Old Stage Belmont

Belmont Then

With a name like Belmont, meaning “beautiful mountain,” and a location that straddled the El Camino Real, and the original canyon road to the coast, how could a city not fail to prosper?

The fact is that Belmont is a city with roots older than the county itself. When California organized its first state government in 1850, San Mateo County didn’t exist, and instead made up the southern portion of San Francisco County.

And in 1853, when the state’s original 27 counties were divided up further, there still wasn’t a San Mateo County, but there was a Belmont.

Belmont Then

Belmont Then

According to Erwin Guddee, author of “California Place Names,” Belmont is a variation of the French “beaumount,” a commonly used place name in America, meaning beautiful mountain, and was first used here around 1850 or 1851 to describe the hillside landmark that forms the city’s backdrop.

The register of California Post Offices lists Belmont as an official place name as of July 18, 1854 – a full two years before San Mateo County was finally carved out of San Francisco County.

Long before that event however, Belmont was at the center of the Rancho Las Pulgas (Ranch of the Fleas), the 35,000 acre cattle ranch granted in 1825 to Luis Antonio Arguello.

Belmont Now

They ran their cattle on the broad plain between the hills and the bay, where Redwood City and Belmont sprawl today. The Gold Rush of 1849 however, turned the Arguello’s lives upside down, forcing them to defend the title to their land in a court battle that took them, and most other California families as well, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Arguellos’ Las Pulgas was among the first ranchos to win their case, but it would cost them; thousands of acres were paid to attorneys, including lawyer-developer Simon Mezes.

The ambitious San Francisco attorney spent most of the 1850s litigating, speculating, subdividing and developing Redwood City. On the 5,000 acre payment he received from the Arguellos, he settled and built a home. In 1853 he sold several acres to his law partner Leonetto Cipriani, an Italian expatriate who built a charming country estate before returning to Italy in 1864. With the creation of the County in 1856, the growth of Redwood City and the increasing traffic on the main San Francisco-San Jose Road, the El Camino Real, Belmont grew.

A roadhouse built in 1850 by innkeeper Charles Angelo where the El Camino crossed the old road to the coast, formed the nucleus of “the Corners,” where small businesses flourished serving the growing traffic of carriages, stage coaches, farm wagons and later, the railroad.

Former Governor John McDougal settled in Belmont and in 1857 merchant Adam Castor built a store across from Angelo’s and later, a wharf for grain farmers.

Soon pioneer Belmont Postmaster John Ellet built a small hotel on land he too bought from Mezes.
In 1864 both the railroad, and the town’s most celebrated resident arrived. William Ralston, president of the Bank of California, charmed by Cipriani’s estate, bought 14 acres near the canyon road that now bears his name, and began transforming the home into a spectacular country villa – Ralston Hall.

The great railroad financier spared no expense – a ballroom, a banquet hall, bowling alley, Turkish baths, stables and a reservoir – the amenities and extravagances were endless.

Ralston’s sudden death in 1875 left his family living in a small cottage on the property as Ralston Hall was sold to partner William Sharon to cover debts. The estate remained a showplace however, passing through several owners, until 1923 when, as a Catholic Women’s School, it formed the beginning of what became today’s highly respected Notre Dame de Namur University.

In the 1880s, another hotel and industry – a sarsaparilla factory – joined the prosperous “Corners” when the Janke family opened the Belmont Soda Works, and followed up on their success with Belmont Park, a picnic park on the south side of Belmont Creek.

Merchant Walter Emmett became a leading citizen, adding a livery stable, saloon and other ventures to “The Corners,” including cement sidewalks and electric lights by 1909.

The 1920s were boom times for the country and the county. Thanks to the automobile, the newly opened Dumbarton and San Mateo bridges, and the piece-by-piece paving of the Bayshore Highway in the 1920s and 1930s, congestion was moved off the three-lane (the middle was for passing) El Camino Real and Belmont started becoming the suburb it is today.

In 1926, it became official when the town was the 11th in the county to incorporate. The Great Depression slowed the growth of the city to a crawl and in 1940, only 1,200 people called Belmont home. World War II saw the city’s population triple, with a 1950 census count of 5,500.

For the last 50 years Belmont has continued to grow and prosper, and it has become an upscale, chic address for some of the Bay Area’s most notable executives, dignitaries and patrons.

By Mike Campbell, San Mateo County Times

Old Belmont