FOCC Booklet
Water trickling down the rocks

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A Cultural and Natural History Of Cordilleras Creek Watershed
by Anouk Mackenzie

The Americanos, Statehood and Gold Rush

After the great incursion of Americans into Alta California, the United States in 1848 fought Mexico for the land. Soon after, gold was discovered at Sutter’s field and full scale settlement was unstoppable. The land grants such as that of the Arguellos were successfully defended by attorney Simon Monserrat Mezes who acquired prime properties at the headwaters of the creeks and gradually sold smaller plots to newly arrived settlers achieving great wealth. Dona Arguello, whose sculptured bust sets in Arguello Plaza near the train station in Redwood City, donated park lands to the people.

The early Anglo settlers pursued various industries including logging, shipping, real estate and farming. Along Cordilleras Creek the Phelps family acquired land on the San Carlos side and The Finger family resided on the Redwood City side planting olive trees. The Hulls bought land from Phelps and began a brick business using the plentiful local adobe soil. They later entered the dairy business, growing hay in vast fields and grain for 200 cows. The Brittan family pioneered the area and contributed to local settlement.

The creeks and sloughs were used to transport products to the bay. Phelps Slough still exists along Holly Street. San Carlos was finally incorporated in 1925 and laid out for development of home sites.

South of the Creek

On the Redwood City side of Cordilleras Creek, a thriving port developed as lumber was transported from the forests above Woodside to the embarcadero. It is said that San Francisco was built from San Mateo timber. On weekends and holidays, the town became a true picture of the Wild West, as rough and ready loggers from the nearby mill camps descended on the town’s saloons and brothels.

In 1860 Redwood City became the county seat as San Mateo County broke off from San Francisco. The railroad between San Jose and San Francisco began rail service, once a day. From the 1870’s to the 1900’s Chinese fishermen, laid off work with the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869, dominated the industry.

Shrimping and oyster harvesting were big business in the bay. A map of the area from 1878 lines off all of the mud flats into plots owned by various families. They staked out their fishing and duck hunting areas.

Creeks began to experience increased siltation, flooding and pollution. Overfishing, combined with anti-Chinese laws led to the decline of the shrimping industry. In the 1880’s a small ship building industry, two tanneries and large breweries thrived. On both side of Cordilleras Creek wells were dug and water used to irrigate orchards and fields.

The Past 100 Years

The lands of the watershed experienced continuous home building along the picturesque and shady waterway. The lower portion of Cordilleras Creek was dredged and its gravel used to build roads. Sedimentation is presently a constant challenge. Much gravel and rock comes down the creek with the fast rain runoff and heavy volume of water during winter storms. With so many creeks being crossed by bridges for railroad tracks and roads, bridge re-build must have been a perpetual project. The earliest creek bridge crosses Old County Road and was built in 1903.

Other impacts creek dwellers experience are the crashing of huge trees hundreds of years old. The trees bring down large amounts of bank soil, block stream flow and contribute to the dynamic nature of the creek. Stretches of the creek were straightened and narrowed, therefore reducing the channel’s volume capacity. Flooding is nothing new but is more consequential to the homes along its lower reaches. Marshlands were drained, crossed with highways and filled in or drained to allow construction. Salt evaporation ponds, used for decades are now being breached to allow tidal action.

Protecting the Creek Now

At the headwaters of Cordilleras Creek local residents spent years fighting a plan to make Edgewood Park a golf course. With its scenic views and peaceful setting, it was a prime location. The desire to preserve the native serpentine grassland (and prevent lawns that would require chemicals and pesticides), spurred concerned citizens into action. Again, the coalition was successful and in 1993, it .became a preserve.

Years of human intervention and neglect have left their mark on this once thriving waterway, as well as on the plant and animal species that depend on it. They face threats. One is posed by invasive vines: vinca, Algerian, English and Cape Ivy, Genistra (French and Spanish broom), mounds of wild blackberry and giant Arunda reed. Invasive eucalyptus and acacias crowd out young native trees.

In addition, paving has brought impermeable surfaces, which prevent rain water from draining through the soil thus increasing run off and the probability of flooding. Barriers along the creek stop salmon and steelhead trout from spawning in the creek. Gone are the days when local residents at night heard the loudly croaking frogs. You won’t see people fishing from their backyards anymore. Today you are more likely to hear complaints of flooding and erosion of property. And then there is careless dumping also..

Remnants of Natural Beauty

But there is hope. Walking along Cordilleras Creek today remnants of the natural plant communities exist that were central to the lives of this beautiful watershed’s first inhabitants. Over 300 native plants have been sighted along the length of the creek.

Bay laurels, live oaks, as well as blue eyed grass, tiny hemizonia and sturdy coyote bush are not uncommon, even at the lower riparian corridor where human impact is most visible. Wild animals still depend upon these plants, foraging for seeds and seeking shelter. Many stickleback fish swim here, and water quality consistently shows that anadromous fish, that live in both salt and fresh water, could once again use this creek for spawning. Overhead, the fleeting presence of an Anna’s hummingbird reawakens our focused awareness of the natural world.

Runoff within the watershed comes from the neighborhoods of Emerald Hills, Palomar Park, Cordilleras Road, all of Edgewood Rd (County & RWC), the White Oaks area, Eaton and Laurel Sts (SC) as well as El Camino Real. The Bing St and G St areas in the lower reaches flood on a predictable basis.


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Copyright © 2005
Last modified: February 13, 2005