Imagine California with no landmarks from before 1848, no structures dating to the Spanish and Mexican periods. How different might the state be?
Were it not for the efforts of some women determined to stop the erasure of the past, that might be the reality today.
In the 1830s the Mexican government secularized the missions and transferred them to appointed administrators. Almost no effort was made to preserve missions churches and other structures. Tiles and building materials were removed for use on houses or municipal buildings. Soon unprotected adobe walls began to suffer the effects of time and weather.
The missions weren’t the only vanishing artifacts. The system of trails and roads that linked the missions, presidios and pueblos had become almost useless in some places. In other places it had and practically disappeared. "El Camino Real", which had been in use for over 100 years, seemed destined to disintegrate.
By the end of the 19th century, some Californians worried that the state’s unique historical features — especially those connected to its Spanish and Mexican past — were being lost.
Anna Pitcher and El Camino
Nothing was done until an enterprising Pasadena woman named Anna Pitcher got involved. In his book California’s El Camino Real and its Historic Bells, author Max Kurillo tells her story.
Anna Pitcher was a lover of history and active in civic organizations. She believed that the decaying missions were the most important art treasures in the State of California.
But for Anna, the key to preserving the Spanish heritage of California for future generations was saving El Camino Real. She saw the missions as connecting points along the Camino. So she created a five point plan for securing the highway, one that would take into account the growing use of the automobile.
The Women’s Clubs
Pitcher presented her plan to two key women’s organizations: the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) and the Native Daughters of the Golden West (NDGW). After hearing her pitch, both groups decided to back the plan.
For a decade, Pitcher worked with the GFWC and NDGW to gather support for her El Camino Real Plan. But in 1902 she fell ill. She commended the work to Harrye Rebecca Piper Forbes (also known as Mrs. A.S.C Forbes). Forbes was already known for discovering the original copy of the Treaty of Cahuenga.
She soon took up the mantle from Pitcher and began working with the clubs to carry forward the project. Over the coming years they set out marking El Camino Real. They also worked at setting safety standards for all California roads.
A Working Road
Thanks to the efforts of the Women’s Clubs, in 1910, California Highway 2 was designated "El Camino Real." By the end of 1920 it was possible to drive the entire distance — with a few unpaved spots — from San Diego to Sonoma. Highway 2 later became Highway 101.
Although successful, the push to preserve El Camino Real was not without its early critics, like Charles Fletcher Lummis. Lummis was an supporter of mission restoration and Native American rights, who later founded the Southwest Museum. But in 1904 he wrote that the movement lacked the right sort of leadership:
…while it is now high time for men to take hold who know what’s what, eighty percent of this whole Camino Real momentum is due to women.
"Citadels of Tyranny"
Although Lummis felt the project was flawed because women ran it, there were plenty of Anglo-Americans who did not like the idea of marking the Camino or the missions at all.
As Phoebe Kropp details in her book California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place, by the end of the 19th century many Americans saw the old missions as bizarre foreign artifacts in modern America.
At the same time, anti-Hispanic feelings were high among Americans, thanks in part to the Spanish-American War. They saw the war as a way to rid the world of Spanish colonialism and the missions as symbols of that same colonialism. An 1897 article in the literary journal Overland Monthly described the missions "citadels of tyranny" and argued against preserving them.
Nevertheless, with America’s victory in the war, Spain was now a vanquished foe and things Hispanic were seen as no longer threatening. Opposition to commemorating El Camino Real and the missions became less intense.
Soon the idea of marking El Camino Real with bells began to take shape. In 1906, the Los Angeles section of the El Camino Real Association proposed creating a distinctive emblem at certain points along the highway. Mrs. Forbes suggested bells.
Forbes came up with a design for the markers, and in 1906, the first El Camino Real Bell was installed. It’s location was outside the historic Plaza Church in Los Angeles, whose bells had served as Mrs. Forbes’ model. Soon localities were installing bell markers along El Camino Real. By 1910, 90 bells were installed along the highway.
Thanks to Mrs. Forbes’ enthusiasm throughout the early 20th century, the bells took on a life of their own, springing up all throughout the state. Forbes and her husband even started their own foundry, the California Bell Company, though most of those were small, souvenir-sized replicas. The company still exists to this day, under different ownership.
Mapping El Camino
The bells rapidly became synonymous with California’s image. But no one made a provision for their upkeep. So the Women’s Clubs worked to persuade the Southern California Automobile Club and the California State Automobile Club to help maintain the bells. In 1912 the American Automobile Association (AAA) published a series of maps for sections of El Camino Real. These became the basis of the famous AAA map service for California roads.
With time, El Camino Real and its bells came to symbolize California’s Hispanic past. In 1963, the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee approved the dedication of two plaques commemorating El Camino Real and Junípero Serra’s role in its founding. One was installed at Mission San Francisco de Asís, and the other at Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the northern and southern endpoints of the highway. The commission also granted each county along El Camino Real one plaque. It would be located at the most significant site within its boundaries.
In 1996 the Caltrans Landscape Architecture Program began restoring the mission bell markers between San Diego and San Francisco. They completed the project in 2005, with help from a $1.4 million federal grant.
Over the years enthusiasm for the El Camino Real bells has ebbed and flowed. The winds of politics and public opinion blow in different directions, and the future of the bells is hard to predict. But the story of El Camino Real and its bells teaches us one thing: that how history is preserved and interpreted is often the work of a few dedicated, passionate and well-organized individuals.