200 Years of Emerald Hills History
The account below was culled from reports at the Redwood City and county historical libraries.

Under Foreign Flags
In 1795, the 35,000-acre Rancho de las Pulgas ("Flea Ranch") was granted to Don Jose Dario Arguello, one of the last governors of Spanish California. It was passed on to his son, Don Luis, who in 1822 became California's first native, elected governor. Don Luis died in 1830, probably never having lived on the Rancho. In 1835, the Mexican government officially granted land ownership rights to his heirs.

Don Luis' widow, Soledad Ortega, did move to the ranch; her home was near what is now Arguello Park in San Carlos. Some accounts say she moved to the ranch right after his death; others say it was in the 1840s, during the Mexican War, when U.S. troops were occupying California.

Early Statehood
In the early 1850s, Mexico having ceded California and gold having been discovered, there was a huge rush for land. Squatters began occupying the Arguello rancho amid rumors that the family's title to the ranch was no good. The Arguellos hired lawyer Simon Mezes to defend their claim. His payment was 15 percent of their land, a prime bayfront parcel. Mezesville later became Redwood City, port for the logging industry.

Before Soledad Arguello died in 1874, the rancho would be further divided. By the mid-1850s, legislator Horace Hawes had a big parcel between Whipple and Woodside roads, with a house on the site of Sequoia High School. He used a former stock pond on the ranch for irrigation -- the pond that would become Lower Emerald Lake. By 1885 the northern part of Hawes' estate had been bought by Moses Hopkins (brother of Mark Hopkins), who dammed the pond to increase its capacity. An existing rock wall at Rose Gate, a home on Lakeview Way above the lake, is said to be a boundary wall of the Arguello ranch, suggesting that the western sections of the original parcel remained intact toward the turn of the century.

Roaring '20s Resort
In the early '20s, San Francisco developers had an eye on the area as a site for recreational summer homes. The name Emerald Hills was first used in a 1920 brochure distributed by George Irvine, who had big plans but inadequate cash. When he lost the property near the lake, it was snapped up by Charles Holt, the Anglo-California Bank employee assigned to the foreclosure. Holt brought in builder George Leonard, and Emerald Hills became the prime property of the Leonard & Holt Real Estate & Mortgage Co. (Another of their projects was La Plazuela, on Junipero Serra Boulevard in the St. Francis Wood area of San Francisco.) Early on in the development, Irvine's original sewer system became overtaxed and the dam burst; Leonard and Holt had to drain the lake and rebuild the dam.

The developers aimed their marketing at San Francisco families, emphasizing the proximity of Emerald Hills as a weekend or vacation retreat and especially singing the praises of its largely fog-free climate. They cited the "climate best by government test" and compared it to "the eternal summer which Lord Byron ascribed to Greece." A Leonard & Holt newletter says the area "rivals the beauty of fine old European towns," and predicts it will become a resort famous throughout California. The company would regularly bus potential buyers in for free picnics at the lakes. A golf course was built atop the hill to the north of the lake, with the clubhouse at 530 Lakeview Way.

In 1926 20 owners of lakeside homes banded together and bought the lake to increase the value of their properties. They established their consortium as the Emerald Lake Country Club, and planned a bar, stable, laundry, hospital and undertaker -- none of which were ever built. One of the early members of the Country Club was famous San Francisco attorney Vince Hallinan, who led the campaign against a swim dress code, citing the chic European women he'd seen in modern swimwear.

With the lake out of their hands, Leonard and Holt decided to build another, Emerald Lake No. 2 or Upper Emerald Lake. It was to be the centerpiece of the 3,000-resident community the Highlands of Emerald Lake. By summer 1927 they had built the lake by damming a creek and had created a beach, water slide, diving platforms and a playground with "equipment of the most novel design." (A sign advertised toboggans; I'm not sure if those were used on the water slide or were something different.) The lake's clubhouse was what is now the residence at Lakeview and Edgecliff; a structure at Lakeview and Jefferson is recalled as a roadhouse. The only other lakeside structure shown on an aerial photograph from these early days is our house - then a two-bedroom single story. Leonard & Holt announced plans to build a $250,000 hotel, variously called the Hacienda and the Alhambra. I imagine it was to be at the south end of the lake, but I can't tell if ground was ever broken.

By 1927 30 miles of roads in the Emerald Lakes area had been completed, most of them paved. In 1929, the Easter Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater, was built at the crest of California Way, and a large concrete cross above it at the high point of the development. (The cross would later be vandalized and rebuilt larger -- at 94 feet, taller than the cross at San Francisco's Easter Bowl, on Mount Davidson.)

In the late '20s, Leonard and Holt aggressively marketed Upper Emerald Lake to San Franciscans, using the same bus-'em-in-and-feed-'em tactics they used for the lower lake. One person interviewed for an oral history of the area told of an event called "Cimarron Day," in which prospective buyers ate barbecue near Lakeview and Jefferson, then lined up behind a rope to race to their desired parcels -- some of which came with prizes, and some of which were free. I'm not sure I believe this, though, since it was described as a spinoff of the land rush scene in the movie "Cimarron" -- which was released in 1931, when there was no longer much demand for vacation property. The stock market crash hit both Emerald Lake developments hard. The golf course was sold and became the Wellbanks tract. The upper lake and 17 adjacent acres were sold in 1938 to Simpson Reinhard, a prominent jewelry store owner -- there may have been another private owner before him. George Leonard lost Rose Gate, his home.

After the War
Within a few years of the end of World War II, Emerald Hills was making the transition from a vacation resort to a residential area, albeit a rustic one. The Emerald Lake Homeowners Association was established in the '50s to contest the planned routing of an interstate highway through the neighborhood. (Completed in the early '70s, Interstate 280 runs west of Emerald Hills, sticking close to the San Andreas Fault.) In the adjacent Farm Hill subdivision -- part of Redwood City -- kids discovered mercury in 1955 on the property of Andy Oddstad. The mercury market was not as vigorous, however, as it was in the years when the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine was a major industry in San Jose; the most visible result of the Farm Hill discovery today is a street named Silver Hill.

In 1968, Emerald Hills had 430 families, of which 110, about 25 percent, had resided there less than a year and 180 from one to nine years; four years later, the newcomer rate had dropped to 10 percent. Around 1970, a police officer we will call Hugh moved from his Linden Street apartment in Redwood City to the house that we now call the Lodge. It was still a two-bedroom, one-story cottage then, and surrounded by vacant lots. Also near the lake was a convent occupied by Franciscan sisters from 1967-70; today the order has a large compound, Mount Alverno, adjacent to the Elks golf course. Building significant to our story was going on up the hill, near Jefferson and Bayview: David's family, then living at the top of Brewster Avenue, was building a home there, and the Highlands Youth Club was going up. (The youth club is now the Redwood Parents Nursery Co-op.)

A survey of homeowners at this time showed that, having staved off the interstate threat, they were most concerned with keeping the neighborhood's rustic nature. On the whole, they opposed annexation to Redwood City, and supported bigger lot sizes for a maximum of 1,400 homes in the area, more trails, and preservation of the lakes and the Easter Cross. At the time, a large parcel adjacent to the proposed freeway at the community's northern edge was being considered for a possible Cal State campus. That plan was abandoned, and, because the presence of a little butterfly called the bay checkerspot helped lead to the defeat of attempts to build a golf course there, the land is now Edgewood County Park.

Maxing Out
Emerald Hills used septic tanks until recently, a factor that limited building: In 1982, the year the sewer system was installed, the neighborhood had 900 homes. A building moratorium from the late '70s to 1986 forestalled the boom -- but by 1992, the count had boomed to 1,400, eliminating most of the vacant lots. Many of the new homes were large and expensive, in the half-million-dollar range. Among the new residents were several Forty-Niners, including Joe Montana, as the team was then training in Redwood City. These days only a few lots remain open, and though building of homes continues, most of them are on the sites of former cabins and vacation homes.

As for the homeowners' other concerns of 20 years ago:

  • Annexation is no longer an issue.
  • Trails are limited to the parkland, though residents have been successful in limiting road width.
  • Upper Lake is owned by 11 households that border it. Lower Lake is owned by 50 families, and open to 60 more as summer club members.
  • The Easter Cross remains standing, visible to highway drivers as far south as Palo Alto. The Easter Bowl, however, was abandoned in the early '80s, and the traditional services and animal parade are no longer held.
The lodge underwent a major transformation in the '80s. In 1982, Hugh expanded the kitchen and dining room, pushing the outside wall about six feet toward the property line. Five years later, he expanded the living room into what had been the front porch and added a second story to the house. The downstairs retains the dark wood paneling with scalloped trim, much of the original door, electrical hardware and red oak floors, David and Susan bought the house from him in spring 1992; Hugh, retired several years from the force, moved to Reno with his wife.