History About San Mateo, CA

San Mateo is a vibrant, progressive city located in the San Francisco Bay Area with a rich history spanning over 150 years. From its early beginnings as a small town supporting nearby lumber and agricultural industries to its development into a bustling suburban center in Silicon Valley, San Mateo has undergone an intriguing evolution.

Origins and Early Settlement

The area where San Mateo now stands was originally home to the Ohlone Native Americans. In 1776, Spanish missionaries arrived in the region and established Mission San Francisco de Asís, now known as Mission Dolores, in nearby San Francisco.

In 1846, Mexico ceded California to the United States after the Mexican-American War. Around this time, an entrepreneur named William Davis Merry Howard recognized the area’s potential and purchased the Rancho de las Pulgas land grant.

Howard built a house along San Mateo Creek in the late 1840s and formed a small settlement in the area, originally known as Burnt Store and later renamed San Mateo.

The early residents of San Mateo were mostly farmers, lumber mill workers, and those employed in related agricultural industries. The rich soil and abundant forests supported major industries like wheat and flour production along with lumber harvesting.

From Village to City

In 1856, San Mateo County was officially incorporated, with San Mateo designated as the county seat. This spurred further development in the area. By the 1860s, San Mateo had its own post office, hotels, stores, schools, and churches.

The City of San Mateo was officially incorporated in 1894. Major local employer and businessman Charles Polhemus served as the new city’s first mayor.

The city continued to grow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The population expanded from around 1,000 in the 1860s to over 5,000 by the 1920s. Transportation improvements like the Peninsula Commute railroad (now Caltrain) connected San Mateo to San Francisco and other communities on the Peninsula.

The city’s downtown emerged along 3rd and 4th Avenues near the train station. Civic institutions like a city hall, library, parks, and recreation facilities took shape.

Suburban Boom and High-Tech Influence

After World War II, San Mateo experienced rapid suburban expansion, transforming from a small town into a bedroom community paired with nearby economic hubs in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Major suburban development occurred in previously undeveloped areas like the Hillsdale and Marina neighborhoods. Large shopping malls opened, including Hillsdale Shopping Center (1954) and Shoreview Shopping Center (1958). Many tech workers and their families chose to settle in San Mateo due to its proximity to Silicon Valley and good schools.

Today, San Mateo remains a vibrant suburban city with over 100,000 residents. It continues to benefit from the Silicon Valley tech boom while retaining a strong sense of community and local history.

Historic Sites and Places

San Mateo boasts a number of historic buildings, landmarks, and points of interest chronicling different eras in the city’s past:


  • San Mateo County History Museum – Located in the old San Mateo County Courthouse building constructed in 1910. Houses exhibits on local history.
  • San Mateo City Hall – The distinctive City Hall building opened in 1929. Represents an example of Classical Revival civic architecture.
  • 3rd and 4th Avenue Downtown Districts – These main downtown thoroughfares retain historic commercial buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Parks and Gardens

  • San Mateo Arboretum – This community garden and arboretum opened in 1957 on the site of a former nursery. Has diverse botanical collections along with historic structures.
  • Japanese Tea Garden – Built from 1917-1938 in Central Park, this tranquil garden has authentic Japanese landscaping and architecture.
  • Sugarloaf Mountain – A prominent historic hill overlooking the city. An 1865 stone house nestled on the hill is one of San Mateo County’s oldest surviving structures.

Further Afield

  • Filoli Estate – Located in nearby Woodside, this country estate built from 1915-1917 is considered one of the finest surviving country houses from its era. Its gardens are also quite significant.

Evolution of Transportation

Transportation improvements and connections have always played a key role in San Mateo’s development:

  • Stagecoaches and Taverns: In the mid-1800s, stagecoach routes operated through San Mateo. Taverns along the routes provided rest and lodging for travelers.
  • Railroads: The San Francisco and San Jose Railroad reached San Mateo in 1863, facilitating further growth. In the early 20th century, the electric commuter rail line between San Francisco and San Jose (now Caltrain) was established with a San Mateo station stop.
  • Streetcars: From 1903-1929, streetcars known as the 1-2-3-4 line ran through San Mateo and connected surrounding communities.
  • Bridges: In 1929, the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge opened across the bay, improving access to the East Bay. Previously, there was no road connecting San Mateo directly to the East Bay.
  • Highways: Major roads like El Camino Real and Highway 101 have run through San Mateo for decades, allowing automobile travel and commute patterns. Highway 92, connecting San Mateo to Hayward, opened in the 1960s.
  • Air Transit: San Mateo County Airport (renamed San Carlos Airport) opened in 1925 for small general aviation planes. In 1954, San Francisco International Airport began operating about 15 miles north, providing an international airport nearby.

Local Industries and Major Businesses

Below are some of the key industries, companies, and employers that have contributed to San Mateo’s local economy over the years:

  • Agriculture: In the mid-1800s, vast wheat farms and flour mills operated in San Mateo along with lumber harvesting in the forests.
  • Flower Growing: By the early 1900s, multiple flower nurseries and seed companies did business in San Mateo, earning it the nickname “Heart of the Flower Growing Industry.”
  • Food Production: San Mateo was home to several commercial fisheries and canneries supplying food to the Bay Area in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
  • Tech Industry: Many Silicon Valley tech firms are located in neighboring cities but have offices or branches in San Mateo. Oracle, Sony Interactive Entertainment, EFI, and NetSuite are major tech companies with sites in San Mateo.
  • Retail: Downtown San Mateo and large malls house many national retail and restaurant chains. Local shops also thrive downtown.
  • Financial and Professional Services: Banks, credit unions, insurance companies, law firms, medical offices and other service businesses play a large role in San Mateo’s economy today.
  • Education: San Mateo Union High School District and San Mateo-Foster City School District are two of the city’s major employers. Notre Dame de Namur University is also located in the city.

Demographic Changes Over Time

San Mateo has become an increasingly diverse, educated, and affluent community over the decades:

Population Growth


Racial/Ethnic Makeup

Black/African American0.9%2.8%

Income and Education

Median Household Income$11,800$86,218
% College Educated16.0%60.4%

As shown, San Mateo has transitioned from a predominantly white, middle-income community to a highly diverse, educated, and prosperous suburban city over the past few decades.

Notable Local Figures

Some noteworthy people who have lived in or impacted San Mateo over the years include:

Historical Figures

  • William Davis Merry Howard – Early settler, landowner
  • Charles Polhemus – First mayor
  • Mary E.M. Davis – First librarian who established the city library

Business Leaders

  • William B. Bourn – Wealthy industrialist who built Filoli Estate
  • Mitsuhei Murakami – Prominent Japanese nurseryman & seed grower
  • Larry Ellison – Oracle CEO, owns significant property in San Mateo

Entertainers & Artists

  • Tom Lantos – U.S. Congressman and human rights activist
  • Lynn Swann – Pro football player, graduate of Junipero Serra High
  • Robert Culp – Actor who lived in San Mateo for years
  • Paul Kantner – Musician with Jefferson Airplane


  • Jimmie Johnson – 7-time NASCAR champion, graduate of Granada High
  • Gregg Jefferies – MLB infielder raised in San Mateo
  • John Madden – Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster who resides in San Mateo

Other Notables

  • Sun Yat-sen – Founding father of modern China; lived in San Mateo in 1910
  • William Ralston – Banker who helped develop San Mateo in the 1860s
  • Junipero Serra – Father Serra, founder of California missions; Serra High named for him

This list provides just a sampling of some of the many notable people who have contributed to San Mateo’s vibrant history over the past 150+ years.

Looking to the Future

As San Mateo celebrates its sesquicentennial in 2019, the city looks to maintain its unique character while continuing to adapt and progress as a desirable Bay Area suburb.

Some initiatives and developments aimed at San Mateo’s future include:

  • Ongoing downtown revitalization efforts, including streetscaping projects to enhance pedestrian spaces.
  • Sustainability measures such as installing EV charging stations, expanding bike lanes, and increasing renewable energy usage.
  • Redevelopment of aging shopping malls and commercial areas to include mixed-use residential and updated amenities.
  • Continued investment in quality education and youth programs to engage future generations.
  • Support for a diverse, inclusive community through events, policies, and multicultural organizations.
  • Balancing growth and development with historic preservation to retain the city’s heritage.

The next chapter of San Mateo’s ever-evolving story has yet to be written. This overview of its history thus far provides a solid foundation to appreciate the city’s past accomplishments while looking ahead to its promising future.

With engaged residents and leaders, San Mateo is poised for ongoing prosperity, innovation, and community-building for the next 150 years.


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  • Starting downtown, head north on South B Street then make a left on East 4th Ave followed by a right on South Delaware Street. Turn left on 9th Avenue and arrive shortly on the right.
  • Coming from Highway 101 North, take the CA-92 West exit then turn left on Delaware Street and right on 9th Avenue, arriving soon after on the right side.
  • From Hayward Park Station, walk northwest on West Hillsdale Boulevard, turn right on Norfolk Street followed by a left on 9th Avenue. 812 will be on the left side.