Everything was Up to Date on the Peninsula in 1910

In 2010 San Mateo County celebrated the 100th anniversary of the dedication of its historic courthouse, a Victorian structure that now houses the county museum and serves as the focal point of downtown Redwood City. There was a lot of looking back to 1910, but what did the people of 1910 look forward to?

Newspapers of July 4, 1910 that honored the courthouse’s birth overflowed with the optimism and confidence of a young nation that suddenly possessed an empire wrested from Spain.

“Wireless telegraphy and telephone and quick contact with the outside world are man’s parallel to God’s great gift of the climate and bay,” boasted one column in the Redwood City Democrat. “Surely Redwood City is among the best.” After all, the city of 2,442 had two weekly newspapers and five churches.

The writer, Frona Colburn, claimed “nothing seems wanting but a flying machine.”

Colburn must have been pleased when 1910 recorded huge leaps in aviation, although the skies were still a new frontier, one pioneered by the Wright Brothers as recently as 1903.  Contests were held around the world to find out who could complete flights that then seemed very distant. In September of 1910 the Daily Mail awarded a prize of 50 pounds to a pilot who flew from Paris to London. It also was the first year a radio message was sent from a plane, according to “Century of Flight,” which, on a more deadly note, listed 1910 as the year the machine gun debuted as an aerial weapon.

The feat of flying drew thousands to Tanforan in San Bruno in 1910 to see famed pilot Louis Paulhan of France reach an altitude of 1,300 feet, according to the New York Times of Jan. 26 of that year.  The interest is understandable. Paulhan was fresh from his performance at the first major American airshow, one held at Dominguez Field, just south of Los Angeles, from Jan 10-20.  There he set a new flight endurance record by carrying a passenger almost 110 miles in his Farman biplane in an hour and 49 minutes. Then he reached a new altitude mark of 4,164 feet, according to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. In a few years Redwood City would have a flying school, albeit one with a short life. The founder-aviator, Silas Christofferson, died in 1916 when his biplane plunged to earth near what is today the city corporation yard.

To showcase advances, the Democrat ran several pictures of the recently opened Dumbarton Rail Bridge, the first bridge across the bay. The bridge, which cut 26 miles off the train ride from Oakland to San Francisco, featured a rotating section that shifted aside to make way for boats.. The newspaper also noted that the courthouse was “class A fireproof,” adding that not a piece of wood was “used in the building for structural or finish purposes.”

There was a hint of some problems ahead, however. A very short story at the bottom of the paper reported that the “waters of the Bay are being polluted.” In the main, however, there were few naysayers on a Peninsula that was booming. The population stood at 26,585 and would grow to 36,781 in ten years. Much of the growth was recorded in the northern parts of the county where refugees fled from San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire. South San Francisco incorporated in 1908, the same year Burlingame did. Daly City would incorporate in 1911 and San Bruno in 1914. Despite the increasing population, some areas would soon be cut off from growth. In 1913 the Raker Act, which led to the Hetch Hetchy water system, assured that parts of San Mateo County would be kept from development.

Everything was up to date on the Peninsula, which even had telephones. A “long distance” three-minute call from Redwood City to San Francisco cost 25 cents. The prices in the newspaper’s ads look laughable today until one realizes that the average worker in America earned $15 a week for 54-60 hours of toil. Southern Pacific charged $108. 50 for a round trip ticket to New York that included “liberal stop-over privileges.” The ad for grocer E. P. Heise showed a pound of seedless raisins going for 10 cents while a pound of mince meat was tagged at 15 cents, the same price as a can of lobster.  At Einstein’s, boys suits were going for $7.50. Realtors were selling “brand new bungalows” for $4,000 while the Pioneer Auto was offering a car for $1,500. The paper also had an ad for a blacksmith, who must have wondered about his future. Henry Ford alone sold 10,000 cars in 1910.

Women Take the Lead

The July 4th edition of the Democrat was important for reasons other than reporting every aspect of the new courthouse. It was the first time women produced the newspaper.

“When it is issued it will go far to convince the public that the ladies know what news is and how to write it,” the Democrat’s June 16 issue predicted about the Independence Day edition that would be put out by members of the Woman’s Club, which was less than a year old.  Incorporated on Sept. 16, 1909, the first meeting drew 33 members who planned to promote “good fellowship and cooperation” among women in the area.

Mrs. George A. Merrill fulfilled the promise of “knowing what news is” when she wrote about what the future would hold. She saw increasing relations between America and Asia as the key.

“The contact between America and the Orient goes on with little notice, appearing to us as a series of common place incidents of our daily lives and seemingly a matter of small consequence,” she wrote. “Historians of a century hence will see it otherwise.”

Right on target.  A century hence is now.

Merrill also wrote that the Panama Canal, which would open in five years, “will add still further to our increasing radius of world connections.”

She forecast that the population on the Peninsula “will continue at a rate that will soon reconcile the oldest inhabitant to the passing of the farm and the advent of the suburban home-builder.”

The aforementioned Colburn made a similar forecast, predicting the Bay’s deep water ports would lure trade that will result in “great factories, mills, plants and warehouses which will have direct contact with Pacific Ocean traffic.”

Another contributor, Frances Fairchild, gave her opinion about the future of women, noting that they were better educated than their mothers and were raised to be “practical, executive and forceful.”

“They have worked harmoniously and demonstrated the power of associated womanhood,” she wrote about what today might be called “networking.” 

“The doors of greater opportunities have opened to them and under these circumstances they will accomplish more in the future.”

Fairchild pondered what was in store for the family. Insisting that “true womanliness is not in danger,” she wrote that “the sacred duties of wife and mother will be all the more honorably performed,” concluding that women will need “better men,” ones who “uphold the sanctity of the home.”                    

Not all News Is from Ivory Towers

Don’t get the impression that people of 1910 were consumed by matters of such great importance. The papers were filled with what today seems mundane. Whole columns of print reported on “What Your Neighbors Have Been Doing During the Past Week.”  For instance, The Colma Record of Oct. 7, 1910 let the town know that “Mrs. Madison Rae of Colma has been on the sick list for a couple of weeks” and that “M. Wiggurick of Stickles Avenue has returned from a month’s vacation at Santa Cruz.”

It’s a good bet that most of those comings and goings were by whites, who formed the vast majority of the population.. There’s a hint of racism in the Democrat. In her piece, Merrill claimed that the “principal point of contact between the white and yellow civilizations will be on California soil.”  Try getting that line in print today!!!

The white world was dealt a body blow on July 4, 1910, the same day the courthouse was dedicated, when black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson devastated former champion James Jeffries before 20,000 people in Reno, Nevada, Jeffries, the “great white hope,” had come out of retirement, saying, “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.”    

San Mateo County had a good look at Johnson almost a year earlier in Colma when he fought middleweight champ Stanley Ketchel.  The 202-pound Johnson knocked out the 170 pound Ketchel in the 12th round after the smaller fighter had decked him. Ketchel was tough. He kept getting knocked down and coming back. “That man isn’t human,” Johnson reportedly told his corner during the Oct 16 fight. After he was knocked down by Ketchel, Johnson unleashed a blow so powerful it ripped five of Ketchel’s teeth off at the roots. Colma was a fitting place for such a battle. The northern part of the county was home to much of what was illegal in San Francisco – including boxing and gambling.

About those Courthouse Swastikas

A sure sign of the racism of the times are the swastika-like tiles sprinkled throughout the courthouse floor. NOT so fast. Let’s not rush to judgment. Before World War II, the swastika, a word of Sanskrit origin, was used by many cultures for thousands of years to represent life, sun, power, strength and good luck. Some American Indians who wove swastikas into blankets for sale to tourists stopped the practice when the emblem became associated with Hitler and hate. The word “race” was tossed around freely in 1910.  The 1911 edition of the U.S. Immigration Commission’s Dictionary of Races of People recognized 45 “races” among immigrants to the United States.

The San Mateo County History Museum has printed a flier that explains the floor mosaic, calling the symbol the “sauvastika, the mirror image of the swastika.” The flier adds that “in the early 1900s, before the Nazis adopted the symbol, it was a common decoration on cigarette cases, postcards, coins and buildings.”

The courthouse swastikas could be regarded as ironic because today the museum features an Immigrant Gallery that honors all early immigrant groups that contributed to the growth of San Mateo County. That’s not all. The museum holds an Immigrants Festival each year where visitors can get a literal taste of different cultures by sampling foods ranging from Chinese to Italian or joining the crowd in the courthouse square applauding Mexican, Portuguese or Irish dancers.

The rotunda floor of the courthouse gets little attention compared to the stained glass dome that caps the building 70 feet up. The dome, which consists of an inner 36-foot diameter inner dome and a 40-foot high double outer dome, contains 38,240 pieces of antique colored glass in 144 panels, 27,000 feet of lead and 50,000 solder joints. When lighted, the dome is indeed a “landmark.”  Getting it lighted was no easy task. Several organizations joined forces to light the structure in 1988. They included the Electrical Industry Trust, which donated 70 fixtures that were installed by volunteers from the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The chandelier and stained glass ceiling of the restored Courtroom A, which is used for such special events as reenactments of famous trials of the past, are well worth a visit.

Dennis Hansen of Redwood City worked on the lighting job.

“It was hard work,” he recalled. “Lots of tight spaces. But it was worth it when the lights came on. Very spectacular.”

The dome was about all that was left of the structure after the 1906 earthquake. Surprisingly, little, if anything, was made of the earthquake when the courthouse was rebuilt and dedicated in 1910. One would think that the courthouse would have been regarded as a symbol of the county’s bouncing back from the disaster. Much could have been made of that aspect, in the same way San Francisco would in 1915 with its exposition in the Marina District, which took place on the rubble from the earthquake and fire.

The possibility of San Mateo County hosting the 1915 exposition was pitched to the crowd at the 1910 courthouse gathering by the main speaker, W. J. Martin, who suggested Tanforan as the location.

Martin, like the women in the earlier edition of the newspaper, focused on a future pushed by access to Pacific markets. He saw a time when railroads and “rapid transit, electric and other services of the cheapest and best” along with “splendid roads and highways” will bring prosperity to the Peninsula. “Accessibility is the secret,” he said. “Nothing else.”

And just who was W. J. Martin? He was William James Martin, a real estate agent regarded as the “father of South San Francisco.” Martin, who was born in Illinois in 1856, was the subject of a paper written in 1939 by San Mateo Junior College student Lorenzo Lorenzo, who wrote that Martin brought “factory after factory” to San Mateo County.

“Building up the Peninsula was his consuming ambition,” the college student said of Martin.

Newspapers would later proudly boast that thousands of people came to Redwood City for the 1910 dedication, but “good order prevailed.”

The Woman’s Club saw a dream come true when the courthouse’s 100th birthday was marked in 2010.  In 1910, the organization hoped a fountain would be included in the square in front of the courthouse, but it didn’t get its wish when those in charge opted for a basic plaza design. Today there are several fountains in front of the courthouse, as can be attested to by the thousands of people who have attended the summer activities in the square that range from dances to movies.

The refurbished courthouse was described by the New York Times as “a European-style piazza sprinkled with Italianesque stone fountains.”  The feature story published a few weeks before the 2010 ceremonies depicted the courthouse as the power in a “Silicon Valley Relaunch.”

A “flying machine” did, however, show up for the 1910 dedication. It was one of the floats in the event’s parade. A reporter wrote that the “aeroplane float was so daintily trimmed in the national colors that the idea of lightness was accentuated to the point that it looked quite ready to fly.”


Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the “Rear View Mirror” history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.

Clifford, the author of “Philip’s Code: No News is Good News — to a Killer,” is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. “Times were good,” Clifford said.

Jim Clifford

Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the "Rear View Mirror" history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.

Clifford, the author of "Philip's Code: No News is Good News - to a Killer," is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. "Times were good," Clifford said.