Portola Valley, California, sits in a peaceful valley astride the San Andreas Fault, one of the most dangerous earthquake faults in the world. Since incorporation in 1964, development has been slow and the town has kept a rural ambiance reminiscent of days gone by. Details of the prehistoric era are little known as few Indian artifacts have been recovered. However, unless the grizzly bears that roamed the valley kept them away, early settlers must have found the stream-laced land a good site for villages.
In 1834, this valley became part of the 13,000-acre Rancho el Corte de Madera granted to Maximo Martinez by the Mexican government. His land extended from Skyline to the Jasper Ridge area and from Alambique Creek to Matadero Creek. In their era, the land was used for cattle raising. His descendants began selling off their inheritances after his death in 1863. The origins of the modern town of Portola Valley are in the little logging town of Searsville that stood along Sand Hill Road from the 1850s until 1891. It offered services for the men who came to cut the redwoods for the post gold rush building boom.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, the redwoods were mostly gone, Searsville had been abandoned, and a reservoir, known today as Searsville Lake, had been created. At that time, Andrew Hallidie (inventor of San Francisco’s cable cars) lived on a large estate extending from Portola Road to the Skyline. He offered a portion of his Eagle Home Farm as a site for a school to replace the one at Searsville, and the small village of Portola developed around it near today’s Episcopal church.
The area became a place of small farms and large estates. Immigrants from Ireland, Portugal, Croatia, Italy, China, the Philippines, Chile, and Germany joined the Californios to raise strawberries, herd cattle and cut firewood. The large landowners came from San Francisco to escape the summer fog. A few were year round residents.
Extensive residential development did not begin until after World War II, and by the early 1960s, many residents had become alarmed by increasing pressures for housing and business expansion. Therefore, in 1964, they voted to incorporate in order to have local control over development. The goals were to preserve the beauty of the land, to foster low-density housing, to keep government costs low by having a cadre of volunteers, and to limit services to those necessary for local residents.
In the view of many, a good balance between modern development and pastoral quiet exists in the community today. Portola Valley is home to 4500 residents in 1700 households. Nineteen hundred acres of permanent open space exist within the town. Residents continue to treasure the town’s environmental and historic heritage, its excellent public schools and its town government staffed by a multitude of volunteers.