Early Burlingame: From Rancho to Country Manor

Burlingame Avenue, looking west, ca. 1898. The property on the right may be William Corbitt's horse breeding ranch, and the row of trees in the distance the groves alongside the railroad tracks (today's Jules Francard Grove)

Golden State Fortunes Come to the Peninsula

Take your mind back to a time in the late 19th century after the California Gold Rush. Men have made fortunes, not from gold generally, but from selling mercantile goods, banking, and building a range of other businesses that thrived in the wake of the craze for gold.

On the Peninsula, wealthy landowners began carving estates from Spanish ranches. The land had only recently passed from Spain to Mexico and then to the United States. In the tradition of the English manor, the Peninsula homes provided a retreat from the city and offered country living and recreational activities for the well-to-do, such as horse-breeding.

These men included merchant William Davis Merry Howard, whose estate, El Cerrito, was one of the first of these country homes. It was built on the former Rancho San Mateo which spread from San Mateo Creek (near downtown San Mateo) to Sanchez Creek in Burlingame (near modern-day Sanchez Avenue). Two others, Gold Rush banker Darius Ogden Mills and his brother-in-law Ansel Easton, purchased portions of the Buri-Buri rancho north of Howard’s estate. From the land holdings of these men, the city of Burlingame would one day take shape.

Birth of a Leafy Oasis

After the death of W.D.M. Howard, his brother, George Howard, married his widow (Agnes Poett) and inherited much of his property. The remainder of the property passed to W.D.M. Howard’s son and to his father-in-law, Dr. Joseph Henry Poett. Anson Burlingame, for whom the city is named, later purchased a portion of Poett’s land with the intention of living here, but he died before he could return. In 1872, Mills, acting on behalf of Burlingame’s children, sold part of Burlingame’s holdings to William C. Ralston.*  Ralston, a businessman and financier, had made a fortune in the Comstock Lode and, with Mills, founded the Bank of California.

Around 1873, George Howard hired John McLaren (who would later earn fame as landscape gardener of Golden Gate Park) to landscape his property as well as other areas being surveyed by Alfred Poett (Joseph Poett’s son, Agnes Poett’s brother, and George Howard’s brother-in- law), who was an engineer. These included the property that Ralston held briefly. McLaren was directed to plant the subdivided avenues and drives with eucalyptus, pines, and deciduous trees, both to provide beauty and as a windbreak, making the area more hospitable. In the fourteen years of his tenure in San Mateo County, McLaren planted hundreds of thousands of trees, transforming the dry, grassy landscape into an oasis of trees and beautiful plantings.

McLaren and his crew planted also planted eucalyptus trees (also known as gum trees) and elm trees at regular intervals along a four-mile section of  the the “royal road” (El Camino Real), the principal road between San Francisco and San Jose, to create a landscaped, grand entrance to the estates of several prominent property owners.

This project was determined one evening, in the early 1870s, when four of the area’s largest property holders gathered in the home of George Howard to discuss planting trees along the County Road (El Camino Real):

“. . . Darius Ogden Mills, Alfred Poett, William C. Ralston, and Howard . . . decided to plant a row of elm trees along each side of the roadway, visualizing the day when they would grow and spread their branches to touch above the road. But to protect the tender young elms, they put in eucalyptus saplings as windshield. The eucalyptus trees grew—and grew—and grew. The elms did not fare so well. Now they are gone, except for a few relics here and there.” [*1]

McLaren himself later recalled of this meeting:

“[All of the men present] agreed that it was desirable to plant trees on El Camino Real from San Mateo to Millbrae. . . . The original plan was that of the three rows of trees as planted, the eucalyptus should only remain as a shelter and windbreak for the elm trees until the latter became properly established and attained some growth. However, the eucalpytus, as you know, are still in place.” [*2]

The tree border provided not only beauty, but also protection to dairy herds and travelers, as well as to the vegetable plantings that would be a part of the large estates. This tree line would eventually extend from San Mateo Creek in San Mateo to modern-day Millbrae. So it is today that the towering eucalyptus, now more than 130 years old, still tower above Burlingame.

* Ralston died in 1875 and the land passed to Sharon and then to son-in-law Newlands, who would in 1893 establish the Burlingame Country Club.

[*1] This account is from the Advance-Star and Green Sheet of Burlingame, June 1, 1958
[*2] Letter to F. M. Stanger, March 3, 1938, collection of the San Mateo County Historical Association