The mission bells seen along streets and highways in Los Angeles County and throughout California have been in place since the early 20th Century to mark what was believed to be the original route of El Camino Real (Spanish for Royal Highway). The 700-mile-long route, which ran from San Diego to Sonoma, linked the 21 California missions founded by Father Junipero Serra and nearby Spanish military garrisons. The missions were spaced approximately one day's journey apart when traveling on horseback. Over time, El Camino Real was replaced by modern highways, principally U.S. Route 101 and State Route 82 in California.
In 1892, Anna Pitcher of Pasadena, director of the Pasadena Art Exhibition Association, was the first to propose an effort to save the memory of the old highway. She pitched a proposal to install markers along the route, but, the proposal met little success. Finally, in 1902, Pitcher's proposal was taken up by the California Federation of Women's Clubs (CFWC) and the Native Daughters of the Golden West. It was championed by Harrye Forbes, also known as Mrs. A.S.C Forbes (who was long-time director of the Historical Society of Southern California and founder of the California Bell Company), and by Caroline Olney. In 1904, they and other civic organizations established the El Camino Real Association of California. The organization went on to investigate and map out the old highway and provide distinctive markers to be installed along the route. Forbes (upon a suggestion by Mrs. C.F. Gates) designed the markers as miniature mission bells, said to be modeled after the bells of the Old Plaza Church in Los Angeles. The cast iron bells would hang from eleven-foot "shepard's crook" guideposts (symbolic of the work of the missions) to make them easily visible to passing travelers. In 1906, the first of the bells was installed in front of the Old Plaza Church in downtown Los Angeles. By 1913, 450 bells were reported to have been installed across California.
The original bell installers made no provision for maintenance of the bells. By 1926, the El Camino Real Association had fragmented and ceased to be functional. The bells began falling into disrepair and some were stolen or removed due to damage or construction. From 1926 to 1931, the the California State Automobile Association and the Automobile Club of Southern California assumed responsibility for maintaining and replacing any bells installed on state-owned property. In fact, the bells served as vital markers for California motorists in that period. During this period, the bells also began being painted in their iconic green color. In 1933, the state took over responsibility for maintaining the dwindling number of remaining bells.
In 1959, a survey of 110 bells that had been originally installed in Los Angeles County found only 17 still in place. The state wanted to replace a number of bells, but, by 1960, the original manufacturer of the bells was no longer in business. In 1963, Justin Kramer won a bid to manufacture replacement bells and his design became the "1963 Kramer Style." In 1974, the California Legislature appointed the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to be responsible for repairing and replacing bells. Today, Caltrans replacement bells are cast in concrete, rather than iron. In 2000, John Kolstad purchased what was left of the manufacturer of the original bells, California Bell Company, and has since been making new bells for public and private installation.
Today, there are reported to be 585 bells in place marking the old highway and its branches. Bells are installed between San Diego County in the south and Sonoma County in the north.
Not everyone supports the existance of El Camino Real's bells, however. Indigenous groups native to California do not see the experience of their ancestors in the Spanish mission system as positive. To them, the bells are ever-present reminders of the suffering of their ancestors and how too many Californians know so little about the story of this trajedy. They would like to see the bells removed.
Source: California's El Camino Real and Its Historic Bells by Max Kurillo & Erline Tuttle and the California Department of Transportation.
For a detailed history of El Camino Real and the marker bells along the route, see the book California's El Camino Real and Its Historic Bells by Max Kurillo and Erline Tuttle (Sunbelt Publications). The Almanac is grateful to Mr. Kurillo and Sunbelt Publications for providing most of the information above.