History of Menlo Park

The land now known as the City of Menlo Park was originally the home of Ohlone Indians, called by the Spaniards Coastanoans, or Coast-dwellers. These local residents lived off the land peacefully, gathering nuts, berries and fish from both the ocean and the bay. Because of the abundance of food there was no need for them to practice agriculture. Evidences of their civilization are still being unearthed on the Filoli estate in Woodside, and along San Francisquito Creek.

Spanish rule came to this area in 1769 when the exploration party led by Don Gaspar de Portola camped near El Palo Alto after their momentous discovery of San Francisco Bay. The colonizing of the Peninsula began after the expedition of Juan Bautista DeAnza passed through Menlo Park on its way to establishing Mission Dolores and the Presidio of San Francisco in 1776.

The mission padres, explorers, military personnel, travelers and settlers occupied certain areas, developing and populating the land. As a reward for their contribution to the settling movement, some of these pioneers were granted huge portions of land by the Spanish and, after 1822, the Mexican governments. The largest land grant on the Peninsula was the Rancho de las Pulgas, an area of 35,260 acres, awarded to presidio comandante Don Jose Dario Arguello in 1795 by Governor Diego de Borica, and endorsed in behalf of his son Luis Arguello in 1820 by Pablo Sola, the last Spanish governor of California. It extended north and south from San Mateo Creek to San Francisquito Creek, and east and west from San Francisco Bay to today’s Canada Road in Woodside. The present boundaries of Menlo Park would be within this rancho which became part of the new State of California. The Arguello family obtained legal title to their lands in 1857 and later subdivided them.

It was in 1854 that Menlo Park received its official name when two Irishmen, Dennis J. Oliver and D. C. McGlynn, whose wives were sisters, purchased 1,700 acres (some sources say it was 640 acres) bordering County Road, now El Camino Real, and built two houses with a common entrance. Across the drive they erected a huge wooden gate with tall arches on which the name of their estate was printed in foot-high letters: “MENLO PARK”, with the date, August 1854, under it. When the railroad came through in 1863, this station had no name, it was just the end of the line, but it needed a designation. During a discussion about the choice of a name, a railroad official looked over at the gates and decided that “MENLO PARK” would be appropriate, and so the name was officially adopted. This station is now California State Landmark No. 955, the oldest California station in continuous operation.

San Mateo County became independent of San Francisco County in 1856. A county road had been laid for horse and carriages, wagons and stagecoaches to Belmont and soon was extended to San Jose. This opened the Peninsula to the residents of San Francisco who wished to establish summer residences in the country. Among the first to buy large tracts of land and build their mansions were the Athertons, Hopkinses, Floods, Millses, Donohoes and Feltons. The great estates were largely self-sufficient and most of the workers lived on the premises. The estates had their own cows – milk and butter were produced on the estates. They had their own chickens, other fowl and often hogs, too. The Hopkins estate had its own boarding house for single men, complete with its own barber shop. It manufactured gas for its own heating and lighting use and sold some to neighbors. The service part of old Menlo consisted of two general merchandise stores, two or three blacksmith shops, a couple of livery stables, six or eight saloons, and about three working-man hotels.

On 23 March 1874, Menlo Park became the second incorporated city in San Mateo County, although only for a short time. The purpose was to provide a quick way to raise money for road repairs. This incorporation, which included Fair Oaks (later Atherton) and Ravenswood (later East Palo Alto) lasted only until 1876. Churches were founded, schools were opened and businesses were established. The first church in San Mateo County was built by Dennis Martin on his ranch in 1856. It was the only Catholic church between Mission Dolores in San Francisco and Mission Santa Clara until St. Matthew’s Church was built in 1863 and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in 1865, both in San Mateo. The Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park was built in 1872.

Little occurred to change the rural flavor of the community until the first World War, when, almost overnight, Menlo Park was populated by 43,000 soldiers in training at Camp Fremont, on land which extended from Valparaiso Avenue to San Francisquito Creek, and El Camino Real to the Alameda de las Pulgas, with the Base Hospital and other facilities on Willow Road where the Veterans Administration Medical Center now stands.

After the war enough service center activity remained to prompt an effort to reincorporate Menlo Park in 1923 with much the same boundaries as the earlier town. Incorporation planning involving Menlo Park and Atherton culminated in a dramatic race to the County Courthouse to file differing plans. Atherton representatives arrived only minutes before those from Menlo Park who had wished to include Atherton in their plans. Final incorporation of Menlo Park took place in November 1927.


Menlo Park Today

Between 1943 and 1946 another military installation, Dibble General Hospital, was built on the old Timothy Hopkins estate to care for the thousands of soldiers injured in the South Pacific in World War II.

After the war a post war boom occurred in Menlo Park. Under the leadership of farsighted Charles P. Burgess, the City acquired 29 acres of Dibble General Hospital grounds at a price of $4,000 an acre. On this land a handsome civic center has been erected. Later, Santa Cruz Avenue was widened and improved and gradually became Menlo’s first street. Pioneering steps were taken in zoning control, off-street parking in the business district, establishment of the Administrative-Professional zoning, which attracted such concerns as Stanford Research Institute, Sunset Magazine and the U.S. Geological Survey, and, in 1952, led to the City’s first Master Plan.

Menlo Park has continued to grow in many ways to fit the needs of a progressive community, yet it looks back with pride at its past…its beginnings…and hopes to pass on to new generations the goals and ambitions of its pioneer families.

Source: Menlo Park Historical Association

Want to learn more about Menlo Park’s history? Visit the Menlo Park Historical Association.