History of San Lorenzo, California

Introduction to the History of San Lorenzo

By Doris Marciel

Doris Marciel's great-grandfather purchased property and a house in 1875 from San Lorenzo pioneer John Lewelling. Her grandfather was born in San Lorenzo in 1877, her mother in 1906. She is a third-generation San Lorenzo native, still owns the house and property, and teaches and writes the history of San Lorenzo.

Earliest History

San Lorenzo has figured in every period of California's history. The expeditions of the padres and Spanish soldiers looking for mission sites in l769 left us with journals of their findings. They saw Indian villages along the creek called El Arroyo San Lorenzo. The name was changed later to San Lorenzo Creek. There was lush vegetation and an abundance of game. Many tracks of elk, deer, coyote, mountain lion, grizzly bear and other game were seen. Wild flowers covered the area and willow, sycamore and oak trees lined the creek. Wild fowl filled the bay lands and marshes. The Indians found the fertile area an excellent location!

The San Lorenzo area that the Spanish soldiers explored and mapped became the grazing lands of Mission San Jose in l797. Then in l821 Mexico declared their independence from Spain and took possession of California and the missions. The land was awarded as ranchos to soldiers and politicians. Don Jose Joaquin Estudillo in l842 received from the Mexican government Rancho San Leandro. Guillermo Castro received Rancho San Lorenzo, which included present-day Castro Valley, Hayward, and part of San Lorenzo.

The Nineteenth Century

The Gold Rush brought men to California who found more value in the rich farmlands of Alameda County then in the soil of the Sierra. The beauty of the area, the mild climate, and the fertile soil were like magnets and they settled along the San Lorenzo Creek. By l850 so many squatters were along the creek banks, the community was known as Squattersville. The Spanish landowners weren't successful in evicting these squatters, so Estudillo and Soto sold the occupied land to them or found themselves in the American courts once California became a state in l850. By 1853 the residents of Squattersville renamed the community San Lorenzo. The name was accepted by the federal government on April 4, l854 with the opening of a postal station in San Lorenzo (see below).

Business began in San Lorenzo in l853 when John Boyle, a blacksmith, started his forge-fire shop on Telegraph Road (now Hesperian Boulevard) next to San Lorenzo Creek. After Boyle's death Henry Smyth bought the business. The blacksmith and wheelwright shop made plows and wagons, shod horses, and repaired farm equipment and buggies. Later, William Smith rented the shop. In l930, when a pipeline was laid along Hesperian Blvd., the blacksmith shop was condemned by the county, torn down, and a pumping station replaced it. (Today a pottery store occupies the site.) Mr Smith bought the forging equipment and established a shop on Adams (now Albion) St. until l95l, when he sold it. (See the 1877 San Lorenzo map.)

Early San Lorenzo had many attractions! An English sailor, William Roberts, settled in San Lorenzo in l853 and established Roberts Landing at the end of Lewelling Blvd. Roberts Landing, with a long wharf and several warehouses, was the chief link for many years for local farmers to ship grain, fruits and vegetables to San Francisco. It provided the first easy access to San Francisco markets and helped develop San Lorenzo's agricultural economy well before the coming of the first railroad in l865. It was also a receiving point for Roberts' lumber business. The Roberts home, with a large garden and stables on Lewelling Blvd., still stands just west of the freeway underpass between Hesperian Blvd. and Washington Ave. The Roberts family are buried in the San Lorenzo Cemetery.

San Lorenzo's second attraction was the San Lorenzo Grove. This eight-acre natural park with oak trees and green fields was purchased in l895 by the Oakland Traction Co. It contained a dance pavilion, picnic grounds, playing fields, concession area, and an outdoor bandstand. Crowds from San Francisco and Oakland arrived on weekends and summer vacations to this beautiful recreation area. A trolley from the junction at East l4th and l50th streets brought the visitors down Telegraph (now Hesperian Blvd.) to the entrance on 2nd or Tracy St. In 1911 it was sold to M.S. Rogers and continued as an amusement park for six years. The trees were aging, so Mr. Rodgers converted it into an apricot orchard. The pavilion lumber was used to build the house on Tracy St. and Main St. or Lewelling Blvd in l926 for his daughter Mrs. Mary Videll. The orchard was later sold. Today Sharon St. divides the land of houses as an entrance from Lewelling Blvd. The Videll house still stands and the grove's caretaker house is located by the San Lorenzo Unified School District's warehouse entrance.

Other attractions that brought visitors to San Lorenzo were two hotels. In l853 E.T.Crane opened the first hotel and tavern. It was called the San Lorenzo House. Erected at the southwest corner of Hesperian and Lewelling Blvd., where a small restaurant is now located. Later James Frandsen purchased the building and operated the hotel for more than 50 years until the roads were widened. Remember the Embers Restaurant and small hotel? It was built in l875 on the bank of the San Lorenzo Creek fronting Hesperian Blvd. In the l800's it was called the Willows Hotel owned by Ezra Livingston. It became the gathering place for local residents and visitors who vacationed in the country. Later in the l960's the building was demolished to make way for the freeway.

Village Hall, a converted fruit dryer was a meeting place for socials, dances, and medicine shows. Located on Lewelling Blvd. and Usher St. it was also used by the San Lorenzo Grammar School. In l957 it was demolished and today cars from a mechanic shop are parked on the location. John L. Shiman's general store was one of the early post offices and also sold every kind of merchandise needed by the residents in the area. It was located by the San Lorenzo Creek on Hesperian Blvd. Later it became Fred's Flower Shop and was demolished when Hesperian Blvd. was widened.

On the corner of Hesperian Blvd. and College St. the San Lorenzo Pioneer Cemetery, one of the earliest burial grounds for San Lorenzo, San Leandro, Hayward, and other areas. The first burial was on April l0, l853. The land belonged to William Meek and John Lewelling, who formed a cemetery committee on February 27, l864 to supervise burials and organize plots. Mr. Lewelling, Meek, and other San Lorenzo pioneers are buried in this historical cemetery. As the years passed the cemetery was forgotten, but on March 24, l964 it was dedicated as San Lorenzo Memorial Park. Alameda County and the Hayward Area Historical Society now maintain the property. (Keys to the cemetery gate are kept in the church across the street and in the "Tech Center" at the School District offices next to the cemetery.)

Across the street from the San Lorenzo Pioneer Cemetery is a 120-year-old church. Dedicated on July 4, l875, the Christian Union Society Church (now the First Southern Baptist Church) was built for $6,000. In l905 the congregation voted to join the Congregational Church. It closed its doors during the Great Depression in the 1930s due to a lack of growth and an aging population. World War II brought the Bohannon Organization to build San Lorenzo Village on the orchard and truck farms, and the church reopened on November 5, l944. By l945 the area was so populated that part of the congregation moved to the Quonset type structure on Paseo Grande now called the San Lorenzo Community Church. The little white church continued as the First Southern Baptist Church. In l967 the parson's house was demolished to make a parking lot when meeting and classrooms were added to the back of the church. Recently a cement foundation, remodeled steps, and stain glass windows were added to the church.

Old San Lorenzo was also a wealthy community with its large mansions and ranches. The main town was located at the famous Four Corners -- at Telegraph Road (now Hesperian Blvd.) and Main Street (now Lewelling Blvd.).

The geographical area included the current Washington Manor, Bayfair, Halcyon, and Lorenzo Manor sections. Other features included the Trojan Powder Company factory in the area of Roberts Landing and the California Packing Corporation Cannery on Hesperian Boulevard by the Central Pacific Railroad Station (where the Highway 238 interchange and a large apartment complex are now located).

Today the only remaining mansions are the Roberts Estate on Lewelling Blvd., the McConaghy Estate on Hesperian Blvd., the Meek Estate on Hampton Road, and the Heidi farmhouse on Grant Avenue. But the Lewelling, Marlin, Smyth, Hathaway, King, and other pioneer families will always be remembered in pictures, books, and articles.

The Post Office

On April 4, 1854 the federal government accepted San Lorenzo as a postal station and Albert E. Crane was the first postmaster. The first post office, in Crane's San Lorenzo House Hotel, was moved to Shiman's grocery store. It moved again to a small building on Lewelling Blvd., formerly Rose's barbershop, close to the current Grand Auto. The community population in 1942 was over 1,500. Right in the midst of this peaceful existence, David Bohannon's Greenwood Corporation constructed 1,459 homes and it seemed they were occupied overnight. Residents of the new village lined up for hours every day to receive their mail.

Then on July 1, 1945 Village residents received carrier service. The post office moved to Paseo Grande on Sept. 3, 1946. Since then it has moved several times and is now located on Hesperian Blvd. Through its 141 years of existence the San Lorenzo Post Office has had many changes and the future holds more.

The Library

The San Lorenzo Library was the first Alameda County branch to be organized on November 25, 1910. The first library consisted of two bookcases with 100 books located in the Village Hall at the corner of Lewelling Blvd. and Usher St. An auto shop parking lot is located there today. The branch was moved around 1926 to Hesperian Blvd., into a large former store across from today's Target store.

The average circulation was 16,000 books per year. With the establishment of the San Lorenzo Village, the branch relocated near the current firehouse in 1951. It soon outgrew that building, and in 1968 the current library was opened. The old library building was purchased by St. Christopher's Church and moved to the church property at Via Toledo and Hacienda Ave. Today it is the St. Christopher's Community Hall.