The San Bruno Library has digitized a number of photographs and other ephemera from its local history collection. They are available for viewing at the Online Archive of California and on Calisphere. The first 25 photos have also been arranged as a slideshow on Calisphere.
If you are interested in contributing historical photos of San Bruno to this project, please contact the San Bruno Public Library. You do not need to donate photos permanently. Simply allow us to scan them and give us basic permission to share them with the public, and we will return them to you.
Prior to 1750, the San Francisco Peninsula was inhabited by the Ohlone Indians. Ohlone is the name that has been given to the many related groups of Native Americans living along the coast between Monterey and San Francisco. They were hunter gatherers who relied largely on the bay and ocean for food. The Ohlone used tule reeds that grew near the bay and along the many creeks in the area to build their homes and canoes. While as many as several thousand Ohlone are estimated to have lived in the area, probably no more than a few dozen lived in the area that now makes up San Bruno at any one time. There have been three hunting campsites uncovered. One of them has been found along San Bruno Creek, which runs through Junipero Serra County Park and San Bruno City Park. The other two were near the creek that flows through Crestmoor Canyon. The present-day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area is made up of all the known surviving American Indian lineages aboriginal to the San Francisco Bay Region. Its members are active throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
Captain Bruno Heceta explored the western shore of the San Francisco Bay in 1775. He named the largest land mass on that side of the peninsula Mount San Bruno, after his patron saint. Saint Bruno the Confessor was an 11th century monk and founder of the Carthusian order of monks. The City of San Bruno was named after the mountain. The City is also where the two main roads around the mountain meet. The Bayshore Road and the Mission Road/Railroad follow paths that existed in Captain Heceta’s day.
While the Spanish explored California they began to establish missions. In 1776, a mission was established in San Francisco. The government of the newly explored territory was centered at the mission on the Monterey Peninsula, 100 miles to the south, so a road connecting the two missions was needed. At the time, the easiest route was up the heart of the peninsula between the coastal mountains and the marshes along the bay. This road became El Camino Real (The Royal Highway).
In the 1820s, the San Bruno land was awarded to Jose Antonio Sanchez by the Mexican Government for his years of military service. His property spanned from San Bruno Mountain in the north to Burlingame in the south and from the bay in the east to the mountain ridge in the west. When Sanchez died in 1843, his land was to be divided between his nine heirs. Before this could happen, however, the property had to be inventoried by the Mexican Government. This was a long and costly process. In the meantime the Mexican-American war began in 1846. After the United States won the war in 1848, Sanchez’s heirs lost the land though the court system. Much of the Sanchez land was purchased by Darius Mills, founder of the Bank of California.
In the early 1850s, James Thorpe built a lean-to on what is now El Camino and San Mateo Avenue for changing and watering horses on the “county road” between San Jose and San Francisco. Eventually, in 1875, after several changes of ownership and name, Thorpe’s Place, or the 14 Mile House, was transformed by August Jenevein into Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an eating, drinking and gaming establishment. The Cabin thrived during the nearly 75 years it was open. During prohibition a speakeasy was run out of the garage behind the Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most prominent landmarks in the city until it was torn down in 1949.
The railroad between San Francisco and San Jose was constructed through the San Bruno area in 1863. A year earlier the San Bruno House was built in anticipation of the railroad. The San Bruno House was a hotel and waystation owned by Richard Cunningham, the railroad station agent and postmaster at the time. The hotel was ideally located between the marshes and foothills, making it a favorite place for hunters and fishermen. The San Bruno House was also a key to San Bruno’s development as a rural getaway for the people of San Francisco. It was never rebuilt after 1901, when it burned down for the third time.
The land on which Tanforan Shopping Center now stands had been used for horse raising and grazing since the early days of the Spanish occupation on the Peninsula. The racetrack was financed by Prince André Poniatowski, builder of Skyfarm in Hillsborough and brother-in-law of William H. Crocker. Tanforan Racetrack opened in 1899. It was named for Toribio Tanforan the grandson-in-law of Jose Antonio Sanchez. Toribio was a vaquero (cowboy) from Chile. Though little is known about him, it is believed that he was an excellent horseman, and so his name has been linked with the area and the racetrack ever since. Tanforan Racetrack was the takeoff site of the first flight ever on the West Coast as well as the site of the first ever aircraft carrier takeoff and landing in 1911. The ship was the U.S.S. Pennsylvania. The most dubious legacy of the racetrack is the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Tanforan held races of all types, from horse races to races between cars and airplanes, until it burned down in 1964.
Much of San Bruno had been developed from wilderness to ranch land by the 1880s. The ranches supplied San Francisco with horses milk and meat. After the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 the San Bruno Park Addition was developed into housing. Several other new neighborhoods sprung up in the area until 1914 when San Bruno became an official municipality. At that time San Bruno had roughly 1400 residents.
San Bruno was known as a rural town until the 1940s when two events changed the city dramatically. First, the Tanforan horse racing track was used during WWII for the internment of American Citizens of Japanese descent before sending them off to detention camps. The Army oversaw this operation and decided to use the area west of the racetrack for the Army’s Western Region Advance Personnel Depot. Thousands of military personnel went through San Bruno on their way to and from military outposts in the Pacific. This changed San Bruno forever. Many of the military personnel decided to settle in the area upon their return to the United States.
The second event of the ‘40s that changed San Bruno was George Williams’ purchase of much of the Mills land. Williams built houses on this land for the vast number of support personnel and veterans returning from the war. Soon after the Mills Park Addition was developed by Williams, the land in the western hills of San Bruno was also developed into housing. The housing boom that took place between the 1940's and 1960’s transformed San Bruno from a town of about 6500 in 1940 to a population of over 35,000 by the mid 1960’s. Since then the population has stabilized due to a lack of available land. Currently there are about 41,000 residents in San Bruno.
Today San Bruno is known as an airport city. Mills Field was dedicated in 1927 near the site now occupied by San Francisco International Airport, but it took many years for the airport to become the success it is today. The many other more established airports in the area, along with the short and often swampy runways made Mills Field unpopular with aviators and businesses alike until 1945 when voters approved a million bond into the improvement and expansion of the airport. Since then the airport has become one of the busiest in the world, and San Bruno has grown into an international city right along with it.
Fredricks, Darold E. San Bruno People and Places. San Bruno, Calif.: San Bruno History Association, 1989.
Shoecraft, Don. The History of San Bruno, The Crossroads Community. San Bruno, Calif.: 75th Anniversary Committee, City of San Bruno, 1989.
For more information about the history of San Bruno please contact the San Bruno Public Library.