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Downtown Yesterday

The land that eventually became Downtown Redwood City was once part of a vast Spanish ranchero owned by the Arguello family used for grazing cattle and horses and for providing missions in the area with supplies of food and animal hides. When California became part of the United States, the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains were logged for construction to the north in rapidly growing San Francisco.

Oxen Team, 1878 PhotoSoon, a deep-water channel off the bay was discovered near what is now Downtown Redwood City. A wharf or "embarcadero" was established 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. A small village consisting of the homes of laborers connected with the redwood trade and supporting business sprang up around the wharf.

Simon Mezes PhotoHowever, the settlers did not own the land. The land was owned by Simon Mezes, who had received the land as payment for successfully defending the Arguello family’s title before the US Land Commission in 1853. Rather than fight the fact that a town had sprung up, Mezes ordered surveys and drew up a subdivision map for a formal town, called it "Mezesville," and told the people living on his property to pay for the lots they were occupying or to get off the land and allow others to buy. The standard price for a lot was $75.

Mezesville MapMezes’ map determined the streets and blocks of Downtown Redwood City as we know them today. Before his efforts, the settlement of squatters had been large and without shape or design. His streets and property lines had to run through or around existing buildings, but they provided the first orderly way of identifying property. Although Redwood City has far outgrown Mezes' original tract, the streets in that central area are still about as he drew them. In time, the squatters reluctantly accepted this situation, writing into their deeds such sour phrases as "the so-called town of Mezesville" or "according to the Mezesville map." However, they went on calling their town Redwood, or Redwood Landing, and when they got a post office in 1856, they called it Redwood City.

Mezes set aside two blocks for public use. One, at Marshall and Winslow Streets, was called California Square and was designed for a park. It is now occupied by the San Mateo County Hall of Justice. The other, at Warren and Standish streets, is still a neighborhood square, known as Mezes Park. These blocks are believed to be the first property in California donated for public use and recreation.

First San Mateo County Courthouse, 1871Because of its large business base, Redwood City was selected to become the County Seat when San Mateo County was established in 1856. When San Mateo County needed land for a courthouse, Mr. Mezes offered to donate any block the county supervisors might select. The block chosen was on Broadway between Hamilton and Middlefield, where our courthouse is today. The first courthouse was ready for occupation in 1858. Over the course of time, four courthouses would be built on this block, including the current courthouse.

Soon, 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.

Redwood Creek Turning Basin, 1892The 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.

Courthouse No. 3 after 1906 EarthquakeThe 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.

Courthouse no. 3 had just been completed when the 1906 earthquake struck. Damage was so extensive that only the dome and rotunda section could be salvaged. During reconstruction, members of the local Order of Oddfellows allowed the use of their Hall on Main Street for county offices and a courtroom. Courthouse no. 4 opened in 1910 and still occupies the block donated by Mezes.

Courthouse No. 4 in 1910By 1920, the population had increased to 5,500 residents, some 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.

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.

Redwood City exploded in population following World War II. The town expanded outward annexing territory toward the Bay and inland toward the Santa Cruz Mountains. As San Mateo County grew rapidly in population, the county government built many large institutional buildings in the downtown area. During the 1980s and 1990s, the community made many civic improvements downtown. A new main fire station was built on Marshall Street in 1987, historical Fire Station no. 1 was restored and converted into the main library branch in 1988, and a beautiful new City Hall was completed in 1997. The small hamlet of just a few acres has now expanded to over 19 square miles and over 75,000 people, but Downtown is still the heart of the community.

1. Redwood City Historic Tours, a guide to Redwood City's most notable historic properties.
2. La Peninsula, Journal of the San Mateo County Historical Association, May 1967, vol. xiv, no. 2.


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