June 22, 2020 - South San Francisco

Region 10


History of South San Francisco: Rancho Buri Buri was a 15,000 acre land grant made to Jose Antonio Sanchez in 1827 by the Mexican Government.  It was located on the northern part of the peninsula now known as San Mateo County.  After his death in 1843, Sanchez’ heirs sold or lost it in pieces to various others.  Charles Lux bought 1,500 acres of it in 1856 and built his home there.  Lux was half of the Miller and Lux company that dominated California’s early meat industry, supplying San Francisco.  The cattle were held in pens on Lux’s property before going to market.  The little village that developed there was called Baden after Lux’s former home in Germany.

In 1888, the Miller and Lux Cattle empire at Baden was waning after the death of Lux just as Gustavus Swift came West.  He was a leader in the American meat industry and he came to investigate the possibility of starting a market and packing center near San Francisco.  He found this area perfect for the meat business.  It was only ten miles from the center of San Francisco and offensive odors would blow out into the Bay.

Swift started the Western Meat Packing Company in partnership with several other eastern meat companies. Following his success with South Boston and South Omaha, Swift decided to call this location South San Francisco even though it is not actually adjacent to San Francisco. He brought Peter Iler from Omaha as his agent to handle things.

Iler bought land under the name of The South San Francisco Land and Improvement Company.  This company was made up of wealthy investors, including Henry Miller.  The Company had a broad agenda. They planned to provide a deep water channel and railroad access for industries.  They made improvements in the area and boosted the reputation of South San Francisco as a place to live as well as a place to locate industry.  In 1894, the company built a modest school, serving elementary through high school students.

By 1895, South San Francisco was a family community with a population of 671; the majority of the men worked in the meat packing plant.  There was also a transient male population of workers from other nearby communities and those staying in boarding houses and hotels.  With this male population came an abundance of saloons and other establishments that gave South San Francisco a reputation for being a pretty rowdy town.

Fuller Paint was one industry to locate here in 1898, followed by Pacific Jupiter Steel.  Other industries moved in.  In 1906 the SSF Land and Improvement Company reached an agreement with Selby Smelting Company to build a huge smelting plant that would employ 3000 men.  

When neighboring communities found out about the Selby deal, a groundswell of opposition developed.  Wealthy estate owners on the peninsula as well as San Franciscans objected to the by-products of a smelting plant.

San Mateo County’s Board of Supervisors got involved.  They passed an ordinance in January 1908 that effectively prohibited a smelting plant being located anywhere in the County.

South San Franciscans were not ready to give up, however.  They voted to incorporate into a city which would then not be restricted by the County ordinance.  The town was to include the Selby property and the rest of the industrial area.

The County had to agree to the act of incorporation, however.  The Supervisors voted to grant this accord, but they drew the city limits to exclude the Selby property.  The rest of the industrial area would still be inside the town.  The locals voted to accept this compromise.  The town now had a population of 1,989 and had 14 major industries as well as 18 saloons. Selby’s smelter was never built. 

Other industries did move in to South San Francisco and the city flourished.  Steel, in the form of seven different manufacturing plants, became the dominant industry, bolstered by two World Wars and California’s post-war building boom.  Even shipbuilding occupied the deepwater berths during the wars. This lasted until the mid 50’s.

Then South San Francisco inadvertently began a deindustrialization move.  In the center of its industrial area, there was a solid rock hill 150 feet high covering 80 acres. A construction company was granted a permit to blast away the hill, using the debris as landfill in nearby marshland. Development in this new area was restricted from having smokestacks or excess noise or pollutants.  By 1958 there were 170 businesses located here.  Traditional industry ultimately fled.  Western Meat, Fuller Paint and Bethlehem Steel closed.  Genentech, established in 1976, became the first Bio-Tech corporation to locate in South San Francisco because the rent was cheap.  Today there are over 200 Bio-Tech companies located in what is still The Industrial City.


JML 05/2020


Population: (2018) 67,733 per SSF.net


South San Francisco is not a tourist destination, but  “South San Francisco The Industrial City” located on Sign Hill near San Bruno Mountain State Park can be seen for miles around.  The sign was originally put up during the civic boosterism era in the 1920’s and now is  in the National Register of Historic Places.


Points of Interest: If you find yourself in “South City,” as the locals often call it, after the pandemic, here are a few points of interest.


  • Wind Harp: A 92 foot tall Aeolian harp tower designed by Lucia and Aristides Demitrios in 1967 to catch the local winds in a changing musical pattern.  Originally a focal point in the Industrial Area, taller buildings have made it harder to find.  Located on Grandview Ave. off DNA Way amid the Genentech buildings. Follow the signs. Go on a windy day.


  • SSF City Hall, Located at 400 Grand Avenue: it was modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.


  • Basque Cultural Center, 599 Railroad Ave.: A gathering place for Basques from all over Northern California since 1982, it has a Fronton to play their national sport, Basque Pelota, a form of Jai Alai.  Perhaps more interesting to the casual visitor is their popular restaurant open to the public for lunch and dinner, specializing in Basque dishes.


  • Plymire-Schwarz House Located at 519 Grand Avenue: A restored 1905 house that served as the first hospital between San Mateo and San Francisco, operated by Dr. Plymire.  It is run by the SSF Historical Society and is open to the public at specified times.


  • SSF Historical Society Museum: Located at 80 Chestnut St.; the museum displays vintage artifacts and photos and special exhibits and holds an archive of historic materials.


  • SSF City Library History Collection:  Located at 306 Walnut Ave. right next to the City Hall on Grand Ave, it is an original  Carnegie Library and is registered as a historic landmark.  The History Collection contains  documents, maps, newspapers, pamphlets, books oral history tapes, etc.  Available by appointment. 


Information provide courtesy of Joan Levy and the South San Francisco Historical Society.  If you would like your city or town featured here to share California history with fellow history lovers, please email Christine Esser in our administrative office at [email protected].


Comments from fellow history lovers welcome below!


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commented 2020-07-08 14:02:37 -0700 · Flag
Very interesting! I had the opportunity by complete chance of un-foreseen events and an imaginative Garmin, to be driving from Redwood City all the way up and on over the Golden Gate through this area. It was early in the lock-down so the traffic was nil. Could not stop and check things out, but would love to go back and check it out more some time. So much history of the state wrapped up in one area.
commented 2020-06-23 13:27:11 -0700 · Flag
On Saturday, May 30, 2015, I attended the CCHS Dinner at the Basque Cultural Center. Attendees had a great time with the program and enjoyed the BCC hospitality and dinner. Joan Levy I enjoyed this article.
commented 2020-06-23 12:12:57 -0700 · Flag
Interesting article. Thank you for sharing this with us. We also have Basques in the Central Valley, so the Basque Cultural Center will be a must see the next time I’m in town!