1891 to World War II
After Stanford University opened in 1891, business increased in nearby Mayfield and Menlo Park, towns dating from the 1850s. Mayfield was a farming center, and Menlo Park a summer home to San Franciscans. Residents of both places rejected Senator Leland Stanford's offer to select theirs as the college town if they'd close their busy saloon. So Stanford helped his young business associate, Timothy Hopkins, buy 697 acres of hay fields between the creek and Embarcadero Road to develop a new town. Hopkins laid out streets and sold lots, and by 1894 the new town, with 750 residents and 165 buildings, voted to incorporate as Palo Alto, taking its name from the striking redwood at the edge of San Francisquito Creek.
The creek created problems for the early residents of the new town. In the 25 years since the railroad had displaced water travel, the mouth of the creek had silted up. Navigation inland was no longer possible but people continued to enjoy fishing and swimming in the creek. Middlefield Road and vast stretches lying east of it often flooded in winter. The stream's course varied from year to year as floodwaters mingled with two large sloughs and sought outlets to the Bay.
The landmark El Palo Alto tree, whose roots were in danger of being washed out by the stream, was first protected in the late 1890s when the Stanfords built a wall to support it. Later, in 1927, the famous redwood was proclaimed the first official California "living landmark" on a plaque placed by the Native Sons of the Golden West.
During World War I, the U.S. Army established Camp Fremont as a training base in Menlo Park. 40,000 troops passed through the camp which was west of El Camino Real, stretching from the creek to Valparaiso Avenue.
The emerging auto age put heavier stress on the rickety wooden bridges spanning the creek. Corrective action was difficult because several government jurisdictions were involved. Although Palo Alto, San Mateo County, and Santa Clara County shared the $17,500 cost of replacing the bridge at University Avenue in 1926, the dangers persisted until 1929 when a condemned bridge near Stanford Golf Course collapsed, leaving a tour bus dangling. From then on, authorities heeded engineers' warnings and built no more wooden spans, except for use by pedestrians and cyclists.
During the 1930s, other changes in the landscape began to define the creek and limit its impact:
· In 1932, Bayshore Highway construction created a potential chokepoint where a concrete bridge crossed the creek. The roadway's berm also blocked former tidal wetlands west of the highway, creating more low-lying areas as potential traps for flood waters.
· In 1935, Palo Alto Airport moved to the baylands, not far from the city dump.
· Building a dam 1.5 miles below Searsville Lake was considered as a way to supply water to Palo Alto, which then depended on wells. The idea was dropped when Palo Alto was able to buy water from San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy system.
· In 1936, Palo Alto's founder, Timothy Hopkins, died, leaving the city a strip of creekside land which many years later became the Timothy Hopkins Creekside Park.
Below a map of the watershed area.Although the main channel of the creek has been stable for perhaps 1,000 years, floodwaters occasionally created various paths through the alluvial fan before joining the maze of sloughs in the marsh. This shows the portion of the creek that has been straightened.
Upper Center Photo:A photo of the University Avenue bridge, circa 1920
Lower Center Photo:In this 1882 photo the people are enjoying a peaceful afternoon on the banks of the creek.
Upper Right Hand Photo:Double trunked El Palo Alto in 1875. In the 1880s a flood swept one trunk away, leaving the other half standing.
Lower Right Hand Photo:During World War I, the creek's most unusual neighbors were the 40,000 soldiers stationed at Camp Fremont located in Menlo Park in the area between the creek and Valparaiso Avenue and El Camino Real and Alameda de las Pulgas.