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History of Hillsborough

William Davis Merry Howard, son of a wealthy Hillsboro, New Hampshire shipping magnate, sailed on one of his father’s ships from Boston around Cape Horn to the West Coast. Upon returning home, he convinced his father of the fortunes to be made in the West and returned to California some fifteen years later. Howard became a partner in a general merchandising firm in 1845.

The following year, he purchased “Rancho San Mateo” from the Mexican governor, Pio Pico. The Rancho was a tract of land that became the city of San Mateo. He paid $25,000 for the tract, or approximately $3.88 an acre. For the next few years, Howard and his wife, Agnes, lived in a comfortable life on the isolated Peninsula. Here they built a fine home which they called “El Cerrito” and made San Mateo a successful working ranch.

When the Gold Rush began a few years later, the thousands of prospectors flooding California needed provisions and only a few outlets were present. In a short span of time, Howard and his partner became wealthier than even the most successful gold seekers.

Mexican rule ended legally in 1848 and California became a state in 1850. Although Howard himself died in 1856, his children and his wife’s family “set the pattern for genteel living down on the Peninsula,” according to historian Frank Stanger. The Howards, the Poetts, and several other families became the leading members of the community. By the late 1860's, parcels of the Howard estate had been sold in pieces large enough to provide ample estate property for the new generation of the founding families. The area also became attractive to many San Francisco businessmen who wanted to live in a relaxed country setting while working in the city.

As San Mateo and Burlingame continued to grow, the need for money to make improvements became acute, and the residents began to show interest in annexing the estate owners' lands. The owners of the estates were not well disposed to contributing tax dollars toward the improvement of neighboring city life; nor were they interested in any of the benefits incorporation would bring, e.g., sidewalks and other amenities which would detract from the rural atmosphere of their area. Accordingly, in 1910, residents filed incorporation papers with the County Board of Supervisors and on April 25th of the same year, by popular vote of 60-1 a “perfumed city” (as one San Francisco newspaper put it) was born. “Hillsborough” had 89 registered voters at the time out of an estimated population of 750. Women, children, and servants did not participate in the election. Hillsborough was incorporated on May 5, 1910.

Between 1910 and 1938, Hillsborough’s population grew from an estimated 750 to over 2,500, but the era of large estates was coming to a close. Uplands, Home Place, La Dolphine, and other classic estates were gradually being subdivided into smaller lots, usually leaving the original house and several acres intact.

Hillsborough’s zoning laws have varied throughout the years, but the policies behind the laws have basically stayed the same. The Town has continually worked to preserve the “nature of Hillsborough”. In 1953, the Town changed its minimum lot size to one-half acre which is still in effect today.

One of the main attractions Hillsborough has for home buyers is its charm. Hillsborough still offers its escape from the pressures of the city. In addition to its generally quiet atmosphere, Hillsborough has excellent, award-winning public schools, police and fire protection and public works service. These are the qualities that have formed the character of the Town and have remained stable for over 100 years.

The Town of Hillsborough 1600 Floribunda Avenue, Hillsborough, CA 94010 (650) 375-7400
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