California History:  Cities, Neighborhoods, and Islands

What’s on this Web page:  San Jose, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Francisco’s Mission District, San Francisco Chinatown, Alcatraz Island, and Angel Island.  An asterisk indicates San Francisco Bay Area destination; CHL means California Historical Landmark.


Jamestown of the West

Though it doesn’t look its age, San Jose is actually California’s oldest city—only 16 months younger than the U.S.  As much as San Jose likes to bill itself as the “capital of Silicon Valley,” we cannot ignore the apt comparison to Jamestown, Va., the first permanent British settlement in 1607 (not Jamestown in Tuolumne County).  Unfortunately, most of the historic sites no longer exist in the state’s third-largest city (after Los Angeles and San Diego).

San Jose, Santa Clara Co.* (City of San Jose) (San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau) (San Jose Downtown Association)

  • California’s oldest civil settlement founded in 1777 by the Spanish as El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe (CHL 433); marker moved from Hobson St. near Guadalupe River to City Hall parking lot (the other two pueblos were Los Angeles [1781, CHL 156] and Branciforte [1797, CHL 469], now part of Santa Cruz)
  • Peralta Adobe & Fallon House Historic Site, Bay Area’s second-oldest adobe (1797, see California Adobes)
  • Cathedral Basilica of Saint Joseph (1803, see California Missions)
  • California’s first capital (1849-1851, CHL 461) after statehood; adobe capitol (destroyed in 1853) now marked by tablet on S. Market St. between San Jose Museum of Art and Fairmont Hotel (capitol stood near second San Jose pueblo location of 1797)
  • Market St. Chinatown (1860s-1887) near former location of capitol
  • Vine St. Chinatown (1870-1xxx) or second Chinatown near Guadalupe River
  • Phillipsville (1887-1902) or third Chinatown near Hobson St. and San Pedro St. (also known as Woolen Mills Chinatown or Big Jim’s Chinatown)
  • Heinlenville (1887-1930s) or fourth Chinatown (now site of Japantown)
  • Ken Ying Low Restaurant (1887-1982?) building (now Cuban Restaurant), one of three remaining structures from Heinlenville
  • Ng Shing Temple from Heinlenville (1888-1949, see California Temples)
  • History Park in Kelley Park (O’Brien’s Ice Cream Parlor [1868-1927?], Pacific Hotel [1880-1907], Ng Shing Temple [see above], Bank of Italy [1909], Portuguese Imperio [c1915]) (
  • Japantown San Jose (1902,, one of three left
  • Japanese American Museum of San Jose (1987,
  • Mexican Heritage Plaza (

More Than a Surf City

Just south of the Bay Area lies California’s third-oldest city, Santa Cruz.  One of the world’s premier surfing spots is also rich in California history.

Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Co. (City of Santa Cruz) (Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council)

  • California’s third-oldest city founded in 1797 as Villa de Branciforte (CHL 469) east of San Lorenzo River
  • Branciforte Adobe (1797?, see California Adobes), only surviving structure from Villa de Branciforte; Branciforte became part of Santa Cruz in 1907
  • Mission Santa Cruz (1791-1857, see California Missions)
  • Neary-Rodriguez Adobe (1793, see California Adobes)
  • Santa Cruz Lighthouse (1869) or Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse (1967, see California Lighthouses)
  • Four Chinatowns over the years (Pacific Ave. Chinatown, Front St. Chinatown, Blackburn’s Chinatown, and Birenseer’s Chinatown)
  • Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (1907, CHL 983,, the only seaside amusement park on the West Coast
  • The Museum of Art and History (
  • Santa Cruz City Museum of Natural History (

Capital City

Next to Sacramento, the city of Monterey holds the title as the second-longest seat of government in California.  Known primarily as the home of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, this city’s historical significance is often overlooked.  The state’s first registered landmark is here.

Monterey, Monterey Co. (City of Monterey) (Monterey Peninsula On-line Guide) (Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau)


Mission Accomplished

The Bay Area’s oldest neighborhood had been home to San Francisco’s first families and later Irish and Italian immigrants.  Since Spanish missionaries settled first in this area, it is only fitting that the Mission is once again a predominately Latin neighborhood.

The Mission District, San Francisco, San Francisco Co.* (New Mission News)

  • Bay Area’s oldest neighborhood settled by Spanish missionaries in 1776 (soldiers stayed in the Presidio area)
  • Mission Dolores, oldest adobe in the Bay Area (1776, see California Missions)
  • Latin neighborhood since 1950s
  • Largest concentration of murals in the city
  • Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (1977,
  • San Francisco History Association (1982,; monthly meetings at Mission Dolores

Extreme Makeover

If people visit San Francisco Chinatown just for the restaurants and gift shops, there’s nothing wrong with that.  But look beneath the surface.  By reinventing itself as an architectural curiosity after the 1906 earthquake, this neighborhood survived by attracting tourists and keeping hostile city officials at bay.  And the idea of a combination community and attraction predates anything Walt Disney (1901-1966) came up with by decades.

Chinatown, San Francisco, San Francisco Co.* (San Francisco Chinatown) (The Library of Congress:  American Memory—click on Immigration, American Expansion, then The Chinese in California) (Chinatown Merchants Association)

  • Established between 1852 and 1854, rebuilt after 1906
  • Portsmouth Plaza (CHL 119) at Portsmouth Square; raising of the American flag in 1846 (see California Military History); site of the first public school building in 1847 (CHL 587, see California Education); site of eastern terminus of Clay Street Hill Railroad (1873-1942, CHL 500,, the world’s first cable railroad system
  • Tin How Taoist Temple (1852?, see California Temples)
  • Kong Chow Temple (1853, see California Temples)
  • Commodore Stockton School (1885, see California Education)
  • Chinese American Telephone Exchange (1909-1949), now site of the Bank of Canton; three earlier exchanges established nearby before the 1906 earthquake
  • Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Learning Center (1963,, housed in 1930 building designed by Julia Morgan (1872-1957,
  • Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco (1965,
  • International Hotel (19xx-1977,,, site of battle over demolition of three-story building and eviction of mostly elderly Filipino American tenants from last reminder of Manilatown adjacent to Chinatown and Financial District (redevelopment blocked until agreement reached to provide low-income housing in new 14-story building opening in 2005)


Rock Star

Before “The Rock” got a starring role in Hollywood pictures, Alcatraz Island was a notorious prison for more than 50 years and before that a fort.  During the Civil War, an incident on the island might have altered the course of California history, if not U.S. history.  When the federal government declared the island to be excess property in 1963, five Sioux Indians filed a claim for it.  Six years later, American Indian protesters occupied Alcatraz Island for more than a year.  This incident inspired more than 70 Indian occupations of federal facilities.

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, San Francisco Co.* | California's Gold [] | Escape to Alcatraz [] (U.S. Department of the Interior:  National Park Service—Alcatraz Island) (Alcatraz Media) (The Blue & Gold Fleet)

  • Mexican land grant (1846-1848)
  • Fort Alcatraz (1854-1909?, see California Military History) (closed to public)
  • First lighthouse on the West Coast (1854, see California Lighthouses)
  • Military prison (1909-1934)
  • Federal prison (1934-1963)
  • “Red Eagle” over main entrance to prison, site of American Indian protests (1969-1971)

Ellis Island of the West

It may surprise some to know that Angel Island once played a role in the Cold War, World War II, and the Civil War.  That’s because this place is best known as an entry port for immigrants between 1910 and 1940.  Angel Island operated more like a prison than New York’s Ellis Island.  Thanks to Hollywood, Alcatraz Island gets many times more visitors each year than Angel Island.

Angel Island State Park, Tiburon, Marin Co.* | California's Gold [] (California Department of Parks & Recreation:  California State Parks) (Angel Island Association) (Angel Island TramTours & Catered Events) (511 Transit)

  • CHL 529
  • Mexican rancho (1838-1852)
  • Camp Reynolds, Civil War buildings (1863-186x, see California Military History)
  • Immigration Station (1910-1940,,
  • Fort McDowell, World War II army base (194x-1946, see California Military History)
  • Nike Missile Site (195x-196x) (closed to public)

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