Imagine standing on Burlingame Avenue in the early 20th century. Today’s California Drive would be a dirt road, cattle would roam free down El Camino and around town, and the Ave’s Sephora would house Burlingame’s first grocery store, Lorton-Morken Co, a partnership established 1914. The Luggage Center would be Miller Drug Company, one of the many Burlingame drugstores, and would often hold one cent sales. Burlingame’s Fox Mall would be the elaborate and beloved Peninsula Theatre characterized by uniformed ushers, plays, and black and white films. Burlingame High School, known formerly as “San Mateo High School, Burlingame branch,” would be open by 1923, and the Burlingame Train station–built in 1894–would look much like it does today.
In its early years, the Burlingame and Hillsborough area were made up of large summer mansions built around the Burlingame Country Club, the first country club west of the Mississippi. Wealthy settlers, many of whom found success in San Francisco’s Gold Rush era, pursued leisurely activities such as fox hunting and polo. In fact, today’s Peninsula Tennis Club was home to a large polo field for many years. Burlingame was founded in 1908 to service the needs of those living in Hillsborough Estates. Hillsborough Estates remained well into the 20th century, and their vestiges can be seen in the large houses that make up much of the town today.
Burlingame Historical Society secretary Mary Packard recalls her own childhood growing up in Burlingame.
“I had a friend who said one of her favorite activities was to go walking and biking through Hillsborough. The gardeners didn’t mind if you entered the big estates, so you just wandered in. It was like one big playground,” recounts Packard.
In the early 1900s, Burlingame incorporated Hillsborough, but the two towns split in 1909.
“They split over an issue involving Hillsborough streetlights. The city didn’t want to put them in. And to this day, Hillsborough doesn’t have them,” said history teacher Dave Sullivan.
Much of the story of Burlingame’s founding began shortly after 1906 when the 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck San Francisco, forcing many refugees out of the city. San Franciscans had easy access to Burlingame by train, and the town’s nearest bank was just across from the train station where Straits Café now stands. The bank’s convenient location allowed newcomers to buy lots of land just as they arrived. Thus, Burlingame became the first major suburb of San Francisco, and as family businesses sprung up near the train station, the business-lined Burlingame Avenue we know today was established.
Following the establishment of the city itself, Burlingame High School was founded as an extension of San Mateo High School in 1923. Initially, Burlingame and San Mateo High School’s extracurricular programs were combined, sharing a single football team and a single band. But ever since their programs divided, the rivalry between San Mateo and Burlingame began; the first Little Big Game dates back to November 11, 1927.
Over the last century, Burlingame family businesses have consolidated into larger corporations such as Apple and Walgreens, and Hillsborough Estates have split up into comparatively smaller residences. And, although depictions of Burlingame in its early years seem strikingly different from the Burlingame we know today, the town has preserved its rich history and maintained its charm as the sunny suburb of San Francisco.