Monday, November 6, 1769 was the start of another work week for Don Gaspar de Portolà, Spanish explorer. His boss had recently sent him in search of Monterey Bay so that two hundred years later rich people would have a place to golf.
Two hundred horses and a poor sense of direction
Setting out from San Diego, Portolà and his team of 62 men and 200 horses followed the San Francisquito Creek. Like most of us in the days before GPS and AAA maps, ended up in the wrong area. In Portolà’s case, he overshot his destination by some 50 miles, finding himself near the south end of San Francisco Bay. Also a nice bay, but unfortunately, it had already been found.
Rather than call it quits, Portolà decided to set up camp under a pair of giant redwoods, which he named “El Palo Alto” or “the big stick.” Topping out at over 100 feet, this 800-year-old, twin-trunked coastal redwood had been revered by generations of local Native Americans. More importantly for Portolà, the tree was visible for miles, making it an excellent meeting spot from which to send scouts looking south for Monterey Bay.
He and his group eventually found the bay.
The big tree that could
But this is a story about a tree. Over time El Palo Alto became so well known that settlers named the town after it. The tree is still shown in Palo Alto’s city seal as well as in the seal of Stanford University.
Although one the twin trunks was felled by a flood in 1885, the other trunk remains, in tiny El Palo Alto Park off Alma just north of University Avenue.
It still grows by the side of San Francisquito creek, between a railway trestle and a pedestrian bridge. You can recognize the tree from among other redwoods in the park by the commemorative plaque telling the story of Portolà and El Palo Alto. The plaque is set on a small boulder just in front of El Palo Alto next to the pedestrian bridge.
Another Silicon Valley overachiever
And Portolà? Don’t feel too bad for him overshooting the proper bay. Besides being the founder of San Diego (where he started from) and Monterey (where he ended up), at the time of the expedition he was not only an explorer, he was also Governor of California—our first, in fact.
However, unlike most California governors since then, he never did learn how to golf.
If you go
El Palo Alto
117 Palo Alto Avenue (between El Camino Real and Alma Street)