nearly all of the cities surrounding the bay, development spilled over traditional city boundaries. Towns that were once separated by open land were suddenly fused when farmland became residential subdivisions.

In Redwood City, the population grew from 12,400 in 1940 to 46,300 in 1960. The city annexed 25 square miles of tidelands and salt ponds, and was one of the pioneer cities to strike a balance between conservation and development. One of the annexed areas, Bair Island, was set aside as a wildlife sanctuary, while to the north a model community of homes called Redwood Shores was developed during the 1960's. The Redwood Shores plan also included businesses to provide jobs for residents.

Many new buildings were constructed to meet the needs of the population influx, and by Redwood City's centennial, in 1967, the city was home to sixteen elementary schools, two junior high schools, two high schools, a community college, two hospitals, and a new county government complex. The city's industrial base also expanded and diversified. The port began renting land to non-marine related businesses. Technological companies also started locating in Redwood City, beginning with Ampex (the developer of audio and video tape) in the 1950's to Oracle (a computer software company) in the 1980's.

The Downtown Area still remains the center of activity, however, with several county government buildings, financial institutions, and an extensive city government complex. During the 1980's, Redwood City built a new main fire station and main library in the downtown area. A new city hall complex is due to be completed in 1997. As Redwood City continues to grow and approaches the 21st century, its leaders and residents are ever-mindful of the importance of the past and preserving the city's rich and colorful heritage.

Source Notes:
The source for this history is the booklet Redwood City Historic Tours, a guide to Redwood City's most notable historic properites.

 

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Photos provided by the Local History Collection at the Redwood City Public Library.
Copyright © 1999. Redwood City Public Library. All rights reserved.
Exhibit date: February 1997.