History of Palo Alto

1822 drawing of Ohlone Indians in a Tule Boat In the San Francisco Bay  
Ohlone Indians in a Tule Boat In the San Francisco Bay, c.1822 by L. A. Choris (Photo courtesy of Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area)


Early Settlements

The first people to inhabit the lands that became Palo Alto were the Ohlone.  The mild climate and bountiful natural resources in this area provided them with a high quality of life.  The bay and marshes provided shellfish and fowl; the valley floor supplied small game and acorns from the thousands of oak trees.  San Francisquito Creek and other nearby waterways gave them fish as well as fruit and berries from the stream sides.  Larger game including deer and grizzly bears could be caught in the foothills.

Pre-history became history with the expedition of Don Gaspar de Portola who explored the area in 1769. With his men, he camped alongside El Palo Alto (the tall stick), the tree that today symbolizes both Palo Alto and Stanford University.

Spanish and later Mexican land grants brought new settlers to the area. The Soto/Greer family settled Rancho Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito covering much of what is now Old Palo Alto.  Several other ranchos, including Rancho La Purisima Concepcion purchased by Juana Briones in the mid-1840s, contained land which is part of Palo Alto today.

Industrial History

The first community was established in 1853 when James Otterson built a roadhouse on the road between San Francisco and San Jose.  This community, named Mayfield, was located at present-day California Avenue and El Camino Real. Mayfield grew into a typical small farm town with one exception: the hills to the west of Mayfield were alive with hundreds of men operating small sawmills, harvesting the Douglas Fir and Redwood trees for lumber for the growing city of San Francisco to the north.  These men came down from the hills to Mayfield to spend their money in the many saloons which operated profitably in town.

The railroad from San Francisco to San Jose reached Mayfield in 1863.  Wealthy San Franciscans began building large country estates along the tracks.  Leland Stanford created his Palo Alto Stock Farm on the southern bank of San Francisquito Creek where he raised and trained racehorses that set world records in trotting races across the country.

Stanford University

A Stanford family tragedy in 1884, though, changed the appearance of the Peninsula in ways that are still felt today.  Leland Stanford Junior, the only child of Leland and Jane Stanford, died of typhoid fever while traveling in Europe. His parents announced their desire to establish a university in their son’s memory for the children of California.  After several years of construction, Leland Stanford Junior University opened to 465 students in 1891.  With the promise of free tuition, ambitious but poor students including future United States President Herbert Hoover came to study at Stanford.

Although Leland Stanford’s vineyards were among the largest in California, the Stanfords wished to restrict the university students’ access to alcohol.  Needing a college town to support and supply the new university, the Stanfords looked to Mayfield (and Menlo Park), supposedly upon the condition of shutting down the town’s 13 saloons and lone brewery. The residents of Mayfield declined the proposal, perhaps in part because the success of the new university was no sure thing.

Timothy Hopkins was encouraged to purchase and develop the new town of University Park, which was soon renamed Palo Alto. Within a few years the young town was thriving.  In 1894, the town’s residents were confident enough in the future of the town to incorporate. City leaders developed civic ownership of the water supply and later municipal gas system and an electric power plant. There was a scare that the university’s success and stability might waiver following Leland Stanford’s death in 1893, but Jane Stanford continued her role in supporting the university.  She even funded many of the expenses from her personal accounts when Leland’s wealth was tied up in legal issues.


In the new century Stanford University and Palo Alto continued to grow.  A he campus.  The tow street car ran up and down University Avenue to tn grew south of Embarcadero Road reaching Oregon Avenue.  In 1925 the town of Mayfield was annexed to the larger Palo Alto.  Palo Alto survived the Depression years in the 1930s in better shape than most of the country.  The major business of the town was the University and professors and staff continued to teach and do research.  Their modest salaries were spent in the community keeping merchants and the townspeople in business.

And then there was Lucie Stern.  An heiress to the Levi Strauss fortune, she financed a number of building projects in town and on the campus, supposedly in part to keep her favorite craftsmen employed.  She funded the Community Theatre, the Children’s Theatre and Children’s Library, as well as the Sea Scout Building in the years before World War II.

Palo Alto grew tremendously in the 15 years following the end of World War II.  The opening of the Stanford Industrial Park in the mid-1950s brought thousands of new residents and commuters to jam inadequate streets.  The Stanford Shopping Center attracted shoppers at the expense of the downtown retail area.  The Stanford Medical Center relocated to Palo Alto from San Francisco in 1959.

Thousands of new homes were built to house the growing number of people working in Palo Alto.  The population more than doubled from 25,000 to 55,000 by1960.  Joseph Eichler and other contractors sold out their new subdivisions as fast as they could build them. Palo Alto opened elementary schools at the rate of one per year in the 1950s, plus two new junior high schools and two new high schools in the mid-1960s.

Steve Staiger, Palo Alto Historian


Palo Alto cemented its place as a leader in science and technology when William Hewlett and David Packard lived and worked together from 1938 to 1940 at the now-famous Hewlett-Packard House and Garage.  It was during this short period of time that they created their first successful HP computer products that would ultimately make Palo Alto the nucleus for the creation of Silicon Valley, the first high-technology region in the world. 

Other ventures at the Stanford Research Park and elsewhere throughout the City have contributed enormously to the growing body of knowledge surrounding technology and its capabilities, including but in no way limited to: the Federal Telegraph Company whose research led to modern radio communications, television and the electronics age; the Fairchild Semiconductor where the first integrated circuit that could be produced commercially was invented, revolutionizing the semiconductor industry; Varian Medical Systems which advanced the fields of radiosurgery, x-ray tube technology and even created inventions that played a key role in helping astronauts land on the moon; and Google which started in 1996, moved to Palo Alto in 1999, and found a home with other start-ups in the City before settling down in Mountain View.

Though the City must constantly work to keep pace with its rapidly growing businesses and population, Palo Alto is still beating strong in the Valley of Heart’s Delight.

Afterword by City of Palo Alto Historic Preservation Division