Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 5/1989
Mountain history is inherently tied to the towns nearby and the roads therefrom. On a map of the total Peninsula, we are almost dead center, and our history flows from Half Moon Bay, San Mateo, Redwood City/Woodside, and Pescadero. This story is that of our connection to San Mateo. In future articles I will cover other roads, both on top of the Mountain and getting here.
Reaching the Mountain was slow, dusty, sometimes dangerous (even a few stage robberies – the last one, near today’s Crystal Springs lakes, netted the poor robber a measly $4.30). It was always tiring. In the late 1800s, Half Moon Bay, (then called Spanishtown) was the county’s biggest and most important town – early settlement having all been on the coast. James D. Byrnes, whose picture graces this article, was not only a leading Spanishtown merchant, but also an Assemblyman, State Senator, and one of our first County Supervisors, and a land developer and speculator par excellence, including owning several northern Mountain parcels totaling more than a square mile.
Byrnes was the kind who bought land and used his clout to boost its value. Known as, “The Father of San Mateo” for being the first to resell city lots there, he was also a major pusher of the road linking Spanishtown to San Mateo – but not before buying a key parcel just where a stage-stop would be needed – just past where Highway 92 now heads west, uphill past the lakes (no lakes then – hadn’t been built yet). His was located just west of today’s 92, close to where the old rock quarry sits. Here, in the early 1860s, at the very northeastern foot of the Mountain, he built a stage-stop, store, and saloon, known as, of course, “Byrnes Store.” If you got this far by stage, you were dusted to death and would pay almost any price for a belt to clear your throat and soothe your bottom. Rest assured, you needn’t drink alone – the driver, would always join in, often to the extent you feared for the remainder of the ride. Below is a shot of Byrnes Store in a later incarnation as “The Mountain House” – the second of four to use that name (obviously long before the one we know and love today.)
There is also a 1906 shot looking west as the old road passed the Crystal Springs lakes. On the picture’s far right you see where the road starts up, about as it runs today, a short distance before Byrnes Store. The white spot in the center of the hill is Byrnes Store. Once you got to the pass, you could leave the stage and head south, uphill – but on your own – on “the old Summit Road” which ran essentially where Skyline does today. The tree line then was almost exactly where it is today – way up top – but en route to the trees it was grassier then, less brushy because it was plowed, trampled, and eaten for and by cattle. “The Old Summit” road ran up the mountain slightly east of where Skyline does today. As you drive south on Skyline you catch glimpses of the old road off to your left. There were tiny farms and trapper’s cabins scattered throughout. When D. Gordon Bromfield discussed North Skyline in, “The San Mateo We Knew”, he recalled only four homes – first, that of Peter S. Van Winkle (whose elderly grandchildren I’ve located and am interviewing on May 6th) was on the west side, starting at the top of the first long straight stretch as you drive south – exactly where the Bell home is now at 12130 Skyline. Patty Ward’s, was down the next gulch, and to the left – where you see the cypress trees – across from where Joe Montana used to live. Then there were the Wilseys and the McFarlands, close together, on the west, where the Christmas tree farm is. But there were at least 10 more I’ve found, and probably many more tucked away in the canyons, squatting in small trapper’s cabins. In those days, virtually every major canyon had at least one trapper calling it home. Next article I hope to cover the route from Redwood City/Woodside.