Palo Alto’s earliest recorded history dates from 1769, when Gaspar de Portolà noted an Ohlone settlement. This remains an area of known Indian mounds. A plaque is erected at Middlefield Road and Embarcadero Road to commemorate this area.
The city got its name from the tall landmark Redwood tree, El Palo Alto, which still grows on the east bank of San Francisquito Creek across from Menlo Park. One trunk of the twin-trunked tree can still be found by the railroad trestle near Alma Street in El Palo Alto Park (the other trunk was destroyed during a storm in the late 20th century). There a plaque recounts the story of the Portolà expedition, a 63-man, 200-horse expedition from San Diego to Monterey from November 7–11, 1769. The group overshot Monterey in the fog and when they reached modern-day Pacifica, they ascended Sweeney Ridge and discovered San Francisco Bay. Portolà descended from Sweeney Ridge southeast down San Andreas Creek to Laguna Creek (now Crystal Springs Reservoirs and the Filoli estate, and thence to the San Francisquito Creek watershed, ultimately camping at El Palo Alto from November 6–11, 1769. Thinking the bay was too wide to cross, the group retraced their journey back to Monterey, never discovering the Golden Gate entrance to the Bay.
About 1827, Rafael Soto, the tenth child and a son of De Anza Expedition settler Ygnacio Soto and María Bárbara Espinosa de Lugo of Alta, California, came to stay with Máximo Martínez at his Rancho Corte de Madera for seven years. Located south of the San Francisquito Creek, west of today’s I-280, Rancho Corte de Madera covered most of Portola Valley to Skyline Boulevard extending south to about Foothill College. In 1835, Rafael Soto and family settled near the San Francisquito Creek near Newell and Middlefield, selling goods to travelers. Rafael Soto died in 1839, but his wife, Maria Antonia Mesa, was granted Rancho Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito in 1841.
Their daughter María Luisa Soto married in 1839, John Coppinger, who was the grantee of Rancho Cañada de Raymundo. Rancho Cañada de Raymundo was West of San Francisquito Creek, and began at Alambique Creek, the north border of Rancho Corte de Madera, and extended north, including present day Woodside. Bear Gulch Creek (Bear Creek) flowed on his land in Portola Valley. The rancho also abutted Buelna’s grant near Skyline Boulevard and Matadero Creek. Upon Coppinger’s death, Maria inherited it and later married a visiting boat captain, John Greer. Greer owned a home on the property that is now Town & Country Village on Embarcadero and El Camino Real. Greer Avenue and Court are named for him. To the west of Rafael Soto, near El Camino and following the Creek, was Rancho San Francisquito granted in 1839, to Antonio Buelna and wife Maria Concepcion.
To the south of the Sotos, the brothers Secundino and Teodoro Robles, in 1849, bought Rancho Rincon de San Francisquito from José Peña, the 1841 grantee. The grant extended from San Francisquito Creek, Alpine Road and Bishop Ln. (behind Stanford Shopping Center) and golf course. Then South along the Santa Cruz Foothills between Junipero Serra & Hwy 280 to the (Intersection of Matadero Creek/ Hillview /Miranda) & then SW near the intersection of Page Mill & Arastradero Rd. (where the Jone’s House was), then east down Arastradero Rd. to the north property line of Alta Mesa Memorial Park and Terman Park. Follow the trail of what was once the old stage road over Adobe Creek (then Yeguas Creek) to El Camino Real & then east on San Antonio Rd. to the Bay marshes passing over the RR and what was once the Jeffry’s House & Stables. The property then went along the bay to the Embarcadero, a major boundary in the day, then up to the Stanford University gates, up Galvez and along Campus way to the hills near the golf course. The grant was bounded on the south by Mariano Castro’s Rancho Pastoria de las Borregas grant across San Antonio Road. That’s the Robles Rancho, about 80% of Palo Alto and Stanford University. It was whittled down by 1863 through courts to 6,981 acres (28.25 km2). Stories say their grand hacienda was built on the former meager adobe of José Peña near Ferne off San Antonio Road, midway between Middlefield and Alma Street.Their hacienda hosted fiestas and bull fights. It was ruined in the 1906 earthquake and its lumber was used to build a large barn nearby which it is said lingered until the early 1950s. In 1853, they sold 250 acres (1.0 km2), comprising the present day Barron Park, Matadero Creek and Stanford Business Park, to Elisha Oscar Crosby, who coined Mayfield as she called her new property Mayfield Farm. In 1880, Secundino Robles, father to twenty-nine children, still lived near present-day Sears store.
Many of the Spanish names in the Palo Alto area represent the local heritage, descriptive terms and former residents. Pena Court, Miranda Avenue, which was essentially Foothill Expwy, was the married name of Juana Briones and the name occurs in Courts and Avenues others in Palo Alto to Mountain View in the quadrant where she owned vast areas between Stanford Univ., Grant Road in Mountain View and west of El Camino. Yerba Buena was to her credit. Rinconada was the major Mexican land grant name.
The township of Mayfield was formed in 1855, in what is now southern Palo Alto. In 1875, French financier Jean Baptiste Paulin Caperon, better known as Peter Coutts, purchased land in Mayfield and four other parcels around three sides of today’s College Terrace – more than a thousand acres extending from today’s Page Mill Road to Serra Street and from El Camino Real to the foothills. Coutts named his property Ayrshire Farm. His fanciful brick 50-foot-tall brick tower near Matadero Creek likely marked the south corner of his property. Leland Stanford started buying land in the area in 1876 for a horse farm, called the Palo Alto Stock Farm. Stanford bought Ayrshire Farm in 1882. Jane and Leland Stanford, Sr. founded Stanford University in 1891, dedicated to his son who died of typhoid fever at age 15 in 1884. In 1886, Stanford came to Mayfield, interested in founding his university there. He had a train stop created near his school on Mayfield’s downtown street, Lincoln Street (now named California Avenue). However, he had one condition: alcohol had to be banned from the town. Known for its 13 rowdy saloons, Mayfield rejected his requests for reform. This led him to drive the formation of Palo Alto as a Temperance Town in 1894 with the help of his friend Timothy Hopkins of the Southern Pacific Railroad who bought 740 acres (3.0 km2) of private land in 1887 for the new townsite. The Hopkins Tract, bounded by El Camino Real, San Francisquito Creek, Boyce, Channing, Melville, and Hopkins Avenues, and Embarcadero Road,was proclaimed a local Heritage District during Palo’s Alto Centennial in 1994. Stanford set up his university, Stanford University, and a train stop (on University Avenue) by his new town. With Stanford’s support, saloon days faded and Palo Alto grew to the size of Mayfield. On July 2, 1925, Palo Alto voters approved the annexation of Mayfield and the two communities were officially consolidated on July 6, 1925. This saga explains why Palo Alto has two downtown areas: one along University Avenue and one along California Avenue.
The Mayfield News wrote its own obituary four days later:
It is with a feeling of deep regret that we see on our streets today those who would sell, or give, our beautiful little city to an outside community. We have watched Mayfield grow from a small hamlet, when Palo Alto was nothing more than a hayfield, to her present size … and it is with a feeling of sorrow that we contemplate the fact that there are those who would sell or give the city away.
Many of Stanford University’s first faculty members settled in the Professorville
Palo Alto is crossed by several creeks that flow north to San Francisco Bay, Adobe Creek on its eastern boundary, San Francisquito Creek on its western boundary, and Matadero Creek in between the other two. Arastradero Creek is tributary to Matadero Creek, and Barron Creek is now diverted to Adobe Creek just south of Highway 101 by a diversion channel. The San Francisquito Creek mainstem is formed by the confluence of Corte Madera Creek and Bear Creek not far below Searsville Dam. Further downstream, Los Trancos Creek is tributary to San Francisquito Creek below Interstate 280.
Palo Alto has a number of significant natural habitats, including estuarine, riparian, and oak forest. Many of these habitats are visible in Foothill Park, which is owned by the city. The Charleston Slough contains a rich marsh and littoral zone, providing feeding areas for a variety of shorebirds and other estuarine wildlife.
Palo Alto is in the south-eastern section of the San Francisco Peninsula. It is bordered to the north by East Palo Alto, to the east by Mountain View, to the southeast and south by Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, to the southwest by Portola Valley, and to the west by Stanford and Menlo Park.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 25.8 square miles (67 km2). 23.9 square miles (62 km2) of it is land and 1.9 square miles (4.9 km2) (or 7.38%) is water.
The official elevation is 56 feet (17 m) above sea level, but the city boundaries reach well into the peninsula hills. There are signs denoting the city limits on Skyline Boulevard (highway 35) and the Stevens Canyon trail (San Andreas fault rift zone).
Typical of the San Francisco Bay Area, Palo Alto has a Mediterranean Climate with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. Typically as the sun goes down the fog bank flows over the foothills to the west and covers the night sky, thus creating a blanket that helps trap the summer warmth absorbed during the day.
In January, average temperatures range from 38.5 °F (3.6 °C) to 57.4 °F (14.1 °C). In July, average temperatures range from 54.9 °F (12.7 °C) to 78.4 °F (25.8 °C). The record high temperature was 107 °F (42 °C) on June 15, 1961, and the record low temperature was 15 °F (−9 °C) on November 17, 2003. Temperatures reach 90 °F (32 °C) or higher on an average of 9.9 days. Temperatures drop to 32 °F (0 °C) or lower on an average of 16.1 days.
Due to the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west, there is a “rain shadow” in Palo Alto, resulting in an average annual rainfall of only 15.32 inches (389 mm). Measurable rainfall occurs on an average of 57 days annually. The wettest year on record was 1983 with 32.51 inches (826 mm) and the driest year was 1976 with 7.34 inches (186 mm). The most rainfall in one month was 12.43 inches (316 mm) in February 1998 and the most rainfall in one day was 3.75 inches (95 mm) on February 3, 1998. Measurable snowfall is very rare in Palo Alto, but 1.5 inches (38 mm) fell on January 21, 1962.
|Climate data for Palo Alto (1981–2010 normals)|
|Average high °F (°C)||58.4
|Average low °F (°C)||38.5
|Precipitation inches (mm)||3.06
(The annual average high is 20.7 °C (69 °F) and the average low 8.1 °C (47 °F).)