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In 1902, automobile speeds through San Mateo at 20 mph

In the first years of the 20th century, horse-loving Peninsulans just weren’t psychologically prepared for the coming of automobiles. Most entered the Automotive Age reluctantly.

In any numbers, the first cars, a very big deal, initially appeared on local streets in October 1901. It was all part of California’s first organized automobile meet. Crowds gawked as 34 horseless carriages came chugging along the unpaved County Road (today’s El Camino Real). This was an excursion from San Francisco to San Mateo for a picnic lunch and a tour of the relatively recently completed Crystal Springs Dam west of the Peninsula town. Rules for the excursion noted that “racing is strictly forbidden.”

Within a short time, noisy autos seemed to be zipping about everywhere. Before the end of 1901, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors felt it imperative that they act, passing a county-wide speed limit of 15 mph. However, when approaching to within 500 feet of another vehicle, speed was to be reduced to a maximum of 6 mph.

In the event that a rider on horseback or the driver of a horse-drawn carriage simply raised a hand, the auto driver was required to stop immediately. Although some motorists thought the regulations excessive, all cars were also required to possess warning bells, lights and even brakes.

It wasn’t long before Peninsulans became nigh on apoplectic about reckless autoists. Imagine in May 1902, Albert Saladin, driver of a French imported “racing machine,” was arrested. Aghast, people learned that he had torn through San Mateo at an unprecedented speed of 20 mph. Saladin had been participating in a race from Mountain View to San Mateo. He took first place, setting a new speed record of 45 minutes for the distance.

Upset by a wanton disregard for safety, one minister declared that it was impossible to be a “chronic mobile driver” and be a “good Christian.” A local newspaper, the no longer extant San Mateo Times, editorialized that, one day, an automobile might even cause a fatality.

South from San Francisco, the County Road was a nightmare. It was impossible to make the trip with any degree of comfort, and the first 20 miles were the worst. Dense fogs in Colma often limited visibility to a few feet. Drivers inched their way. Many commonly asked a passenger to walk ahead of the car to assure they were still on the road. Near Baden (now part of South San Francisco) ruts in the road were often 12-16 inches deep. A few less adventurous motorists bound for San Jose, opted to take the automobile ferry to Oakland and thence drive along the more improved roads of the East Shore. Less adventurous San Franciscans usually restricted touring to the roads of Golden Gate Park or the Presidio.

Those transiting the Peninsula noted that San Mateo County was known for its scenic beauty. But the rule seemed to hold that the more spectacular the scenery, the more horrible the roads. One of the more breathtaking drives was over San Pedro Mountain to the coast and ultimately to Half Moon Bay. In March of 1912, a reporter for the San Francisco Call was the first that year to successfully reach Half Moon Bay from the north. Another who attempted it drove off the road and was injured. A third started, but quit and turned back.

By 1912, automobile dealers noted that, statewide, car sales were up, but in San Francisco sales were down. Roads were blamed. In preparation for the 1915 Exposition, city leaders were determined to make access more available. Paving of El Camino Real from South San Francisco to Burlingame began in 1912. Within three years, conditions improved dramatically.

One Sunday in 1921, the California State Automobile Association surveyed the highway and recorded that 20,000 automobiles passed a given spot in Burlingame. Soon, hundreds of motorists were receiving citations for traveling at excessive speeds. While motorists cursed Burlingame cops, in fact, citations had been issued by the state police.

After the paving of El Camino Real, determined to improve their town’s image, Burlingame contracted with local architect George H. Howard Jr. to create ornamental pillars to be placed at the north and south entrances to the growing town. Howard designed four stone pillars, each weighing approximately 30 tons, according to documents at the time.

The promotion backfired. Oblivious of the massive constructions, drivers refused to slow down. Soon there were a number of accidents and four motorists were killed. An unkind press christened the pillars Burlingame’s “Death Gates.”

City leaders balked at the suggestion to remove Howard’s artful pieces. However, after a series of accidents, in 1923, the crisis was settled when the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors ordered that the gates be removed.

Burlingame Police Chief Lewis A. Cavalier, saddened by the order, suggested that now even more motorists would probably be killed because of the higher speeds they would be traveling.