Sunday, August 9, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tolls: California’s El Camino Real

As you drive Highway 101 from Ventura up through Paso Robles and beyond you will notice a re-occurring sign on the side of the road. It looks like a shepherd’s crook with a bell on it and a brown sign that only says El Camino Real, “The Kings Highway.” They are peppered along a nearly 600-mile route in California. Why?

At the same time that our early forefathers, the American colonists, were rebelling against England on the East Coast, here on the West Coast a handful of Spaniards and Mexicans established a series of churches (missions) and forts (presidios) up the California coast which was at that time part of Spain. The first was in 1769 at San Diego where they established a fort and the very first California mission – though there were many others already in New Mexico and Texas. A footpath, called the El Camino Real was created to connect each of the subsequent missions as they were constructed. Each mission was situated in areas where large populations of native Indians lived and where the soil was fertile enough to sustain crops, typically near water sources. As time progressed and more missions were built the footpath became a roadway wide enough to accommodate horses and wagons. It was not, however, until the last mission in Sonoma was completed in 1823, that this little pathway became a real route. Each mission was designed to be a day’s travel from the next, well at least in theory, all linked by El Camino Real. Ultimately El Camino Real linked all of California’s 21 missions, pueblos and four presidios from San Diego to Sonoma.

Installing one of the early bells
So when California was just 52 years old (it became a state in 1850) a plan to mark the original route was developed in 1902 by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Los Angeles – I guess they had some free time. The design, chosen by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, used a mission bell supported by a staff in the shape of a Franciscan walking stick. In 1904 the El Camino Real Association was formed in order to preserve and maintain California’s historic road. The first bell was placed in 1906 in front of the Old Plaza Church in downtown Los Angeles and it was made of cast iron, weighed 100 pounds and stood 11 feet off the ground by iron tubing. Eventually, there were approximately 158 bells installed along the Camino Real by 1915. As I mentioned, the bells were made of cast iron but all that did was encourage theft and the number of original bells plummeted to about 75, therefore new bells of concrete were made and installed and frankly who wants to steal a hunk of concrete? 
Mrs. Forbes
At any rate, Highway 101 loosely follows this original footpath so as you make your way to Santa Barbara, Ventura, Monterey or any place else along the Central Coast, you’re driving a piece of history. You may not remember the King of Spain for whom the road was named, or Mrs. Forbes who designed the bells, and certainly you have no idea of the names of all the volunteers who cast, created and installed the bells, but you are nonetheless a continuum of the historical chronicle of people using the King’s Highway. For more stuff on California and the Central Coast check out either of my travel books, Moon California Wine Country, and California Road Trip.