How El Camino Real, California's 'Royal Road,' Was Invented

An El Camino Real roadside marker near the Los Angeles Plaza, circa 1937. Photo by Herman Schultheis, courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Along Highway 101 between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, cast metal bells spaced one or two miles apart mark what is supposedly a historic route through California: El Camino Real. Variously translated as "the royal road," or, more freely, "the king's highway," El Camino Real was indeed among the state's first long-distance, paved highways. But the road's claim to a more ancient distinction is less certain. The message implied by the presence of the mission bells -- that motorists' tires trace the same path as the missionaries' sandals -- is largely a myth imagined by regional boosters and early automotive tourists.

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Although the definite article in the road's name suggests otherwise, California's El Camino Real was just one of many administrative 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. Another extended from Mexico City to Sonora and thence to Santa Fe.

In Alta California, one such road helped link the presidios (military forts), pueblos (civilian towns), and religious missions that Spain furiously began building in 1769 to parry the territorial ambitions of Russia and Britain. But the stories told today about the footpath diverge from its 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 water route between Southern and Northern California. Boats rather than the so-called royal road usually transported goods and passengers over long distances.

By the late nineteenth century, although local segments of El Camino Real were still heavily used, the route as a whole had faded into obscurity.

Circa 1903 map of El Camino Real. Courtesy of the Young Research Library Special Collections, UCLA.

1915 Auto Club strip map showing the route of El Camino Real from the central coast to Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

1915 Auto Club strip map showing the route of El Camino Real from the Los Angeles to San Diego. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

As Phoebe S. Kropp explains in her book "California Vieja," it took the convergence of two powerful trends at the turn of the twentieth century to transform El Camino Real from an obscure footpath into a main-traveled road.

The first was the rise of the automobile, which created a small but influential group of wealthy Californians who clamored for a well-maintained state highway.

The second was a reinterpretation of Spanish colonial California as a romantic paradise, fueled by the 1884 publication of Helen Hunt Jackson's "Ramona" and set within a broader cultural embrace of Southern California as a American Mediterranean retreat -- "Our Italy," as Charles Dudley Warner titled his 1891 book on the region. Regional boosters saw California's missions -- some of which still functioned as parish churches, but many of them long-neglected and crumbling into ruin -- as a place where tourists could commune with California's romantic past from the comfort of their modern machines. To clothe El Camino Real with mythic significance, they invented sentimental stories about Franciscan fathers traveling along the road from mission to mission, which were supposedly spaced one day apart along the trail.

Today's El Camino Real is largely a "booster myth," says Matthew Roth of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

"There might have been some kind of more or less continuous footpath, but it was not a regularly traveled thoroughfare," Roth explains. "El Camino Real was a product of the same impulse that gave us the Spanish Colonial Revival in architecture -- imparting an exotic hue to the region as a way to attract more tourists and settlers."

The first El Camino Real bell was erected on August 14, 1906 outside the Plaza Church in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

A model poses with an El Camino Real bell erected by the Auto Club in 1928. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

An El Camino Real bell outside Mission San Gabriel in 1912. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Spearheaded by Los Angeles writer and activist Harrie Forbes and backed by groups like the Auto Club, the California Federation of Woman's Clubs, and the Native Daughters of the Golden West, efforts to refashion El Camino Real into a tourist highway gained steam in the first decade of the twentieth century.

In 1904, supporters of the concept organized the El Camino Real Association to mark the historical route, promote tourism along the road, and lobby for government support. The actual, historical route -- which had shifted many times, in any case -- often evaded the association's trackers. But between 1906 and 1914, the association succeeded in placing more than 400 roadside markers along an approximation of the original footpath.

Consisting of a bell fashioned after those at Los Angeles' Plaza Church, and hung from a pole resembling a shepherd's staff, the markers assured motorists that they were on the correct route, often indicating the distance in miles to the nearest mission. (The markers were the design of Forbes, who with her husband owned the only bell foundry west of the Mississippi.) Auto Club strip maps, reproduced above, provided another invaluable aid to tourists.

The roadway itself fell short of expectations at first. While the 1910 State Highways Act authorized construction of a paved road along the route of El Camino Real, construction lagged and for many years much of the historic road was only a primitive trail. Between cities there were streams to ford and steep grades to scale. Sometimes, teams of horses would rescue automobiles trapped in mud. Finally, by the mid-1920s, the highway construction was complete, and in 1925 the state legislature designated much of it as U.S. Highway 101.

Although theft and vandalism have claimed many of the original bells, Caltrans recently replaced the missing roadside markers along the entire entire route from San Diego to San Francisco. Today, mission bells continue to guide motorists along the route, silent about its historical authenticity.

Circa 1925 postcard depicting an automobile on El Camino Real in front of Mission San Fernando. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Loyola Marymount University, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library.

A view of El Camino Real in Tustin, where the highway has since been replaced by Interstate 5. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

The Knott's Berry Farm amusement park once featured a miniature recreation of El Camino Real. 1956 photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Cast iron bells await installation along El Camino Real in 1963. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

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About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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