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article imageCalifornia Mission Bells mark the spots of the 'King's Highway' Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Mar 9, 2013 in Travel
Sacramento - Driving along El Camino Real people have noticed more Mission Bells posted along the familiar thoroughfare (especially this reporter). That is because this past fall of 2012, the El Camino Mission Bell Marker Project was completed,
thanks to the dedicated efforts of Chris Rossmiller, landscape architect and project manager for a portion of the statewide Project. And, to Keith Robinson, who serves as Principal Landscape Architect for Caltrans, who was inspired to take on the project out of respect for California history.
In the early 1900 s markers along the El Camino Real were established to call attention to the road ...
In the early 1900's markers along the El Camino Real were established to call attention to the road's historical significance and California's early pioneer past.
Courtesy of Keith Robinson and Caltrans
Two federal Transportation Enhancement grants totaling nearly $2 million were received by Caltrans in 2000 and 2010 to fund the restoration of the Mission Bell Marker system on the legislatively designated El Camino Real from Orange County to Sonoma.
In the early 1900 s Mission Bell markers were placed along El Camino Real to remind people of Califo...
In the early 1900's Mission Bell markers were placed along El Camino Real to remind people of California's early pioneer history. In the 1700's Spanish missionaries established outposts in California along "The Royal Road of The King," (in honor of the King of Spain). As California has grown, many of these markers were damaged, lost or stolen. In the fall of 2012, Caltrans restored and replaced the markers along the historic highway.
courtesy of Keith Robinson and Caltrans
Funding was received for the making and installation of approximately 585 Mission Bell Markers, placed approximately one to two miles apart along the roadside in the northbound and southbound directions on California State Routes 101, 82, 37, 121, and 12. This includes the Bay Area - Caltrans District 4 (Oakland), the Central Coast - Caltrans District 5 (San Luis Obispo), and the Southland - Caltrans District 7 (Los Angeles). When this reporter called while on assignment for The Peninsula Progress, Rossmiller he noted that he and Robinson have received lots of calls. "The response has been positive," he said. "People are pleased to see the Mission Bells and it has stirred an interest in California history." Rossmiller credited Robinson as the driving force behind the project.
"We wanted to keep the same intent and maintain the initial historical integrity of the Mission Bell system," he said. Rossmiller also noted that, "the bells we used for the project are actually made from the same molds as the originals," which were placed along El Camino Real to commemorate early California history.
Markers indicating the route of El Camino Real have been fully restored thanks to the dedicated effo...
Markers indicating the route of El Camino Real have been fully restored thanks to the dedicated efforts of Keith Robinson and Caltrans.
Courtesy of Keith Robinson and Caltrans
In the 1700's Spanish missionaries and soldiers (Franciscan Padres and conquistadores) explored and settled in California establishing El Camino Real del Rey ("the Royal Road of the King") in honor of the King of Spain. The padres established 21 Missions in an effort to colonize the new territory and to spread Christianity as they envisioned it. The use of bells at the Missions were used to call people to prayer, signal the passing of the hours or to celebrate festivals and important events, much like churches do to this day.
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courtesy of Keith Robinson and Caltrans
The Mission Bell Marker system has existed on the historic route of the El Camino Real since 1906. The original marker system intended installation of bells one mile apart along the entire length of the El Camino Real from San Diego to Sonoma. By 1913 over 450 markers were placed on El Camino Real, but by the 1950s fewer than 70 survived. Setting a goal of using an replica of the original bells was a challenge - needed to find a foundry willing to recast a mold from one of the original bells Caltrans had in its Headquarters library. But due to some early media attention the actual original bell molds were located and used for manufacture of the new bells. That is definitely a project highlight, the bells are the same as those on the El Camino real over a hundred years ago. Fortunately for Rossmiller, Robinson and the workers on the project, the company that made the original set of bells back in 1906 is still in business. "I bought the California Bell Company in 2000," said owner John Kolstad. How he came to be the current proprietor of this 100 year old company is a story within itself. As Kolstad explained, "I am a loan and real estate man by profession, yet when I wanted a mission bell for my backyard, I was referred to the California Bell Company and Joe Rice was then the owner." Rice offered to sell the company to Kolstad. Yet as Kolstad recalled, "the price was too high and I started to negotiate with him." "I said, Joe if you don't sell this to me, then most likely your century-old business will disappear and along with it all the metal craft of bell making and lots of history will be lost." Rice agreed and so Kolstad bought the company.
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Courtesy of Keith Robinson and Caltrans
Kolstad a native of Southern California had an interest in California history. He was eager to learn the craft and business of bell making, often taking trips to old missions beyond El Camino Real, further along the South West, like Arizona. Kolstad even made trips to the Missions established by Father Junipero Serra in Mexico before the Franciscan "Padres" established Missions in California.
This Mission Bell marker along El Camino Real in South San Francisco  gives reference to the America...
This Mission Bell marker along El Camino Real in South San Francisco, gives reference to the American Automobile Association and various women's organizations that were instrumental in the maintaining of the Mission Bell markers from the early part of the 20th Century to the 1950's. As California has changed and grown, upkeep of the markers declined.
Fortunately for Kolstad in his search for interested patrons in his acquired business he met Robinson. Contacting Robinson who works for Caltrans, he explained, "I recalled seeing the bells when I was 5 or 6 years old; when my family would visit my grandmother who lived in San Francisco." Robinson surmised, "the bell markers and the story of the Mission fathers made an impression on me." As I grew up and saw the tremendous changes and expansion in the state, he said, it seemed a real loss that the few bells I recalled on Rte 82 were disappearing." Robinson noted, "my position at Caltrans gave me access to the special grant programs available for transportation enhancements," and he considers that very fortunate. Because as he explained, "I wanted to see if the history of the El Camino Real could be rekindled in the people's mind so that the image of the El Camino Real would be about the first road in California and not an over developed haphazard commercial strip or an unremarkable freeway." Both he and Kolstad mentioned that all the work done to restore the bell markers could only be done on State Highways and routes. "Those parts of El Camino Real that meander onto City and Town roadways could not be included because they are not a part of the State highway system,” noted Robinson.
"Getting towns and local city planners to help is not easy, some are just not interested and usually it is about budgets and the formality of council meetings, hearings and committees," said Kolstad. With a clear focus set forth, Robinson put together the grant proposal in about six months. "Much of that time was navigating the process and gathering background information," he said. The original grant funded 555 bells from San Francisco to Orange County - "including installation of the staff and sign," said Robinson. "This was approximately the number of bells that would have been placed if the original vision from 1906 had been realized," said Robinson. He admitted some of the work took longer than anticipated. Issues of safety and engineering had to be taken into account. And, locating an original bell mold, while a highlight of the project it still required some effort. Undaunted, Robinson was determined. "During the research, said Robinson, I learned first hand just how important civic groups, especially women's clubs have been in preserving California history and in protecting transportation features and still are." "Lots of great documents on the statewide effort by women's clubs in the early 1900s to preserve the missions, and memorialize the El Camino Real are archived.” “The various clubs and groups worked hard to have the El Camino Real preserved and took on the task of creating and funding and installing a bell marker system.” “So, even then, the states history wouldn't be lost," said Robinson. "The bells are back," exclaimed Robinson. "The traveler is reminded of a California before malls, traffic, and blight. Just under the pavement is real California history many were unaware of," he said. "El Camino Real is 'The first highway' in the state," he said.
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