Classic Peninsula

A Commute Back in Time

By Matt St. John

If you’ve ever felt like your daily slog on Highway 101 couldn’t be worse, you’ve obviously never traveled by stagecoach. In the mid-to-late 1800s, the 50-or-so-mile stretch between San Francisco and San Jose wasn’t a stop-and-go Tesla ride set to the dulcet tones of NPR; it was a dusty journey for the intrepid. Meandering through the vast wilderness of the San Francisco Peninsula, you would have been lucky to complete the trip in a day. By many historians’ estimates, your ride would’ve taken even longer.

By the middle of the 20th century, the advent of the automobile derailed many of the Peninsula’s other commuting methods.

John Whistman started the first official stage line between San Jose and San Francisco in 1849, according to the San Mateo History Museum exhibit Journey to Work: Pioneering Patterns of Growth. At the time, rides cost about two ounces of gold, which would’ve been worth around $32 in today’s currency. Riders faced wheel-sucking mud in the winter and thick dust in the summer, all of which no doubt found its way onto their frocks, coats and boots. While the stagecoach provided riders with a long and dirty way through the Peninsula, the creation of the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad drastically cut the duration of the journey between the two West Coast cities.

But the steam-powered train wasn’t for everyone. In 1880, a ride from Oak Grove Station — which became a part of the city of Burlingame — would’ve cost commuters 70 cents. Seems like a good deal, but the average working class person at the time earned only a dollar per day, making the railroad a largely elite affair.

A stagecoach on the road from San Mateo to Half Moon Bay.

The train allowed West Coast titans of industry like Leland Stanford and James Flood to model themselves on their elite East Coast counterparts, who deployed their considerable wealth to build country estates outside cities like Boston and New York. Soon after the creation of the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, wealthy San Franciscans began purchasing property up and down the Peninsula, laying the seeds that would one day grow into vibrant communities like Belmont and Menlo Park

The railroad, which was purchased by Southern Pacific in 1870, marked the first step toward the Peninsula’s emergence as “the West’s first rail suburb,” according to Mitch Postel, president of the San Mateo History Museum. But it was the creation of the electric streetcar that made it possible for the Bay Area’s middle class to flee the chaos of a rapidly urbanizing San Francisco for a quieter life on the Peninsula.

The San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway launched in 1890. At first the streetcar took riders only as far as Daly City, but by the early 1900s it shuttled riders between San Francisco’s Ferry Building and San Mateo in just 40 minutes.

Still, the electric railway’s days were numbered: California’s first stretch of automobile highway landed between San Bruno and Burlingame in 1912. “The automobile put them out of business,” says Postel.

The Peninsula commute will someday evolve just as it has before. But with traffic what it is today, some residents may be wistful for the stagecoach

A streetcar scene in San Mateo.
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