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 the original route of El Camino Real (Spanish for Highway of the King or Royal Highway) from San Diego to Sonoma. The 700-mile-long El Camino Real linked the 21 California missions, founded by Father Junipero Serra and spaced approximately one day's journey apart by horse. Over the years, El Camino Real gave way to 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 trying to save the memory of the old highway by marking its route. She pitched her proposal for the next decade thereafter, with little success. Finally, in 1902, Pitcher's proposal was taken up by the California Federation of Women's Clubs (championed by Harrye Forbes, also known as Mrs. A.S.C Forbes, and Caroline Olney) and the Native Daughters of the Golden West. In 1904, they and other civic organizations established the El Camino Real Association of California. The organization would 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 had reportedly been installed across California.
The original bell installers made no provision for maintenance of the bells. By 1926, the El Camino Real Association had apparently fragmented and had ceased to be functional. The bells were falling into disrepair and some had been 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 maintenance and replacement of the bells on state-owned property. In fact, the bells served as vital markers for California motorists during that period. It was also during this period that the bells began being painted in their iconic green color. In 1933, the state assumed responsibility for maintaining the dwindling number of remaining bells.
In 1959, a survey of 110 bells originally installed in Los Angeles County found only 17 still in place. The state wanted to replace bells, but, by 1960, the original manufacturer of the bells had ceased doing 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 or replacing bells. Caltrans replacement bells are now 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 range between San Diego County in the south to Sonoma County in the north.
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 Editor of The Los Angeles Almanac is grateful to Mr. Kurillo and Sunbelt Publications for providing most of the information above.