The Old Mission Road & Chenery, Diamond, Arlington, and Wilder Streets: Among the Oldest Thoroughfares in San Francisco? 

This article by Evelyn Rose and Amy O'Hair was originally published in the (Hi)Stories of Our Neighborhoods column in the Summer 2017 issue of the Glen Park News. It is republished here with permission.

The concept of Glen Park as transit hub may seem a modern development. Yet, based on preliminary research, our transportation history may be surprisingly older than we ever believed. 

In 1776, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza led the expedition that selected the locations for the Presidio and Mission Dolores. Afterwards, they marched “… three leagues south, southwest and west, rounded the hills and came to a little arroyo [Father] Palóu had named Arroyo de San Bruno.” [Note: 1 league is approximately equal to 3 miles.]

Anza’s expedition is the first recorded European passage through the Bernal Gap, a natural dip or saddle between Fairmount and Bernal Hills. Today’s Bernal Cut (San Jose Avenue between Randall and Natick Streets) was first carved out of the gap in the early 1860s during construction of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad. The description “… south, southwest and west, rounded the hills …” could also describe the transit corridor we know today: south from Mission Dolores along Guerrero Street to San Jose Avenue that then continues through the Bernal Cut before crossing under Interstate 280. San Jose Avenue then angles southwesterly towards the cities of Daly City, Colma, San Bruno, and beyond to San Jose. 

General consensus indicates this is the approximate route of the El Camino Real (the King’s Road). Also referred to as the Mission Road or San Jose Road, it follows California State Road 82 through San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, today still called the El Camino Real. Initially, the road was a footpath connecting the 21 Spanish missions from San Diego to Sonoma. After examining several vintage maps of San Francisco and comparing them to today’s street system, we believe we have made a discovery that adds significantly more detail to the route of the El Camino Real through the Bernal Gap.

A survey map from 1856 of the Rancho San Miguel for landowner José de Jesús Noé (Map 1) shows a road extending from upper right to lower left. Near the upper right, the road separates into the “San Jose Road Used in 1850-52” and “San Jose Road.” The two roads then merge before entering a tangle of alternate routes at a “Branch of Islais Creek” near a “Large Rock.” Islais Creek now runs underground through the village of Glen Park just north of Bosworth; the large rock appears to have been in the area of today’s MUNI J-Church stop on San Jose Avenue near the Glen Park BART station.

Four years later (1860), real estate auctioneers H.A. Cobb and R.A. Sinton issued a map for lands sold for the trustees of the Islais and Salinas Water Works Company (Map 2). We again see large rocks near Islais Creek, now surrounded by several structures. Above this complex, we see a dogleg-shaped route labeled “Old San Jose Road” that splits from the “New San Jose Road or Telegraph Road” (the latter being today’s Mission Street). It was this map that began to reveal the pieces of the puzzle.

First, we superimposed the 1856 Noé survey map over a topographic map (not shown). This type of map shows the contours of the landscape, the rolling hills and dales in our region before development. Coming from the flatter lands south of Mission Dolores, the roads in the Noé map pass along what appear to be the contours of least resistance on the western (Fairmount) side of the Bernal Gap. 

Map 1 (right).

Survey map of the San Miguel Rancho owned by José de Jesús Noé, 1856, showing the Mission Road (El Camino Real) extending from Mission Dolores through the Rancho. The “tangle” is just left of center. Map from the San Francisco Homestead Books, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Map 2 (above).

Map of land to be sold at auction by H.A. Cobb and R.H. Sinton, 1860. Note the “dog-leg” road near Islais Creek and the large rocks just to the left of center. Map from the San Francisco Homestead Books, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Next, we overlaid the 1856 Noé survey map over a modern OpenStreet Map. The result was thrilling!

 

As shown in Map 3, the “San Jose Road Used in 1850-52” on the Noé map splits off where today’s Guererro Street and San Jose Avenue merge near 28th and Day Streets. The 1850-52 road then crosses Dolores Street diagonally near 30th Street, then to Chenery near Randall Street. It next curves between Chenery and Arlington before rounding the bend to the southwest toward Diamond, much like Chenery does today between Roanoke and Carrie Streets. Therefore, Chenery and Arlington appear to have first arisen from the “San Jose Road Used in 1850-52” on the Noé map (and likely earlier).  

The other road that continues past this split is today’s San Jose Avenue, labeled on the Noé map as “San Jose Road.” Surprisingly, this road turns to the southwest along a route that directly overlays today’s Wilder Street. 
As both Old and New San Jose Roads turn to the southwest, they mix up in the “tangle.” When laid over a modern street map, the top route of the tangle follows the alley that begins at Chenery near Carrie Street and exits at Diamond near today’s Glen Park Community Garden. This old route continues across Diamond, arcs over to what would become Brompton Avenue, then back to Diamond Street near the modern San Jose Avenue onramp to Interstate 280. The route immediately below the alley closely matches the modern alignment of today’s Chenery and Diamond intersection – first represented as the dogleg in the 1860 Cobb and Sinton map.

Map 3 (above).

Overlay of the 1856 Noé Survey Map (Map 1, outlined in black) over a modern OpenStreet map (© OpenStreetMap contributors, 2017). Aqua blue lines added to identify creeks. The route of the “San Jose Road in 1850-52” curves between Chenery and Arlington then turns to the “tangle” at Chenery and Diamond Streets and Brompton Avenue; the “San Jose Road” follows today’s San Jose Avenue through the Bernal Cut before turning sharply onto Wilder Street. Noé map from the San Francisco Homestead Books, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Why the tangle? Travelers likely needed alternate routes for negotiating both a minor creek coming down the Diamond Street hill and the more significant Islais Creek, which by some accounts could be a deep and treacherous waterway. These routes – particularly the “Old San Jose Road in 1850-52” – may represent not only the original route of the El Camino Real of the Spanish mission system, but also the route followed by Anza in 1776. 

As years passed, the origin of these routes were largely forgotten. Our district has a long history of being dismissed as nothing more than cow pasture populated with blue collar workers, or as a “bucolic backwater,” as one of the Gum Tree Girls who helped save Glen Park from freeways, Joan Seiwald, likes to relate. An anonymous writer in Hutching’s California Magazine in 1859, describing the route in an article entitled “A Jaunt of Recreation” states: “Between the Mission Dolores and the Ocean House [including the Fairmount Heights, Glen Park and Sunnyside districts] there are no objects of striking interest, except, perhaps the San Francisco Industrial School [site of today’s San Francisco City College], recently erected for the benefit of depraved juveniles …” 

To consider that Glen Park’s oldest streets—Chenery, Arlington, Diamond, and Wilder—have origins as far back as the first years of the United States, forming part of the earliest route for travelers between the Missions, is mind-boggling indeed.  The Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project will continue this research in an effort to confirm this exciting discovery and will keep you apprised of the results.

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