The El Camino Real Bells – Marking the California Mission Trail

A bell hangs on the side of a building.

The El Camino Real Bells

The El Camino Real bells mark the route of the mission trail. The idea of marking the highway started with Miss Anna Pitcher in 1892 and was eventually made a reality by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs beginning in 1906. Today, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) maintains the bells.

An El Camino Real marker bell in front of Mission San Miguel in San Luis Obispo County

Along the nearly 800 mile route of the El Camino Real in California there are hundreds of these bells which mark this historic highway connecting the missions. In Central California, most of them are seen along Highway 101, but not all.

This week’s photo was taken on Mission Street in San Miguel which parallels the highway. Each of the 21 California missions has one of these bells, as the El Camino Real was the highway which connected each of these outposts of the Spanish Empire back in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A plaque found on the El Camino Real bell post at the Gaviota rest stop along Highway 101

Originally the idea of Miss Anna Pitcher and carried out by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes in 1906, these bells marking the route were back in those days the only guides for this route.

The state generally didn’t mark roadways (such as they were) during that time and any road signs were placed by individuals or private groups. The Automobile Association (AAA) was quite busy back then marking roads so that the early travelers in the new autos could find their way from one place to another.

Road signs in the time of the missions

The El Camino Real started as a dirt foot and horse path between the missions. A commonly held “fact” is that the missions were built one day’s walk from each other. A few are that close together, but most aren’t.

The Franciscan friars and the Spanish soldiers who first traversed this highway marked the road by carving crosses in large trees. There is an example of one of these carvings at Mission San Miguel.

I suppose we’re pretty well spoiled with our accurate maps and GPS systems which help us find our way. But it was rough business back then with long walks retracing their path if they took a wrong turn.

The El Camino Real Bells in the early 20th Century

The very first bell was installed in 1906 in front of the Old Plaza Church in Los Angeles. Seven years later, in 1913, over 400 bells had been placed along the El Camino.

Unfortunately, after that good beginning, it seems that little attention was paid to maintenance and upkeep.

Damage, vandalism and theft took their toll and the marker bells slowly disappeared from much of the El Camino Real.

Facts about the El Camino Real Bells:

  • The bells are 18″ diameter at the bottom. The originals were cast in metal, but are now made of concrete in the hope of cutting down on theft;
  • The pole or standard holding the bell is 3″ diameter pipe that stands 15′ tall (the originals in 1906 were 11′ tall);
  • The bent shape of the post is symbolic of the crook or crozier of a Catholic bishop, the shepherd of souls in his care. The crozier is itself a copy of a tool that sheep herders use to capture an individual sheep out of a flock for some sort of attention or assistance;
  • Along the El Camino Real the spacing of the bells is generally every one to two miles, based on the conditions along the roadway;
  • The common sign seen on the post reads: “Historic El Camino Real”;
  • Bells along state highways are installed and maintained by the California Department of Transportation (see their page on the bells here); where the El Camino is now on local roads, the local county or city is responsible for them.
  • The original bells were made by the California Bell Company, and which still makes the bells today.

El Camino Real walkers in Los GatosPilgrim walkers along the El Camino Real. This is in Los Gatos and an example of a city installed bell.

Beginning in 2001, Caltrans began a major project re-establishing the marker bells along the El Camino. By 2006, the centennial of the original placements, they had installed over 550 of the bells along the route.

While theft of the bells still occurs unfortunately, the missing or damaged bells are being replaced.

They are no longer necessary for finding our way, but they do show us the way back to the foundations of the state and its early history.

Front view of Mission San Miguel. The small verdigris bell closest to the church is the actual El Camino Real bell at this location. The larger bell in front at the edge of the street is a streetlight with its shade in the same shape as the El Camino bells. There are two other streetlights like this further to the south (or left in this photo).

El Camino Real Bell marker

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