In 1769 the first Franciscan Mission, San Diego De Alcala, was established in San Diego. It was later linked to 21 other missions, 2 pueblos, and 4 presidios along the El Camino Real (King's Highway). El Camino Real stretched 700 miles from San Diego to Sonoma. The missions, the majority of which were founded by Father Junipero Serra, were built so that a traveler could reach the next mission in the series in a single day walk. Over the years El Camino Real was replaced by route 101, 82, and I-5 (just to name a few).
An effort to mark the old El Camino Real was addressed in 1892 by Anna Pitcher of the Pasadena Art Exhibition Association. By 1904 the El Camino Real Association was established to select a marker design to mark the route of El Camino Real. The design was a cast iron bell suspended from an 11 foot bent guide post. The first bell was placed on August 15, 1906 in front of the Old Plaza Church in downtown LA. By 1915 approximately 158 bells had been installed.
However, over the years many bells were lost to theft, vandalism, and general disrepair. Between 1926 and 1931 the CA State Automobile Association and AAA of So. CA assumed responsibility for the maintenance and replacement of many of the bells on state owned property. By 1949 there were approximately 286 bells.
But, again, vandalism took its toll and only 75 bells remained by the 1960's. It wasn't until 1974 that the bell design was changed to deter vandals and thieves. The new bells, under the adoption of CalTrans, were made of concrete, rather than cast iron. Later, an "Adopt A Bell" program was started (under the "Adopt A Highway" program) so that anyone could adopt (and maintain) a bell along the old highway. Within a few years, the design was changed back to iron, but painted green.
In 2000, CalTrans received a federal grant to restore the bell marker system on state highways. Under the grant, bells would be placed every mile or 2 from each other from SF to Orange County - this would add 555 bells to the route. (SD County wasn't included in the grant since El Camino Real is not on the state highway system within our county.) 2006 marks the 100th anniversary of the El Camnio Real bells. For more history about the bells of El Camino Real, read the book: California's El Camino Real and Its Historic Bells by Max Kurillo and Erline Tuttle. Replica bells may be purchased at www.californiabell.com.