by Ken & Bunny Gillespie, Daly City Historians
Daly City is a coastal community located at the northernmost edge of San Mateo County. Sharing a common border with the City/County of San Francisco, Daly City is known as the "Gateway to the Peninsula." The City's area extends from the Pacific Ocean on the west and nearly to San Francisco Bay on the east. Daly City abuts on San Bruno Mountain, a State and County Park which features the highest peak in the area's hilly terrain.
Much of Daly City occupies what were original Spanish land grants, largely unoccupied in the years that followed the sighting of San Francisco Bay by members of an exploratory party led by Gaspar de Portola in 1769. A military post, the Presidio, was established near the entrance to the bay, and with a mission founded near a small lake in the center of what became San Francisco, European settlers inhabited this north peninsula.
The few Indians who foraged and hunted around San Bruno Mountain soon disappeared, and their lands were used for cattle grazing. The road leading north from other settlements was dubbed Mission Road, and its general location has changed little from Spanish days. Mission Road forked at what is now known as "top-of-the-hill" in Daly City, one route headed to the mission, the other to the Presidio. Much of the foodstuffs that supplied those outposts was grown in a fertile valley near the coast in today's city of Pacifica, a score of miles southwest.
While other locations down the San Francisco Peninsula were being settled, very little was happening to the area just over the county line from San Francisco. The soil wasn't too receptive to crop plantings, and it wasn't until the California Gold Rush that any interest was paid to the open spaces west of San Bruno Mountain.
In the early 1850's a few settlers claimed lands on the old Spanish grants. Among the first was a blacksmith named Robert Thornton, who set up business near the south end of San Francisco's Lake Merced. He was of Irish extraction, as were most of the early score or so of settlers nearby. A moment of fame occurred when a duel between two prominent California political leaders was fought not too far from the county line. David Broderick, U.S. senator from California, and David Terry, former chief justice of the State of California, engaged in a period of insults over the role of California as a free or slave state. Their arguments set up two camps in San Francisco, and the duel was considered at the time to be the "first shot to the Civil War."
Broderick was mortally wounded in a little dale only a mile from Thornton's original claim, and adverse public reaction to his death kept California on the free side. This was in 1859, just prior to the Civil War.
More and more settlers were taking residence in the area, mostly men whose gold dreams didn't pan out and who sought a living from the soil, or by opening small businesses along Mission road. Many were Irish, and when a potato blight hurt their already-meager diggings, they sold out to Germans, who didn't do much better. But, with an increasing population the demand for some organized community benefits was being heard on all sides. Further down the peninsula there were already towns being built, some around the abundant forests west of the road that ran north along the San Francisco Bay. Among those working farms in the mid-peninsula was a young man named John Daly. He had started out from Boston in 1853 at the age of 13, accompanying his mother by ship. His mother died on the Panama crossing and the youngster found work on a dairy farm on arrival in what became San Mateo County.
He learned the dairy business well and married the boss's daughter. By 1868 he had gained enough knowledge and money to purchase some 250 acres at the "top-of-the-hill." The enterprise was known as the San Mateo Dairy and was soon supplying milk and its products from the dairy's own cows and from a consortium of other dairies. Daly became a prominent businessman and leader among the burgeoning population of the area.
In the early 1860's a railroad ran south to San Jose, passing around the westerly edge of Daly's ranch. Stores, hotels, butcher shops, and other businesses blossomed at the bottom of the hill, a cluster of activity that embraced a new schoolhouse, railway station, and a Catholic church. The north peninsula was growing in population. Many of the newcomers were Italians, who managed to grow crops where others had failed. By the early 1890's streetcars were running from San Francisco to communities as far south as San Mateo, coming right over Daly's Hill, as a stop was appropriately named. Daly moved into San Francisco in 1885, seeking better schooling for his children, but maintained his business at the "top-of-the-hill." He helped establish a bank in the new community, donated funds for the first library, and was a political leader if not a resident. Among new businesses in the adjacent Colma area towards the turn of the century were cemeteries, recently banned from San Francisco, where land was deemed too valuable for dead folks. Movement now was underway to form a community, but many of the farmers feared city-type taxes and fought against such issues. It wasn't until the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco that the population surged around the "top-of-the-hill." Daly opened his farmlands for emergency use by the scores of refugees who fled the devastation. Supplying temporary shelter, milk, butter, eggs, and kindness, Daly began to realize that his lands were far more useful for living on than grazing cattle.
He subdivided his property in 1907, and streets were quickly laid out. Many of the original houses were dragged out from mass refugee camps on public lands in San Francisco. A drayer named H.H. Smith bought a number of 14' x 20' temporary houses, dragged them out and set them on inexpensive lots on many locations across the county line.
Now the pressure to become a city was growing, and by 1911 there was sufficient support to incorporate. By a slim margin a new town was voted into San Mateo County. It was named Daly City, in honor of the residents' good friend John Daly.
Streets were paved, sewers and a water system were introduced, police and fire protection became a reality, and Daly City was on its way. More schools were built, the city council erected a City Hall half a block away from Daly's former dairy ranch, and other subdivisions began to fill in the gap tooth's with new housing.
Prior to the earthquake, dog racing was a big attraction, with trains and streetcars bringing thousands to the sparsely-populated hills of the area across the county line. Boxing matches were held in quickly-built arenas near the edge of San Francisco, where gambling was less restricted than in the City.
John Daly died at home on New Year's Day 1923. Smith the drayer was now mayor, in his fifth year of an 18-year stretch. Population gradually increased, but very little land had been added to Daly City by World War II. There was virtually no war industry. That was centered over the southern ridges of San Bruno Mountain, in South San Francisco. Its location by the Bay had fostered heavy industry, steel, packing, paints, and shipping. Whatever growth there was in Daly City came from temporary military boarding in people's homes. The young men answered their nation's call, however, and Bond drives brought enormous per-capita contributions from the citizens of Daly City. The only time the war came in any tangible form was when a U.S. Navy blimp crashed on a Daly City street in 1942, its two-man crew mysteriously missing from an undamaged gondola. A year later two fighter planes crashed in thick fog on the slopes of San Bruno Mountain.
After World War II moderate-cost housing began in Daly City as well as in most other Bay Area communities. A San Francisco builder, Henry Doelger, purchased some 600 acres of sand dunes and cabbage patches that occupied much of the land between the original Daly City's westerly edge to the ocean. He built a community called Westlake, which was annexed to Daly City in 1948. He doubled his land purchases and continued building west and south. An earlier settlement, Broadmoor Village, had been under construction for some years but was not part of any Daly City annexation. Other builders contributed thousands of homes and satellite shopping centers. A huge hospital, Seton Medical Center, came originally from San Francisco as Mary's Help Hospital and is now a prominent landmark on the Daly City scene. Regional shopping centers link St. Francis Height and Serramonte subdivisions.
Outside the War Memorial Building on Mission Street there is a mission bell commemorating the original route of El Camino Real, "The King's Highway," which has not changed by more than a few feet from the original dirt path used by the padres and soldiers more than 200 years ago.
A Bay Area-wide rail system, a huge new freeway complex, and the use of almost all the open space on the westerly side of San Bruno Mountain for housing has raised the population of Daly City to more than 100,000. Much of the increase is an ethnic diversity of newcomers from the Asian and Latin countries.
Daly City's climate is cool, with few extremes. Proximity to San Francisco is unbeatable, and although there is little room for growth in the 7.43 square mile area, the residents do not feel hemmed in. The reasons for settling that Robert Thornton, John Daly, and other early residents might have felt are probably different from the reasons of latter-day arrivals, but by and large there is a sense of great pride and satisfaction in Daly City reflected by those who live here.