History of San Lorenzo, California

Overview of San Lorenzo History

By Jody Stock and Michael Corbett

This is an excerpt from Unincorporated San Lorenzo Historical Building Survey, July 2000, prepared for the County of Alameda as partial mitigation for demolition of the Nielson-Ferro farm on Washington Avenue in San Lorenzo.

The Mission Period

As early as 1769 Spanish soldiers and padres explored northern California in search of sites for missions. In the area of San Lorenzo, they found Indian villages along the creeks, lush vegetation, and abundant game. With the establishment of Mission San Jose in 1797, the San Lorenzo area was part of the Mission lands and served as a cattle range.

Mexican Land Grant Period

In 1821 Mexico declared independence from Spain. The new government asserted its claim over California and took charge of the missions' land holdings. The areas that now comprise San Lorenzo, San Leandro, and Hayward were part of large land grants given to former soldiers and others who served the Constitutional Governor of the Department of California. The first grant was given to Don Jose Joaquin Estudillo in 1842 in the area around San Leandro. The Castro and Soto families were the next Spanish settlers. Castro resided around present day Hayward, and Francisco and Barbara Soto built their homestead close to where the town of San Lorenzo would be located. Boundaries were vague, and both the Estudillos and the Castros claimed the lands bordering San Lorenzo Creek. The southern survey area was within Soto's grant. Despite the growth of San Francisco, Oakland, and other cities around the the area; until 1850 there was only one American settler in the bay, few outsiders came to Eden Township.

During this period little farming was done, but some land was cultivated in grains, corn, and watermelon. Rancho inhabitants grazed cattle throughout the valleys and killed them for their tallow, hides, and meat. In addition, there was plentiful game such as bears and deer, and the marshlands along the bay were filled with geese, ducks, and curlews.

There were few roads in the area except for two long trails that connected the ranchos to the mission in the south. Native Americans continued to reside along San Lorenzo Creek -- an Indian hut was located on the land now used as the San Lorenzo Cemetery -- and along the marshes as late as 1859.

United States Annexation

The gold rush drew many fortune seekers to California, but despite their dreams, many later found themselves unemployed and broke. Captain William Roberts was one such miner. He was first drawn to the area around San Lorenzo Creek on a hunting expedition in 1850. He found that the abundant game could bring a fair price in the San Francisco market, so he moved to the area and built a landing consisting of a wharf and several warehouses at the mouth of San Lorenzo Creek. By 1853 a freight and passenger schooner offered regular service between the landing and San Francisco.

Within the year other settlers were drawn to the area by the abundant game and rich soils. The Estudillo and Soto dispute over the land around San Lorenzo Creek attracted squatters who believed landowners without clear possession couldn't evict them. In 1852 Estudillo began litigation against the squatters. In his case and others like it throughout California the United States government put the burden of proof on the Mexican landowners. The expenses surrounding the validation of land titles were ruinous to some of the owners, and many chose to sell off or lease their holdings. The town of San Lorenzo was originally called Squatterville.

In 1853 the County of Alameda was created, and in 1854 the town was officially given the name San Lorenzo. Excellent soil conditions, weather, and minimal frost meant crops could be grown year round. The American settlers first raised potatoes, barley, wheat, and cattle but by the 1880s the new inhabitants realized the potential of the land for growing fruit trees; Eden Township had the most orchards in the area. Pears, plums, and apricots were popular, and cherry trees were particularly abundant. William Meek and E. Lewelling had the greatest land holdings and largest orchards in San Lorenzo. The town was also growing and attracting commercial and manufacturing companies. John Boyle erected the first blacksmith's shop in the county there in 1853.

As the area grew, the rancho-to-rancho trails were expanded into roads capable of carrying freight wagons, carriages, and horse and buggy traffic. In addition, numerous new roads were constructed during this period. Many of these connected the existing mission roads to new towns and landings where produce was shipped to markets in San Francisco. The network of roads was erratic and anything but grid-like. Similarly, property lines for farmsteads were formed by former rancho boundaries, roads, and natural features and were highly irregular. In contrast, towns like San Leandro, San Lorenzo, and Hayward were platted with orthogonal lots and streets.

In the second half of the nineteenth century various immigrant groups joined the American settlers in Eden Township. The largest numbers of new residents were Portuguese. Many Portuguese (or more specifically Azoreans) bought small farms and raised vegetables and poultry. Others worked on neighboring farms as farmhands. By 1860 a "Little Copenhagen" of Danish immigrants was created around Mt. Eden.

Railroad Period

In March of 1878 the South Pacific Railway Company began service from Santa Cruz to the Oakland waterfront passing through Mt. Eden and San Lorenzo on the way. Only eight years later, the railroad was sold to the Southern Pacific. The introduction of rail transport reduced the need for shipping by boat and caused the economic demise of Roberts' Landing. Shipping by rail became the standard method of transporting the area's produce. According to the 1898 publication Alameda County, Its Cities, Towns, and Environments, more fruit was shipped out of the San Lorenzo Railroad Station than any other station in the state. The products of stockyards, packinghouses, and the Trojan Powder Factory were also shipped on the rails.

In addition to freight, the Southern Pacific lines ran fifteen passenger trains a day. By 1895 Oakland, Alameda, and Hayward were also connected by sixty to seventy miles of interurban rail lines. A branch line connected San Lorenzo with the main Key Line. This passenger railroad allowed residents of towns like San Lorenzo to work or do business in Bay Area cities to the north.

Farmers of the area were proud of their land and crops. Although in the 1880s grain crops still dominated, fruits and vegetable were becoming increasingly important. The 1883 History of Alameda County, California boasted about Eden Township, "it should be said, that in this vicinity there is the finest soil in the whole valley, as the magnificent orchards, splendid gardens, and ripe grain-fields indicate. It is truly a garden spot!" Farmers benefited from the excellent weather and soils and grew more intensive crops like fruit. At this time, many large ranches were broken down into smaller farms.

The 1883 history also gave the occupation and "nativity" of many of the area's landowners. San Lorenzo residents included numerous farmers and orchardists as well as individuals with other occupations such as shipping and lumber dealer, dentist, and hotel proprietor. The landowners surveyed were both native-born and immigrants. Census records of San Lorenzo and the surrounding towns show thatmany of the residents came from Ireland, Denmark, and the Azorean Islands of Portugal. Most of the Azorean men were farmers or laborers.

A majority of the residents of the area, including immigrants, lived in family groups. In situations where single men lived together in a boarding house, most were from the same ethnic group. Although ethnicities were mixed throughout the area, they often chose to settle near their countrymen. San Leandro and San Lorenzo had large populations of Azoreans. Nearby Mt. Eden had a German settlement.

Automobile Period

San Leandro and the surrounding cities like San Lorenzo grew dramatically in the early twentieth century and continued to attract, among other groups, Portuguese immigrants. However, census records for 1910 show that many of the Portuguese in the area were the children of Azoreans (Portuguese) who had settled in the country in the 1880s and 1890s. In the early twentieth century immigrants arrived in the county and joined an established and flourishing Portuguese community. The 1911 United States Senate's Report of the U.S. Immigration Commission (Vol. 24, Part 11, Immigrant Farmers in the Western States, Chapter XIV) indicated that nearly two-thirds of the 2,600 residents of San Leandro were of Portuguese decent. San Lorenzo also had a high proportion of Azoreans.

Like the previous generation, the Azoreans were often farmers and laborers. Many owned their land, but many others rented land and worked to be able to buy a farm. The Portuguese immigrants formed strong and active organizations such as the Portuguese Union of the State of California based in San Leandro. These social and protective societies offered members social gatherings, picnics, parades, and life insurance. Civic clubs and fraternal lodges were popular with immigrant and native groups.

Census records show that by 1900 Japanese immigrants were living in the area and working on farms as laborers. By 1910 a Japanese family was listed as owning a nursery. According to Harwood Hall, author of Eden Township: It's Agriculture, Chinese immigrants and their descendents found employment in the area as farm workers or were self-employed as small-scale commercial farmers.

As the area continued to grow, the landscape was changed to accommodate development. Numerous roads were built, and the mouth of San Lorenzo Creek was rerouted. The creek's channel was straightened -- ostensibly to maximize arable land. In addition, by 1933 the San Mateo Bridge just south of the southern study area connected the East Bay communities with the San Francisco Peninsula. The introduction of automobiles and the construction of numerous roads made truck farming (small farms) possible. The southern study area developed during the Twenties and Thirties as small farmsteads surrounding the community of Russell City. During this period, fruit orchards and vegetable farms predominated, and poultry farms were common. New technology allowed the farmers to ship their produce to previously inaccessible markets. By using new pickling, canning, and refrigerated transportation methods, produce was sent to New York and Boston markets.

World War II Development

The first three decades of the twentieth century saw significant growth in Eden Township, however no period could compare with the explosive development of the World War II housing boom. The vast shipyards in Oakland and Alameda were enlarged and operated around the clock in support of the war effort. Hundreds of thousands of workers were lured to the area by the high-paying jobs at the yards. Unfortunately housing couldn't keep pace with demand and resulted in a serious crisis. The large fields of San Lorenzo's farms provided ample open-space for the development of much-needed housing tracts. The War Department's 1942 map showed the large blocks of undeveloped farmland in the area. The proximity to shipyards made the area ideal for the construction of new housing.

David D. Bohannon, president of the Bohannon Organization, set out to build a planned model community called San Lorenzo Village on the former site of the H.T. Smyth farmstead. Bohannon's project received government support; the Bohannon Organization was granted permission from the War Production Board to build despite material restrictions, and the community was the largest home development ever insured by the Federal Housing Agency. Construction proceeded at unprecedented speed. According to Ruth Hendricks Willard's book on Alameda County, using pre-assembly and streamlined mass construction methods (Bohannon called it the California Method), the organization finished three-bedroom homes at a rate of one or more an hour in 1944 and 1945. War workers could rent one of these houses for $50 a month or purchase one for $5,950. But housing wasn't enough -- Bohannon wanted a complete community. At San Lorenzo Village he built a shopping/entertainment center complete with a movie theater (the Lorenzo Theater), restaurants, clothing stores, and a post office. A medical center was also part of the complex. By 1947 nearly half of the northern study area was filled with houses, schools, and commercial buildings. The village would eventually consist of 5,547 homes.

Building Types and Common Styles


Several buildings in the survey area survive from the late 19th century. Most of these are pattern-book houses -- their designs came directly or indirectly from published plans in books, journals, newspapers, manufacturers' catalogs, or other sources. The plans may have been drawn by architects, but the houses were built by carpenters or builders who may have altered the plans freely -- or worked from memory of other houses. These were one- or two-story balloon or platform frame structures built on brick foundations and clad in siding of milled lumber. An irregular footprint and complex roof shape reflected the skill and ambitiousness of the builder. Decorative details, especially in gables and on porches reflected the production of building parts in factories. Plans of these houses tended to be formal with central or side halls and rooms that could be closed off.


After the turn of the 19th century, a new house type was commonly built in the area called a bungalow in reference to a characteristic house encountered by the British in India. In San Lorenzo these were small, one-story houses with low-pitched roofs and porches. They were wood frame structures often clad in stucco, reflecting both a stylistic preference and an effort to build more fire-resistant houses. Some of the people who lived in San Lorenzo may have moved out of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Inside, these houses were more open than the houses of the previous generation. Living room and dining room spaces often flowed together.

Many bungalows are referred to as Craftsman bungalows, having details that suggest construction by handcraft methods rather than the factory methods that actually produced them.

Period Revival Cottage

From the 191Os to the 1940s, many houses were designed in styles referred to as the Period Revivals. In structure and plan these were similar to bungalows, but they loosely adopted imagery associated with the architecture of various times and places. These houses reflect the influence of Hollywood and are somewhat like stage sets. Some of these houses were dressed variously with details like stucco walls and red tile roofs associated with California during the Spanish and Mexican periods. Some had steeply pitched roofs and half-timbering as in medieval England. Some had columns and classical details associated with Colonial America.

World War II and FHA Houses

From the late 1930s to the 1950s many houses were built following the guidelines of a Federal Housing Program -- the Federal Housing Authority. The FHA program was designed to encourage small, inexpensive houses with modern amenities. These houses came in a great variety of shapes but were descendants of the bungalow. They were modestly decorated with various stylistic details -- most commonly Colonial or Modern. The Bohannon Company houses were built to FHA standards.

Post- World War II Schools

Whereas post-World War II houses often were decorated in traditional stylistic imagery, schools were more likely to be modern. San Lorenzo has a fine collection of schools from the late 1940s and 1950s that reflected newly popular attitudes to architecture and to education. These were among the few buildings in the San Lorenzo area designed by architects. These architects rejected traditional imagery. Their design principles were oriented to the expression of structure, the use of modern materials, and orientation to sunlight and air.

Quonset Huts

Quonset huts were ubiquitous during World War II. The buildings had the advantages of being preassembled, demountable, and easily moved -- even from abroad. The interiors were versatile and were adapted by the military to eighty-six different interior plans, from equipment storage to hospitals and chapels. After the war the huts were used for a variety of military and civilian uses. In the survey area, quonset huts can be found at 15530 Tracy Street and as part of the San Lorenzo Community Church at 955 Paseo Grande.