Local News

Local El Camino Real Bells Tell California History

Driving or walking along Harbor Boulevard through Fullerton’s downtown district, you may have noticed a green old-fashioned bell mounted on a tall concrete crook labeled with a brown sign with the words, “El Camino Real.” This is one of many bells spaced apart along a 700-mile historic route that runs throughout the state of California called the El Camino Real, which is Spanish for Highway of the King or Royal Highway. However, after looking at a map from the Fullerton Public Library’s Local History Room of the likely route through our part of Orange County based on evidence from 2019, there’s a chance that the El Camino Real didn’t actually pass through Fullerton.

Image courtesy of Fullerton Public Library Local History Room.

Despite this, there happens to be three bells located in Fullerton—one on Harbor, one in Plaza Park across from the Fullerton Museum Center, and one within the Fullerton Arboretum. Visiting the bell in Plaza Park, I found a circular brown and green plaque placed by Fullerton Heritage in 2007. The message inscribed on the plaque reads, “When the Spanish army and missionaries came to California in 1769, they made a route, El Camino Real, for travel between the missions they established, stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. In the early 1900s, a group of women’s clubs, among others, decided to mark the trail and chose as its symbol a mission bell mounted on a shepherd’s crook. This bell is a replica from the 1960s and marks the trail’s approximate path through our city reminding us of early California history.”

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Plaque on El Camino Real Bell in Plaza Park in Downtown Fullerton.

El Camino Real has a place in California and Fullerton history. In the sixteenth century, more than 300 years ago, Spanish explorers moved up the Gulf of California to colonize Baja and brought with them the idea of building a well-kept road system that became known as the King’s Highway. According to a 2013 KCET article written by Nathan  Masters, “California’s El Camino Real was just one of many government roads that stretched through Spain’s New World empire. These highways linked Spanish settlements in far-flung provinces to administrative centers. One well-established trail in Baja California preceded Alta California’s by several decades.”  In Alta California, the roads were used to promote military and commercial uses, “linking the presidios (military forts), pueblos (civil towns), and religious missions that Spain furiously began building in 1769 to parry the territorial ambitions of Russia and Britain.” The roads also provided a means of travel for the Catholic missionaries who set up missions to convert the Native American populations.

El Camino Real Bell in Plaza Park in Downtown Fullerton.

Back then, transportation was difficult over California’s mixed terrain of deserts, mountain passes, and river crossings, but over the years the trail became a workable, although challenging, travel route. According to the same 2013 KCET article written by Nathan  Masters, “The stories told today about the footpath diverge from the actual history. The road’s exact route was not fixed; the actual path changed over time as weather, mode of travel, and even the tides dictated. Furthermore, while the road provided local transportation links between colonial settlements, the primitive highway was eclipsed in importance by a coastal water route between Alta California’s south and north. Ships rather than the so-called royal road usually transported goods and passengers over long distances. By the late nineteenth century, although local segments of the old trail were still heavily used, the route as a whole had faded into obscurity.”

According to a 2007 Fullerton Heritage newsletter, in 1902, the California Federation of Women’s Clubs started a movement to denote El Camino Real as a historic road, a project that they kept active until well into the 1900s, gaining support from county governments, the Native Sons and Daughters of California, AAA auto clubs, and various business firms.

Supposedly, a part of the El Camino Real ran through Fullerton. Harbor Boulevard, first called Spadra Road, is what is now accepted as that route. Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes came up with the idea of marking the route with a symbol. It was to be a bell denoting the early connection with the Franciscan friars’ California missions – a bell mounted on a tall crook set in concrete and placed along the King’s Highway. The bells were first created and paid for by the Camino Real Association in the early 1900s. The Association installed the guidepost bells to mark the road and many of these bells are still standing today.

The first bells were designed and produced by Mrs. Forbes, who became known as America’s First Woman Bell Maker. Her initial El Camino Real bell was placed in front of the Plaza Church in Los Angeles in 1906. The bells continued to be produced in the 1920s. Originally, there were roughly 370 bells along El Camino Real, but theft and vandalism has caused the number to dwindle to about 75. Vandals, souvenir hunters, and the onset of World War II and metal shortages sounded the end of the original iron markers except for one or two who found their way into museums. Several additional bell designs have been used over subsequent years. In fact, a drive up U.S. 101 now reveals a smaller bell of reddish rust color on a green staff. But the original bells were cast-iron and later, some were concrete. Many of the original bells have been lost, stolen, or simply cast aside as the highway developed over the years.

Fullerton has had several bells. Cheri Pape, Local History Archivist at the Fullerton Public Library, emailed to me a postcard from the Local History Room’s Archives that has a photograph of the “original” bell in front of Peter Schumacher’s business located on Harbor. She said via email, “It has been disputed that it was the ‘first in OC.’ It was surely early, but we have not documented a date.” The cast-iron bell was located in the 100 block of North Harbor Boulevard, the library said in the caption for this photo, which can be found in the Library’s online collection of historical photos. According to an article from the Fullerton Tribune, the bells weighed more than 100 pounds, with the iron representing the will of the men who made the first California roads.

Historic postcard from the Fullerton Public Library’s Local History Room archives of the “original” bell in front of Peter Schumacher’s business on Harbor.

According to an article from History Room Archives from 1965, there were only three original lonely mission bells left in Orange County, two located in Fullerton, and the other in Tustin. The Fullerton bell on Harbor was 12-foot tall at the time, according to a photo caption from a news clipping from the Los Angeles Times. However, it appears that this bell may have been stolen in the summer of 1987. According to an info file from the History Room dating back to June 11, 1987, “One of Orange County’s last landmark bells, marking the Spanish padres’ trail, was stolen from its pole in front of the Automobile Club of Southern California.” In the article, Helen Costley, secretary to the AAA manager at the time, said she did some research and “found that the El Camino Association presented the bell to the club about 70 years ago when the business was located in downtown Fullerton.” Costley went on to say that when former AAA manager Howard Link “moved the headquarters up near Sunny Hills in 1958, he had the bell moved right along with the employees. Supposedly it was one of the first ones produced by the historical association.”

Newspaper clippings courtesy of the Fullerton Public Library Local History Room.

On May 12, 2007 at the Fullerton Arboretum, there was a ceremony to mark the placement of an El Camino Real bell, and the rededication of Heritage House, which at the time was entering its fortieth year at the Arboretum. The bell was a gift from the William Phillips family, which was given to Bill Phillips when he served as an Orange County supervisor. The Arboretum bell was based on the 1963 design by Justin Kramer.

“There is a chance [El Camino Real] didn’t actually pass through Fullerton,” Cheri Pape said via email. “If it did, it barely touched the hills of the northeast between us and Brea.” I looked at the map she was referring to that follows El Camino Real from the Santa Ana River to the Puente Hills. It does appear that the historic route didn’t actually run through Fullerton (see below).

To see historic photographs of the El Camino Real bells in Fullerton as well as what they look like today, please visit www.fullertonobserver.com and click on the tab labeled “Local.” Underneath that tab, click on “Emerson Little YouTube Channel,” which will take you directly to my page.

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Protect local journalism – we are in the middle of our Spring subscription drive – please subscribe to the print edition of the Fullerton Observer and help us meet our goal of 100 new subscriptions this Spring. Our online edition is free, but we depend on print subscriptions from readers.  Annual subscription is only $35/year. It only takes a minute – Click Here To Subscribe. Thank you for your support for the Fullerton Observer. Click here to view a copy of the print edition.

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1 reply »

  1. The bells were installed along the original Hwy 1 which joined cities and didn’t follow the El Camino Real everywhere – it started out as part of the California Mission Revival craze and eventually found an alliance with the “good road” movement propagandized by the Auto Club. There would have been no reason for the original road to pass through what became Fullerton it was not on the line from San Juan to San Gabriel.. .

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