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8.12.2007 - 33 comments 

As we were driving down Highway 101 from the San Francisco Bay area through central California, (on our way to Southern California), I kept seeing these bells with signs along the road that said “El Camino Real.” I finally decided to take this picture of one which happened in a typical looking location not far outside of Paso Robles, CA. This area was covered in sun soaked yellow grasses (which are part of the reason for it being called the Golden State) the other reason of course was the California Gold rush of the 1840’s and 1850’s.

Even though I grew up in Southern California and knew from even my grade school days and heard the stories of building the California Missions and of course the famous “King’s Highway” (which in Spanish is called El Camino Real). But in spite of that, I had never remembered these bells, so I decided to find out about them. Here’s what I was able to find out their history.

The notion of preserving El Camino Real was first proposed by Miss Anna Pitcher, Director of the Pasadena Art Exhibition Association to the Women's Club of Los Angeles in 1892. Unsuccessful, she tried again with a pitch to the California Federation of Woman's Clubs (CFWC) in May 1902 and to the Native Daughters of the Golden West (NDGW) in June 1902. Both organizations endorsed the idea. The CFWC (principally Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes and Mrs. Caroline Olney) and the NDGW eventually implemented the proposal. In 1904, a group was formed called the El Camino Real Association. This group had the mission to reestablish the road and select a marker design. Mrs. Forbes' (upon a suggestion by Mrs. C.F. Gates) created a marker that was a cast iron bell hung from an eleven-foot bent guidepost.

The first bell was placed in 1906 in front of the Old Plaza Church in downtown Los Angeles. Eventually, there were approx. 158 bells installed along the Camino Real by 1915. Alas, the bells were not maintained, and by 1926, the bells had fallen into disrepair and some had been stolen. From 1926 to 1931, the California State Automobile Association and the Automobile Club of Southern California assumed responsibility for maintenance and replacement of bells on state-owned property (just as they had responsibility for signage). In fact, the bells often served as highway signage, working as markers for California motorists. By 1949, there were approx. 286 bells along the road.

In 1960, Justin Kramer of Los Angeles won the bid to manufacture replacement bells. His design became the standard. Theft and vandalism continued to take its toll, and the number dwindled to about 75. In 1974 the Legislature appointed Caltrans as guardian of the bells, responsible for repairing or replacing them.

Replacements are made of concrete, rather than cast iron, to discourage theft. Along with Los Angeles County, the bells are located in the counties of Ventura, San Benito, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Mateo and Santa Clara. In 1996, Caltrans developed the "Adopt-A-Bell" program (specifically, it was developed by Keith Robinson, who was the Statewide Coordinator of the Caltrans Adopt-A-Highway Program because he had an interest in El Camino Real and the loss of the mission bell markers; it appeared to him to be a good way to get the bell markers back on the highways for the public to recognize the historic route of El Camino Real).

After the program was conceived, the California Federation of Womens Clubs was offered the opportunity to adopt as many bells as they could until early 1998. The adoption guidelines were written so that after early 1998 anyone could adopt a bell and maintain it under the Adopt-A-Highway Program.

The history of El Camino Real and its bells, is quite interesting. At the same time that the American colonies were rebelling against England, a handful of Spaniards and Mexicans established outposts up the California coast. The first was established in 1769 at San Diego, when they established a fortress and a Franciscan mission. A footpath, called The El Camino Real, or Kings Highway, was created to connect the outputs.

Each outpost, called a Mission, was situated in areas where large populations of Indians lived and where the soil was fertile enough to sustain a settlement. As time progressed and more Missions were built, the footpath became a roadway wide enough to accommodate horses and wagons. It was not, however, until the last Mission in Sonoma was completed in 1823, that this little pathway became a real route. From that point, a series of small self-reliant religious missions were established. Each was a day's travel apart and linked by El Camino Real, Overall, El Camino Real ("The King's Highway") linked 21 missions, pueblos and four presidios from San Diego all the way up to Sonoma.

Remember that Sonoma is right up there in the Napa Valley from a couple of posts back?Many of these missions have themselves become tourist attractions in and of themselves now. Mrs. LZ and I have visited many of these over the years and they are all sort of unique in their own right with their own stories of their early beginnings and the hazards of local life in those times. Probably the most famous of these would be the one that my maternal grandparents visited right before they decided to move to Southern California from Ohio in the 1940’s. That one being the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, famous for its swallows that migrate back there every spring to thrill the tourists.

"Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart."
~ Confucius