El Camino Real (California)

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El Camino Real

The Royal Road
East entrance of San Gabriel Mission with an El Camino Real bell
CountryUnited States
Highway system
Reference no.784[1][2]

El Camino Real (Spanish; literally The Royal Road, often translated as The King's Highway) is a 600-mile (965-kilometer) commemorative route connecting the 21 Spanish missions in California (formerly the region Alta California in the Spanish Empire), along with a number of sub-missions, four presidios, and three pueblos. Historically associated with the Calle Real which terminates in Mexico City, as the former capital of New Spain and the seat of royal power for Las Californias (hence “Real”), its southern end in the modern U.S. state of California is at Mission San Diego de Alcalá and its northern terminus is at Mission San Francisco Solano.

The name was revived in the American era in connection with the boosterism associated with the Mission Revival movement of the early 20th century. Streets throughout California bear the "El Camino Real" name. The route has been continually upgraded and is decorated with Commemorative bell markers.

Spanish and Mexican era

A map produced in 1850

In earlier Spanish colonial times, any road under the direct jurisdiction of the Spanish crown and its viceroys was considered to be a camino real. Examples of such roads ran between principal settlements throughout Spain and its colonies such as New Spain.[3] Most caminos reales had names apart from the appended camino real. The original route begins in Baja California Sur, Mexico, at the site of Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, present day Loreto, (the first mission successfully established in Las Californias).[4][citation needed]

The Portolá expedition of 1769 included Franciscan missionaries, led by Junípero Serra. Starting from Loreto, Serra established the first of the 21 missions at San Diego. Serra stayed at San Diego and Juan Crespí continued the rest of the way with Gaspar de Portolá. Proceeding north, Portolá followed the coastline (today's California State Route 1), except where forced inland by coastal cliffs.

Eventually, the expedition was prevented from going farther north by the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate. Crespí identified several future mission sites which were not developed until later. On the return trip to San Diego, Gaspar de Portolá found a shorter detour around one stretch of coastal cliffs via Conejo Valley.[citation needed]

Portolá journeyed again from San Diego to Monterey in 1770, where Junipero Serra (who traveled by ship) founded the second mission (later moved a short distance south to Carmel). Carmel became Serra's Alta California mission headquarters.

The Juan Bautista de Anza expedition of (1775–76) entered Alta California from the southeast (crossing the Colorado River near today's Yuma, Arizona), and picked up Portolá's trail at Mission San Gabriel. De Anza's scouts found easier traveling in several inland valleys, rather than staying on the rugged coast. On his journey north, de Anza traveled the San Fernando Valley and Salinas Valley. After detouring to the coast to visit the Presidio of Monterey, de Anza went inland again, following the Santa Clara Valley to the southern end of San Francisco Bay and on up the east side of the San Francisco Peninsula.

Between 1683 and 1835, Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries established a series of religious outposts from today's Baja California and Baja California Sur into present-day California. Heavy freight and long-distance passenger movement was practical only via ships by a coastal water route.[4]

To facilitate overland travel, mission settlements were approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) apart, so that they were separated by one long day's ride[citation needed] on horseback along the 600-mile (966-kilometer) long El Camino Real (Spanish for "The Royal Highway," though often referred to in the later embellished English translation, "The King's Highway"), and also known as the California Mission Trail. Tradition has it that the padres sprinkled mustard seeds along the trail to mark the windings of the trail's northward progress with bright yellow flowers, creating a golden trail stretching from San Diego to Sonoma.[5][6]

Valuable seeds were brought to California also marking the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro with trees for different uses. For example, ash trees were the marker for where a spring was to be found, as seen to this day at the church of Nuestra Señora del Tránsito [Wikidata] in Fresnillo, Zacatecas.[citation needed]

American era

A historical marker situated along El Camino Real

By the mid-nineteenth century, when California became a state, the route had been improved in certain sections, but was wholly inadequate for large stagecoaches and freight wagons.[7]: 52  In 1892, Anna Pitcher of Pasadena, California initiated an effort to establish a commemorate route which was adopted by the California Federation of Women's Clubs in 1902.[8] In the early twentieth century, organizations and government agencies became interested in creating official designations or commemorations of roads and highways. Given the lack of standardized highway signs at the time, it was decided to place distinctive bells along the route, hung on supports in the form of an 11-foot (3.4 m) high shepherd's crook, also described as "a Franciscan walking stick". The bells were designed by Mrs ASC Forbes, who also owned the California Bell Company where they were cast.[9][10] The first of 450 bells were unveiled on August 15, 1906, at the Plaza Church in the Pueblo near Olvera Street in Los Angeles.[11]

A 1915 map produced by the Automobile Club of Southern California traced the route that connected the missions for motorists to follow.[3] The club and associated groups cared for the bells from the mid-1920s through 1931 after the original organization which installed the bells fragmented. Distinctive route markers were added to U.S. Route 101 and other national auto trails when the joint board of state highway officials adopted the United States Numbered Highway System in 1926.[12] The state highways forming El Camino Real were identified as Highway 1, U.S. Route 101 and Highway 82 on the San Francisco Peninsula in a 1959 law.[13] Most of the bells eventually disappeared due to vandalism, theft or simple loss due to the relocation or rerouting of highways and roads.[14] The State took over bell maintenance in 1933.[15] After a reduction in the number of bells to around 80, the State began replacing them, at first with concrete, and later with iron.[16] Justin Kramer took over the production of the bells in 1959.[15] The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) began a restoration effort in 1996.

Keith Robinson, Principal Landscape Architect at Caltrans developed an El Camino Real restoration program which resulted in the installation of 555 El Camino Real Bell Markers in 2005. The Bell Marker consists of a 460 mm diameter cast metal bell set atop a 75 mm diameter Schedule 40 pipe column that is attached to a concrete foundation using anchor rods. The original 1906 bell molds were used to fabricate the replacement bells.[17] The bells are most typically marked 1769 & 1906, and include a designer's copyright notice.[11] The two dates represent the date of the founding of the first Alta-California mission in San Diego, and the date of the setting of the first commemorative bell-marker, respectively.[18] In 1997, the California Federation of Women's Clubs, in conjunction with California State Automobile Association, developed a restoration project as part of CalTrans "Adopt-a-Highway" program.[15] Permits issued by Caltrans for installations along state routes have detailed specifications on how the bell should be set up for safety and legal considerations.[13]

Bell of El Camino Real at the Los Angeles Plaza Mission (CHS-2818)
One of the commemorative bells, placed at El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument with wayfinding markers to Mission San Fernando and Mission San Gabriel

For some indigenous populations, the bells are painful symbols of the dehumanization of their ancestors, together with the domination and erasure of their culture.[19] The Amah Mutsun tribal band shared with local authorities how the bells represent historical injustices and oppression of their people.[20] In response, a bell at the University of California, Santa Cruz was removed by campus officials in June 2019.[21] The issue was also present when the statues of Junípero Serra were damaged and/or removed in 2020 during the George Floyd protests which expanded to include monuments of individuals associated with the controversy over the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas. The historical preservation commission of Santa Cruz reported to the city council in November 2020 that the bells represent a painful history for the indigenous people of the city, and noted that a bell in Mission Park Plaza had been stolen in 1999 and not replaced.[22] Santa Cruz scheduled the removal of the last bell in the city, at the intersection of Soquel and Dakota avenues, for August 28, 2021, but the bell was stolen the night before it was to be removed. The Tribal Band, an organization of local tribes, led a ceremony to mark the occasion in spite of the theft.[23]

Modern highway and street routes

Mission San Miguel as seen from the road while driving the "commemorative route" of the Camino Real
Alhambra station along Mission Road in Alhambra in 1973

Several modern highways include parts of the commemorative route, though large sections are on city streets (for instance, most of the stretch between San Jose and San Francisco). The full route as defined by the California State Legislature is as follows:[24][25]

Destinations Notes
Interstate 5 U.S.-Mexico border to Anaheim
Anaheim Boulevard, Harbor Boulevard, State Route 72 and Whittier Boulevard Anaheim to Whittier
Whittier to Los Angeles
U.S. Route 101 Los Angeles to San Jose
State Route 87 within San Jose
State Route 82 San Jose to San Francisco
Interstate 280 San Francisco
U.S. Route 101 San Francisco to Novato
State Route 37 Novato to Sears Point
State Route 121 Sears Point to Sonoma
State Route 12 Sonoma
East Bay route
Destinations Notes
State Route 87 within San Jose
State Route 92 San Jose to Fremont
State Route 238 Fremont to Hayward
State Route 185 Hayward to Oakland
State Route 123 Oakland to San Pablo (continued to Martinez)
Stretch of El Camino Real at Rios-Caledonia Adobe San Miguel

Some older local roads that parallel these routes also have the name. Mission Street in San Francisco does correspond to the commemorative route. An unpaved stretch of the old road has been preserved just east of Mission San Juan Bautista; this section of road runs parallel to the San Andreas Fault, which can be clearly seen where the ground drops several feet.[citation needed] Many streets throughout California bear the name of the road, often with scant relation to the original.

A section of the old mission road, El Camino Real fronts the Rios-Caledonia Adobe in San Miguel. This road served stagecoaches and then was paved as part of the original US 101 highway.[citation needed]

The route through San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is designated as State Route 82,[26] and some stretches of it are named El Camino Real. The old road is part of the de Anza route, located a few miles east of Route 101.[citation needed]

Historic designations

El Camino Real is designated as California Historical Landmark #784. There are two state historical markers honoring the road: one located near Mission San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego[1] and the other one near Mission San Francisco de Asís in San Francisco.[2]

See also


  1. ^ a b "California Historical Landmark: San Diego County". Office of Historic Preservation. California State Parks. Retrieved October 13, 2012.
  2. ^ a b "California Historical Landmark: San Francisco County". Office of Historic Preservation. California State Parks. Retrieved October 13, 2012.
  3. ^ a b Myrow, Rachael (November 2, 2017). "El Camino Not-So-Real: The True Story of the 'Ancient Road'". KQED. Retrieved 2022-04-06.
  4. ^ a b Masters, Nathan (2013-01-04). "How El Camino Real, California's 'Royal Road,' Was Invented". KCET. Retrieved 2022-03-23.
  5. ^ Jepsen, Chris (2015-07-21). "OC Answer Man: What's With the Wild Mustard All Over Orange County?". Orange Coast Magazine. Retrieved 2022-02-06.
  6. ^ "Central Coast Curious: How did mustard 'invade' our coast?". KCBX. 2018-10-13. Retrieved 2022-02-06.
  7. ^ Brown, Jody; Everson, Dicken; Heck, Gene; Hobbs, Kelly; Huddleson, Julia; Medin, Anmarie; Mikesell, Steve; Moffett, Chad; Scott, Gloria; Nayyar, Margo; Swope, Karen; Thompson, Scott; Wooten, Kimberly; Cismowski, Deborah (2016). A Historical Context and Methodology for Evaluating Trails, Roads, and Highways in California (PDF) (Report). California Department of Transportation.
  8. ^ Kurillo, M.; Tuttle, E. (2000). California's El Camino Real and Its Historic Bells. Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, CA. pp. 53–57. ISBN 978-0-932653-37-6.
  9. ^ Forbes, Harrie (1925). California missions and landmarks, El Camino real (8th ed.). Los Angeles, Calif. p. 361.
  10. ^ "California Bell Company". Original and current manufacturer of the El Camino Real bells
  11. ^ a b Pool, Bob (August 16, 2006). "Saga of the Bells Comes Full Circle". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2022-04-07.
  12. ^ Masters, Nathan (2015-10-21). "The Lost U.S. Highways of Southern California History". KCET. Retrieved 2022-04-15.
  13. ^ a b Pimentel, Benjamin (1999-04-10). "Clashing Bells / Group challenges Caltrans over route of El Camino Real". SFGATE. Retrieved 2022-04-08.
  14. ^ Cappon, Sally (October 27, 2009). "New mission bells are back on Hwy. 101". Lompoc Record. Retrieved 2020-12-03.
  15. ^ a b c Buchanan, Paul D. (July 13, 2017). "Women's club rescue famed Mission Bells". San Mateo Daily Journal. Retrieved 2022-04-08.
  16. ^ "Mission Bells". Caltrans. Archived from the original on 2018-12-16. Retrieved March 24, 2016.
  17. ^ "El Camino Real Mission Bell Project". Caltrans. 2019-06-01. Archived from the original on 2019-06-01.
  18. ^ Hernandez-Jason, Scott (June 14, 2019). "Mission bell to be removed". UC Santa Cruz News. Retrieved June 21, 2019.
  19. ^ Fuentes, Zach (2022-01-18). "Bay Area Native Americans oppose replica mission bell installation, say it represents dark history". ABC7 San Francisco. Retrieved 2022-04-17.
  20. ^ Lopez, Valentin (2022-03-21). "Op-Ed: Why the California 'mission bell' road markers must come down". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2022-03-23.
  21. ^ Hanna, Jason (January 22, 2019). "A California university removes a mission bell from campus, concerned it's seen as a racist symbol". CNN. Retrieved 2020-11-28.
  22. ^ "Santa Cruz historical commission recommends removing city's last mission bell". Catholic Telegraph. Catholic News. November 24, 2020. Retrieved 2020-11-26.
  23. ^ Miller, Johanna (August 31, 2021). "Bell Symbolizing Past Atrocities Stolen Prior to Santa Cruz's Planned Removal". Good Times Santa Cruz.
  24. ^ California Streets and Highways Code, Chapter 2, Article 3, Section 635
  25. ^ "California Highways: El Camino Real". cahighways.org. Retrieved December 11, 2018.
  26. ^ San Mateo County Historical Society, San Bruno Herald

Further reading

External links