Prior to the arrival of the first Spanish explorers, the San Mateo area was inhabited by the Ohlone indians. They established a large village along Laurel Creek where it is crossed today by El Camino Real. The Spanish expedition of 1776, lead by Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza, set up a camp where the city of San Mateo now stands. In 1793, missionaries from the San Francisco Mission established a farming outpost where the present day Saint Mathew's Church on El Camino Real is located. It was the first structure built by Europeans in San Mateo.
Mexico's independence from Spain in 1822 resulted in Mexican land grants that created enormous ranchos. Two of them, Rancho San Mateo and Rancho de las Pulgas (which now has a major street named after it) encompassed the area of the modern day city of San Mateo.
Poised for Growth
After the opening of a stagecoach stop, and then in 1861 a railroad station, San Mateo became much more than a mission outpost. The train cut the time to San Francisco to just thirty-seven minutes, and businesses were established in the area of Main Street and Railroad Avenue, marking the start of downtown San Mateo.
Wealthy San Franciscans set up summer and weekend homes in the area, purchasing large parcels of the former Spanish ranchos. New churches and private schools were built, and the first volunteer fire department was established in 1889, as well as the first newspaper. In that same year, the Crystal Springs dam was built, assuring a reliable supply of drinking water. In 1894, by a vote of 150 to 25, San Mateo became an incorporated municipality.
San Mateo continued its moderate growth into the twentieth century maintaining an image as a clean suburban town. Prior to World War II, the most important development shaping the future of San Mateo may have been the establishment of Bay Meadows Race Track by William P. Kyne in 1934. Bay Meadows became one of the country's greatest attractions. A cadre of celebrities, including entertainment personalities from the southern part of the state, came to see the well-known horses.
The years following World War II saw rapid growth and increasing suburbanization of the area. The Hillsdale Shopping Center was begun in 1954 and was a pioneer of the internal pedestrian mall concept.
The area also contains some notable examples of residential architecture, including houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, William Wurster, and Richard Neutra. The mid-century modern developer Joseph Eichler, who homes have been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, built hundreds of houses in the 1950s that were designed by A. Quincy Jones and Robert Allen.
(Special thanks to Mitch Postel for his contributions to this article)