Up a Creek, no Paddle Needed

Redwood City is, of course, named for the redwood trees that once covered the hillsides west of town. Back in the early 1800s huge forests extended up and down the peninsula. San Francisco’s growth created a great demand for building materials, of which redwood was one. Originally the cut trees were hauled, whole, by horses or oxen to San Francisco where they were used pretty much as-is in the construction of wharf pilings as well as the adobe structures that were popular back then. Later, someone realized that it was easier to split the logs before they were hauled away, and so sawmills began to spring up near the logging sites. But until 1850 the wood continued to be hauled, as logs, over land.

In January 1850 Dr. Robert O. Tripp, who had come to the redwoods to make shingles, was sailing with friends in the bay, exploring the western shore and looking for San Francisquito Creek. (San Francisquito Creek enters the bay just north of the Palo Alto Airport and Golf Course.) Darkness fell and the winds began to rise, so the party sailed into the nearest safe harbor and dropped anchor. That safe harbor turned out to be the mouth of Redwood Creek. Tripp discovered the creek’s possibilities and realized how much easier it would be to bring the redwood logs down from the hillsides to the creek (roughly, where Redwood City’s Main Street parking lot is today), where the logs could be tied into rafts and floated up to San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, G. M. Burnham realized that shallow-draft sailing ships could go where the log rafts could, and so docks were built along the creek, followed by blacksmith shops, merchants, and dwelling places of various sorts.

All of this activity eventually resulted in the Redwood City of today, and almost all of it was due to the existence of Redwood Creek. Redwood Creek—which is still very much in existence—originates in Woodside, somewhere between Alameda de Las Pulgas and Highway 280. It then winds its way toward the bay through various residential neighborhoods, crossing El Camino Real, passing through downtown, and slipping under Highway 101 before finally spilling out into the bay. I knew that part of the creek had been placed underground, but was surprised to learn just how much of the creek survives—albeit in a concrete channel—open to the air. Recently I took a delightful walk that followed the creek from its origin (or as near as one can publicly get to it) down to where it passes under Highway 101.

First off, I have to thank the folks responsible for drainstothebay.com; they did the hard work of figuring out an optimal route that takes you to each of the places where the creek crosses (under) a street and therefore can be seen by a pedestrian. Their route, however, begins at the bay and works its way up towards Alameda de Las Pulgas, whereas I wanted to follow the flow of water and head from Alameda towards the bay. Thus I found myself reading the directions from last to first and reversing the directions in my head as I walked, something that took more than a bit of mental energy. I had a great time, though, and traversed some neighborhoods I had not yet thoroughly explored.

The creek effectively begins somewhere in or around the Menlo Country Club, a private golf club at the corner of Alameda de Las Pulgas and Woodside Road. For those of us who aren’t members, our first chance to see the creek is at the point where it ducks under Alameda. I’ve driven along Alameda de Las Pulgas countless times and never noticed that the creek runs beneath it. You’ll find the creek crossing just south of where Alameda and Fernside Street come together. Look for the short section of guardrail along an otherwise unprotected street edge:

Here you’ll only see the creek on the west side of Alameda de Las Pulgas: on the east side there is a driveway beneath which, I’m guessing, the creek runs. It appears to surface behind some homes, making its way to the next point of visibility when it crosses Maryland Street, between Maddux Drive and Carolina Avenue. This crossing is like many that you see (or don’t see; if you drive by them, you hardly notice them) in Redwood City: a simple chain link fence, often with a gate and always with a prominent “No Trespassing” sign on either side of the street lets you see, but not enter, the concrete-lined waterway.

In this area one of the best places to see the creek is in Maddux Park. I had not been to this park before, and was delighted to discover this hidden gem:

This half-acre park appears to be nicely maintained, with a lawn that is great for playing on but not so large as to attract sports enthusiasts. It has a nice set of modern play equipment, and, perhaps most importantly, a set of restrooms. It also has a water feature, which wasn’t running when I was there: it is only active from June to September. But the creek is another water feature of sorts, one that can be enjoyed throughout the year. The creek defines the entire back of the park, separating it from the grass fields of Henry Ford Elementary School. To see the creek, simply go into the park and walk all the way to the back. The fence that marks the park’s rear boundary also keeps people from gaining access to the creek bed.

The creek continues on to cross Connecticut Drive near Kennedy Middle School. Just after ducking under Virginia Avenue it heads north, eventually hitting the intersection of Valota Road and Redwood Avenue. From here it runs parallel to Redwood Avenue, but behind the houses that front that street until it reaches Kentfield Avenue, where it jogs a bit north to run, for a block or so, right next to Redwood Avenue. In this area, as is the case elsewhere along the creek, some of the properties appear to extend across the creek: there are bridges that link the larger portion of the property where the house sits, with the smaller portion on the other side. You can see some of these bridges if you look upstream from where the creek meets Kentfield Avenue:

The creek eventually crosses to the north side of Redwood Avenue and winds behind some of the houses there, continuing to follow Redwood Avenue almost to Clinton Street, where it again turns north. It crosses Clinton midway between Roosevelt Avenue and Oak Avenue, and continues across Adams Street. From there it ducks beneath two large apartment buildings, remaining underground as it passes under the Mi Rancho Supermarket parking lot and continuing out to El Camino Real.

When Redwood Creek hits El Camino Real it, still underground, follows that street north to Maple Street, where it crosses to the east side of El Camino and once again re-emerges into the light of day—right alongside Maple, between it and Hopkins Acura. Next time you are stopped on El Camino Real at Maple Street, notice the large oleander growing at the intersection on the southeast corner. If you duck behind that plant, as I did, you’ll see the waters of Redwood Creek re-emerging back into the open air:

The creek follows Maple and then, after crossing Lathrop Street, runs through the empty lot across from Main & Elm. You can just see the channel, now angled in preparation for crossing under Maple Street, at the right side of the following picture:

As I mentioned in last week’s blog post, an office building has been proposed for this site. I’ll write more about that building in a future post. For now, though, I’m staying focused on the creek. After crossing under Maple Street you can just see a bit of it before it goes underground yet again, first to pass beneath the Caltrain tracks. Then it continues underground, first to the southeast of the main library (it passes beneath the Roselli “mini-park,” which is on that side of the library), then across Middlefield Road and beneath the plaza that separates City Hall from Donato Enoteca. It then runs straight beneath the Main Street parking lot, crosses Broadway at the aptly named Redwood Creek Crossing, and follows the entrance into the Marshall Street Parking Garage. (If you haven’t noticed it before, take a look at the sidewalk as it crosses over the underground creek: on both sides of Broadway the sidewalk changes color, providing a subtle hint as to the existence of the subterranean channel below.)

Up to this point the creek has been just that—a creek—that usually doesn’t carry enough water to float anything more than a toy-sized boat. But in the vicinity of the Main Street parking lot the creek waters begin to mix with the inflow from the bay, and back in the mid 1800s the creek was significantly wider in this area. Together the water and the added creek width made for a natural Embarcadero, providing Dr. Tripp with the inspiration that was the impetus for Redwood City’s shipping industry.

After today’s creek, still underground, reaches the Main Street parking garage it jogs to the right, so that when it crosses Marshall Street it is lined up with the driveway entrance to Redwood City Fire Department Station #9. It runs down beneath that driveway and the driveway of the Redwood City School District offices, which are immediately behind the fire station:

After crossing Bradford Street the creek finally re-emerges into the light of day. Here it meanders through the property upon which—hopefully!—the 707 Bradford Street project will soon be built (see my post There’s No Place Like Hōm). It then passes beneath Main Street and then Veterans Boulevard, running between the Carl’s Jr. restaurant and the Sizzler steak house. Finally, it snakes its way between the Township Apartments on Main Street and the Toys ‘R Us store before passing under Highway 101 to reach Docktown and, shortly, the bay.

The area by the Carl’s Jr. is one of the few where you can actually walk, albeit briefly, along the banks of the creek—although there is no trail there so I don’t necessarily recommend doing so. Nearby, though, there is one place that was built explicitly for this purpose: a single segment of what Redwood City hopes will one day be the “Redwood Creek Trail” behind the Township Apartments, at 333 Main Street. This segment is only about 300 feet long, running from the fence that defines one end of Township’s property to the fence that defines the other.  If the neighboring 353 Main Street project is ever built (the project’s developer has filed an application with the city, an application that has not yet been deemed complete), that project, too, will have a segment that extends the one behind 333 Main. The 707 Bradford Street project proposal also includes a section that runs from Main Street near Veterans to Bradford Street, so eventually we’ll have a couple of sections that will make walking alongside part of the creek a safe and comfortable activity. For now, however, we have to content ourselves with the one section shown below (this picture shows nearly all of it, so don’t expect to get a lot of exercise here):

To reach the above-pictured trail segment, just walk in from Main Street along either side of the Township Apartments building.

If it wasn’t for the existence of Redwood Creek, I’m guessing that Redwood City would not have nearly the prominence that it has today. Indeed, I could imagine that without the creek, Redwood City might not even exist today as an independent city: it might have been subsumed into one of the adjoining communities. While on my walk I was delighted to see that the creek is still very much in existence, and was surprised to realize just how much of it is open to the sky. Of course, the vast majority of the creek lies on private property and is not accessible by the public, but thanks to a couple of proposed development projects a portion of the creek may once again be open and available, if only for strolling alongside.

5 thoughts on “Up a Creek, no Paddle Needed

  1. Arroyo de Ojo creek used to be exposed to the sun right on through Red Morton Park and so many of us old timers have such great memories of playing in the dirt creek from Stulsaft Park on down thru the “rec” and beyond! Frogs & pollywogs galore! The streets of Virginia @ Redwood, Ruby St, Fairview, Oak Av & Junipero were all dead end streets and a GREAT place for us kids to play!! But alas, 1968-’69 the concrete culverts came to be and all of the frogs have died off from the cement! Streets became freeways (Virginia Ave) and no longer safe for kids to play in. Good times of Redwood City in the old days! Growing up here was grand!

  2. Love your informative posts! Until now I had thought that the creek that runs through RC was a branch of the San Francisquito Creek. I’m happy to know the history of our Redwood Creek.
    Keep on walking and posting!

  3. Pingback: Comings and Goings | Walking Redwood City

  4. As always, nice topic! Interesting side note, and not recommended for anyone else to try. When I was about 16 years old (back around 2000/2001) we actually walked completely under Red Morton Park from west to east inside a creek tunnel. Your post brought back this memory because at the time we always just thought it was Redwood Creek. I now know that specific drain is for the Arroyo Ojo Agua stream.. It was Ankle deep, dirty looking water. We had a flashlight and would notice some very small fish and some ugly graffiti. Took about five min. It had an errie feeling in there, but at that age we thought it was a thrill. We basically just hopped the fence on the Volota side and walked through the tunnel until we came out near McGarvy Field and King St.

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