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Blog: Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Peninsula

"Uncle Tom's Cabin: A Glimpse into the Past of the San Francisco Bay Area's Famous Stopover"

Are you familiar with the song “Do You Know Your Way to San Jose”? Today almost everyone certainly does. However, in the early days of the San Francisco Bay Area, getting to San Jose from San Francisco was hardly a piece of cake.

Early settlers had the following choices: Saddle up and ride horseback, hitch up a wagon, or in the case of many Spanish Padres, it was foot power. Yes, indeed, they walked. The generally accepted route was El Camino Real. However, in those days, it was just a dirt path, which in the rainy season was wet and muddy.

Those who chose to make the journey needed someplace to stop and get refreshed. Such a place popped up in San Bruno at the intersection of San Mateo Avenue and El Camino Real. A gentleman only known by the name Thorpe put up a 12-by-12-foot cabin with stables for the horses next door. The cabin was simply called “Thorpe’s Place.”

In 1871, the cabin was enlarged.

A little later, Thorpe sold it to J. Gamble, who decided to call the place Star & Garter. Gamble enlarged it yet again and added a dining room.

Sometime after this, Thomas Rolle, a black ex-slave, was en route to Searsville and stopped at the cabin. Cabin owner Gamble made Rolle a great offer if he would purchase the place. Rolle accepted the offer. Rolle was an excellent cook, and soon word spread about the fantastic meals he was serving. So beloved was he that he came to be known as “Uncle Tom.”

Subsequently, Rolle wanted to improve the place and sought help from William Ralston, who happened to be a frequent patron. Ralston was only too happy to assist. The improvements included changing the name from “Star & Garter” to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which became the official name.

Over the years, the property was destroyed by fire, rebuilt, sold and resold several times, yet continued to operate through prohibition.

After prohibition and a renewed liquor license, Caesar Martinelli became the new owner. He added additional improvements, including outdoor dining.

Some noteworthy events took place at the Cabin. For example, Governor Peter Burnett stopped in for lunch in 1850 and announced that California would become a state. At a banquet in 1878, a representative of Bell Telephone showed off one of the first telephones. Then in 1883, the first operating telephone in northern San Mateo County was installed at Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In 1912, the very first shovelful of dirt initiating California’s massive state highway system was turned in front of the Cabin.

San Mateo Ave. & ERC today. Google Maps

After several more decades and changing times, the celebrated cabin was razed in 1949. Today Walgreens and Victory Honda have replaced Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Everything else is just history.

Some of the photos used in this blog are courtesy of the Local History Room, Redwood City's best-kept secret. The Local History Collection covers all aspects of Redwood City's development, from the 1850s to the present day, with particular emphasis on businesses, public schools, civic organizations, city agencies, and early family histories. The Local History Room is not affiliated with the Redwood City Public Library, but it is inside it. 

Dan Calic

About the Author: Dan Calic

A product of Goodwin (JFK), Henry Ford, Roosevelt, Sequoia High and Canada College, Dan has deep Redwood City roots. He’s witnessed Redwood City transform from a sleepy peninsula town into a thriving high-tech hub.
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