In 1776, Spanish explorers came to today's San Mateo. During a scouting trip to locate a place to start a colony on the Peninsula, Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza, Padre Pedro Font, Lieutenant Jose Joaquin Moraga, and eleven soldiers set up camp in San Mateo. Father Font named the creek that they slept by "San Mateo Creek."
In 1793, the mission fathers in San Francisco created an outpost of the mission on the Peninsula. The outpost was at San Mateo Creek and was established to bring the Church to the Peninsula, to organize and oversee the newly converted Christians in livestock herding, and to provide food for the Mission. The outpost was the first building built in San Mateo by non-natives.
The Great Ranchos
In 1822, California received word of Mexico's independence from Spanish rule. This would bring changes to San Mateo with the missions becoming secularized and the opening of free trade. The Mexican Land Grants (1835) would leave a few residents owning vast expansions of land in the area. In fact, these ranches were so large that what is now the City of San Mateo is comprised of portions of two of them-Rancho San Mateo and Rancho de las Pulgas.
This Rancho period lasted about thirty years. Rancho San Mateo, which comprised what is today south Burlingame, all of Hillsborough, and north San Mateo was sold to the American mercantile firm of Mellus and Howard for four dollars an acre. In 1850, Howard built the first of the great homes of the area, El Cerrito, on the property.
San Mateo Becomes a Stagecoach Stop
Nicolas de Peyster came to San Mateo in 1849. De Peyster created what would be the first business enterprise in San Mateo when he opened a stagecoach stop in the now abandoned mission outpost. By opening this business, de Peyster established what would be the main road through San Mateo.
The Railroad Comes to San Mateo
In May 1861, under the direction of Charles B. Polhemus, the construction of a railroad to link San Francisco with San Jose began. The track was completed in January 1864 and the first service through San Mateo was on October 17, 1863. The train made the trip from San Francisco to San Mateo in thirty-seven minutes.
With Polhemus in the role of director of railroad construction, the decision about where the central business district would be located lay in his hands. The first building to be erected near the tracks was the train station, but it wasn't long before buildings began springing up in the area of Main Street and Railroad Avenue. This was the beginning of downtown San Mateo.
The Great Estates
The opening of railroad service in San Mateo attracted many wealthy San Franciscans to the area. San Mateo became an ideal place for building summer and weekend homes for people who worked in San Francisco. These estates were built for some of the most powerful people in the West.
The resulting population that developed in San Mateo was largely made up of people employed in the service of these great mansions. During this period, the wealthy estate owners bought up large parcels of land, keeping the majority of San Mateo property owned by a few families.
During this period, there were some families that established their own wealth through enterprises in the area. One of the most successful of these businesses was the building company owned by the Wisnom family. Robert Wisnom became the best known builder during this era and he is credited for erecting many buildings in San Mateo.
With San Mateo growing into a community, its citizens wanted to establish permanent houses of worship. The first church built in San Mateo was the Roman Catholic Church at what is today Third Avenue and Ellsworth on a parcel of land donated by Charles Polhemus.
The Church was blessed on February 7, 1864 and the Episcopalians followed with the construction of their own church on land donated by the George Howard family and consecrated on May 23, 1866. The church was constructed from stones taken from the Crystal Springs quarry and for many years was the only stone church in California.
Two schools were established in the San Mateo area, one for girls, and one for boys. In 1864, Ms. Buckmaster's School for Girls opened with eleven pupils. Ms. Buckmaster's School was short-lived, however, and in 1887 the school was rented by her estate to a private school for boys.
In 1866 the Episcopal Reverend A.L. Brewer opened St. Mathew's Hall, a classical and military school, at what is today 415 South Ellsworth. St. Mathew's Hall's reputation as an outstanding school spread far, and drew students from as far away as Hawaii, with three Hawaiian princes attending the academy.
Creating a Fire Department
After two disastrous fires in five years, five community members called for a public meeting to be held on April 6, 1887 at Library Hall. That same afternoon, the hall burned to the ground because they had no way to fight the fire and had to wait until Redwood City could arrive on the scene.
On May 7 of the same year, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors appointed a fire commission. The Commission then held an election to raise money for a hose, hose cart, hook and ladder unit, and a building in which to store them-the volunteer fire department was officially organized on March 18, 1889.
Incorporating into a Town
The year 1889 saw many important events in the developing San Mateo Community. Under head engineer, Herman Schussler, the Crystal Springs dam was completed. The completion of this project assured that the people of the San Mateo would have quality drinking water, allowing for further growth in the area.
The activity surrounding the construction of the dam further added to San Mateo's growing population. It was in the same year as the dam's completion that William Howard had part of his estate opened for subdivision. Although subdividing had been attempted in the past, this was the first successful attempt at selling smaller plots of land. With this, the middle class moved to San Mateo.
In this same year, Richard H. Jury and Charles N. Kirkbride established the Leader, San Mateo's first successful newspaper and one of the earliest proponents of the incorporation of San Mateo. On September 3, 1894, in a vote of 150 in favor of and 25 against incorporation, San Mateo became a town.
For further information on the history of San Mateo, please refer to Mitchell P. Postel's book, "San Mateo, A Centennial History" available at the San Mateo Public Library. The City of San Mateo would like to thank Mr. Postel for references.