El Camino Real, as an American auto trail, was perhaps the first signed automobile route in the nation. As early as 1906, the famous mission bell guideposts and signs were placed on the highway. El Camino Real as a road name implies different things at different times. It was the original King's Highway during the Spanish colonial era, but as such was little more than a horse trail. Today, El Camino Real is an official signed California route that largely follows US Highway 101 and other major highways. This page will focus on El Camino Real as an early US auto trail from the 1909-1915 period.
This highway was also generally called the Coast Route by the Automobile Club of Southern California. In the mid 1920s, El Camino Real and the Coast Route became part of a larger auto trail system called the Pacific Highways System. This large highway system not only included what became US 101, but also US 99 and other highways.
El Camino Real, the Royal Road, was the Spanish king's highway in California. There were other caminos reales in America. One of these was the royal road from Mexico City to Santa Fe, New Mexico called El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Within the United States this road is now a National Historic Trail. Another was El Camino Real de los Tejas, which went from the Rio Grande in Texas to Natchitoches, Louisiana. This road is also a National Historic Trail. California's El Camino Real, also commonly known as the California Mission Trail, connected a series of missions (religious outposts), assistencias (supporting sub-missions), presidios (fortified military bases), pueblos (towns), and other Spanish interests in the region. Spain, then Mexico, controlled California until 1848, when Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States.
El Camino Real was one the first California state highways. Planning for the route began in 1902 when Anna Pitcher proposed revitalizing the road to both the California Federation of Women's Clubs and the Native Daughters of the Golden West. The El Camino Real Association formed in 1904 to research the route and mark it with appropriate guide-posts. Between 1904 and 1906, the Los Angeles Section of the Association researched various maps and records to establish the original route as closely as possible. Starting in 1906, Mrs. Harrye Forbes (of the History and Landmarks Department of the CFWC) designed and began casting guidepost bells for placement on El Camino Real. The first was installed at Nuestra Senora Reina De Los Angeles Church at the Plaza in Los Angeles on 15 August 1906. It is one of the few remaining original bells. In 1909 El Camino Real was designated California Legislative Route Number 2 between San Diego and San Francisco.
The Automobile Club of Southern California published the first El Camino Real strip maps in 1912. At around this time, the El Camino Real Association seems to have made the decision to place a bell every mile along El Camino Real. That would be about 600 bells for the distance between the San Diego mission and San Francisco. No one knows the exact number of bells placed along the road, but we do know that many hundreds were placed, and then many were lost. Max Kurillo, author of California's El Camino Real, estimates that in 2000 approximately 380 bells could be found on the route.
In 2001, the State of California redefined "El Camino Real" as following several state highways. Much of the original auto route, which is mostly comprised of roads not currently owned by the State, was largely excluded from this designation. CalTrans obtained a federal grant in 2000 to once again place bells along this corridor. Between 2000 and 2006, a total of 555 bells were placed on current US 101.
The California Bell Company - makers of the original and current ECR bells.
El Camino Real Mission Bell Marker Project - CalTrans
Trails and Roads: El Camino Real - California Highways (Daniel Faigin)
El Camino Real - MissionTours: A Virtual Tour of the California Missions