Replicas of 1906 bell mark El Camino Real

by Juanita Lovret
Reprinted courtesy of the Tustin News

Originally El Camino Real, also known as the Kings Highway, was a footpath worn by the Franciscan fathers as they traveled up and down California in 1769 between the 21 missions they built. Eventually the trail became wide enough to accommodate horses and wagons, but it was not considered a route until the last mission was completed in Sonoma in 1823.

The 700 miles of El Camino Real joined the Franciscan missions, the pueblos and presidios in the early days of California. Now it is incorporated into California Highway 101 and passes through Tustin as it makes its way between San Diego and Sonoma and is known for its El Camino Real Bells.

With the support of the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West and the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the El Camino Real bell was hung from a standard shaped like a shepherd's crook in front of the Inglesia de Nuestra Senora Reina (Plaza church) in Los Angeles in 1906 in tribute to the work of the Franciscan fathers and their leader Father Junipero Serra.

Designed by Mrs. A. S. C. Forbes, the 85-pound cast iron bell was inscribed El Camino Real 1769-1906. The plan was to place duplicate bells along the El Camino Real Highway, in front of each mission and selected historical landmarks, approximately one bell for every mile.

By 1913, 425 bells were in place including two in Tustin. One was planted in the sidewalk a few feet north of the corner entrance to the First National Bank of Tustin at Main and D (El Camino Real) and the other along Laguna Road which was part of the 101 Highway south of Tustin High School. Tustin's bells remained in place until after World War II when D Street was widened as part of a Highway 101 improvement project.

Removed while the work was being done, they were not to be found when the job was completed. Missing bells were not unusual. Despite supervision by the Automobile Club of Southern California and the California State Automobile Association of San Francisco from 1921 to 1933 and by the California Division of Highways after that, many bells were stolen or disappeared during road work.

Los Angeles County could account for only 17 of its 110 original bells in 1959. Two hundred of the bells missing throughout the state were recovered by 1963, but unfortunately Tustin's bells were not included in this number.

The city had no bells when D Street was renamed El Camino Real in 1968 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. But the City of Tustin remedied this with the cooperation of various civic organizations by installing 12 duplicate bells along El Camino Real between First Street and Newport Road in 1972.

Two bells stand on each block. A plaque on each brick base identifies the civic group donating it. The most recent addition to Tustin's bells was dedicated near Camino Real Park in 1998. The Tustin Area Woman's Club raised $500 to pay for it with the Automobile Club of Southern California providing a matching sum.

Working with the California Bell Co. which cast the original bell, Caltrans has installed 555 original El Camino Real bells on Caltrans property along Highway 101 between Los Angeles and San Francisco.


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