Recognizing the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of Foster City, the City’s former Public Works Director, Richard Hopper, spoke on the history of the City’s creation. Richard focused on the building of the City and the unique features that make up its character.
I’m Carmen Blair, the deputy director of the San Mateo County Historical Association, and I would like to welcome you to today’s Courthouse Docket. The Courthouse Docket is a monthly series of lectures and performances sponsored by Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation. Usually, the programs are held in the museum’s historic courtroom. However, we moved the program online due to COVID19. Each month during the Courthouse Docket, we explore different aspects of local history, recognizing the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of Foster City. Today’s presentation focuses on the construction of the city and the unique features that make up its character. Our presenter today is Richard Hopper, who served as Foster City’s public works director from 1975 until 1980. He received his B.S. degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois following a stint in the U.S. Navy. He moved to California, where he worked for the city of San Mateo before being hired by Foster City. He left public service in 1980 and started his own civil engineering firm RKH Civil and Transportation Engineering, headquartered in Foster City. He is also a Foster City resident. Richard, thank you for joining us today to talk about the development of Foster City.
Welcome, everyone! I wanted to tell you briefly about how the Fosters came about the acquisition of Brewers Island. Here’s a photograph taken in 1946 of Brewers Island, and it encompasses pretty much all of this area here. This area was called Seal Slough originally, and it’s now Marina lagoon in San Mateo. In 1958 Foster’s organization came to the Bay Area looking for potential development sites, and they met with Richard Grant, who at that time was a real estate agent and developer in San Mateo. His office was in Los Prados in San Mateo and overlooked Marina Lagoon onto Brewers Island. The Fosters were very impressed with that because here’s a large tract of land that’s reasonably flat and levees around it and had great potential. Just as a background, in 1900, a man by the name of Frank Brewer levied off this island area to let the land dry out, and he created a little dairy cattle business. He grew hay on there for the cattle, and in 1906, of course, we had a big earthquake, but the levees around Brewers Island held without any problem, so that was a good beginning for the area.
The Fosters were very interested in purchasing this Brewers Island. It was owned by the Shillings who lived in Woodside and Shillings of the Shilling Spice business, but they weren’t interested in selling. After about two years of negotiation, they agreed to sell Brewer Island to the Fosters for a little under 12 million dollars. The whole area is about 3 000 acres. The upper northwest area was a tract of land owned by Thomas Thurkelson. He also had a little dairy farm there, so his 300 acres were not part of the original sale. A side story goes that after the Fosters bought their part on Brewers Island, there was a dispute over a bill for milk between Thurkelson and the Fosters and the bill was only $11, but because of that, Thurkelson refused to sell his property to the Fosters. Those 300 acres became Mariners Island in San Mateo. The plan was to develop Foster City, and here’s an overlay of the future development based on the original 1946 photograph. You can see here this was Third Avenue. This is Foster City Boulevard. This is Shell Boulevard, and this is Mariners Island Boulevard going into Edgewater Boulevard. Those are major streets. The other main is Hillsdale Boulevard. You can see how the development occurred over time. This blue line here was the beginnings of Highway 101, and over here was El Camino.
In 1960 the Fosters purchased the island, and they needed a vehicle to develop it. They got state senator Richard Dolwig and assemblyman Carl Britsky to sponsor legislation to create Estero Municipal Improvement District. I believe there are only two such districts in the state of California. Estero district has all the city’s powers except for planning and building. Those two powers were held by the County of San Mateo. That was the vehicle by which they could sell bonds based on the value of the property in order to develop the island. The first thing they did was to create a master plan, and the Fosters hired a number of major engineering and architectural, economic firms financing all the aspects of creating a city. This was the master plan that they originally came up with, and as you can see, it’s pretty much very close to the way it is today.
The concept of the central lagoon that goes through Foster City was a scheme created by Wilsey Hamm that reduced the amount of fill needed to provide proper drainage of the site. The county engineer at the time wanted the fill to be eight to twelve feet thick over on top of the bay mud, which would have caused huge settlement problems throughout the property. The Fosters went to this county board of supervisors with Plan A for 45 million yards and plan B with only 18 million yards to fill the island. The county board of supervisors approved the Plan B to create the plan as we see it now. The reason that the lagoon has the shape it has the engineers determined that the maximum distance away from the lagoon that you could properly drain the land was about 1100 feet. So 1100 feet is how that shape was created.
The plan was to fill in the island for about 18 million yards, so the question came about where we were going to get the fill. First, I want to point out these are photographs of the model of Foster City. There were two models built. Unfortunately, neither model has survived. We don’t have the benefit of seeing that anywhere. In this master plan there were a number of high-rise buildings throughout the city. There’s another picture of the master plan. The plan model was in Foster’s building for many, many years. You can see the Highway 92 coming through Foster City and the industrial area to the North and all the residential to the South. Here again, this is Town Center. We have a high-rise building. Actually, the building in Foster City in our Town Center Metro Center is the tallest building between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The question came where are we going to get the 18 million cubic yards? One scheme was to get the fill from Sandruma Mountain and that proved to be very expensive. So the Fosters, along with Dames and Moore investigated hydraulic sand fill. They determined there was a source of sand near the San Francisco Airport called San Bruno Shoal and that San Bruno shoal held about 28 million cubic yards of sand. The problem was it was overburdened by 30 million cubic yards of bay mud. So the Fosters went to competitive bidding to see if someone could develop a good scheme to extract that sand, and they were unsuccessful. So Fosters put together a plan on their own and then hired Associated Dredging of Sausalito to manage the operation.
Associated came up with this scheme of a dual ladder dredge, one removing the bay mud and one removing the sand. This is a picture of the barge that was converted into the dredge. It was a 250-foot long navy barge that Associated rebuilt as a dredge and alongside the barge that the sand was dumped into. The barges came from San Francisco on the Southern Pacific railroad in Utah. These barges were used to fill a railroad across the Great Salt Lake so they were no longer needed. The Fosters bought these barges, cut them apart, and shipped them by rail to Oakland, where they were reassembled. These were the largest bottom dump barges in the world, and they were electrically operated. Here’s a picture of the dredge with the suction ladder dredge here and in its front. The sand would be dumped into the barge, and it would take about two and a half hours to fill the barge. Once the barges were filled, then we had a tugboat push the barges down to Brewers Island. At Brewers Island there’s a secondary dredge that created a basin outboard of the levee close to where the Beach Park Plaza shopping center is today. The plan was that the barns would come down here and they would dump the sand into this basin. It’d only take less than a minute to empty the barges. The sand was dumped in here and then the dredge picked up the sand and pumped it onto the land. Here’s a picture of the pipes that were coming from the dredge onto the land. This operation went at the rate of about 12 to 16 000 cubic yards every 24 hours. This operation went seven days a week 24 hours a day for six years.
There’s another picture of the sand coming out onto the land. Then they had to create the lagoon. They used dragline cranes to extract the bay mud. You can see here in the lower area this is all bay mud here. They used some of that bay mud to fill in some of this the low-level low-lying areas of Brewer’s Island. That were then filled over and topped with the sand so the 200-acre lagoon is the main waterway we have here now in Foster City. Now here’s an aerial photo that was taken in 1964. You can see here’s where the dredge was this is neighborhood one the original development area this is Neighborhood 2 this is Neighborhood 3. So the original initial development you can see the beginnings of the homes here. This is Shooting Star Isle and this is Hillsdale Boulevard going into San Mateo. That was, really, the only way in and out at that point.
You can see over here the sign “Foster City.” Jack Foster wanted everybody to know where Foster City was. So we had these large letters created on the ground so that airplanes flying over could see it. Here’s a photo of the fill operation. This is Neighborhood 2 you can see the barge here and the and then the pipelines that came out with the hydraulic sand and filling the neighborhood. This is the beginning of a one of the parks there’s one of the seven original islands. That’s Shear Water Isle today. Here’s another picture there is the dredge and the filling of Neighborhood 2 and 3 and the beginning of the seven original islands. You can see some roadways construction areas and here’s the very first house built on Shooting Star Isle and that’s called the Captain’s House. That’s where Jack Foster’s. Jack Foster lived in Monterey, and he moved here after the construction began. So this was his home, and it was called the Captain’s House. You can see the beginnings of construction in Neighborhood 1, and then you see the “Foster City” letters on the ground.
There and in the background would eventually become Redwood Shores. In the creation of these seven original islands, and real estate agents know this today, there’s narrow water and wide water. In constructing these islands, they built concrete t-walls on these areas that were the narrow waters between the island and the mainland portion. In the previous picture, you can see this is called narrow water, and this is called wide water. All the islands had the narrow water areas but they were accessible by only one point from the mainland area onto the island. All those concrete t-walls exist today. Here’s one of the roadway culverts we’re crossing from the mainland onto one of the islands.
Here’s a picture of the water entry from Belmont Slough. As it operates today, the lagoon receives saltwater from Belmont Slough through 42-inch pipes that empty into the lagoon. You can see these are the controlling mechanisms for opening and closing the pipe gate. Here’s the water entering the lagoon from Belmont Slough. At the northern end of the lagoon is the drainage pump station. The pump station contains two large pumps right now and it has capacity for four pumps. The way the lagoon was designed, there were discharge gates seven-foot by seven-foot gates. There were eight of those. The two pumps so they could discharge the lagoon water back into the bay either through the gravity gates or by pumping if the tide was up. So we had the capacity to discharge water no matter what the tidal conditions were. I don’t have a picture of it, this is the back side of the pump station, the front side of the pump station is all glass. The reason for that is Jack Foster would bring visiting dignitaries to Foster City to show off the island. He would bring them out here to Third Avenue and show them the pump station. How we’re going to discharge the water from the lagoon into the bay. He was very proud of that. You can see in the background those were the clarifying tanks for the sewage treatment facility and this was the control room for the pump station and also for the sewage treatment plant. Because Third Avenue at that time was the state Highway 92, the state would not allow the Estero District to construct the discharge channel across Third Avenue. So the only way they could discharge the lagoon water was by these pipes coming from the two pumps in the station.
The first water tank was constructed in 1966. This tank holds four million gallons. Estero District purchased water from the San Francisco Water Department and the connection point was by the intersection of Alameda de las Pulgas and Crystal Springs road in San Mateo. From that point through the city of San Mateo they constructed a 24-inch welded steel pipe to serve Foster City. Here’s the completed tank and the control building there are presently now. This was the first one. There are now four such four million-gallon water tanks serving Foster City. These are used continuously. The water flows through them out into the system to make sure the water maintains in a fresh state of mind. That was the water capacity. Here’s a picture of the construction of the sewage treatment facility. It was only a primary treatment facility in terms of settling solids out and trucking that off to a disposal area, and then pumping the fluid out into the deep water channel of the bay. Here’s a picture of one of the clarifiers. The treatment facility in Foster City has been removed, and it’s been consolidated with the treatment facility in San Mateo. Foster City owns a share of that facility. Here’s a picture of the discharge pipe welded steel pipe cement coated. They created this discharge pipe and it was about half a mile long. They plugged it off at both ends and then by tugboat they pulled the pipeline out into the bay in a pre determined trench. They settled the pipe in the trench and backfilled it over. This was the pipe going through the levee. You can see here it was a plated off area with a gate valve. From that point back to the treatment facility, another pipeline was added, and the dredge was actually pulling the pipeline out to the deep water. That discharge pipe is still used by the San Mateo Foster City treatment facility. There’s another picture of the filling in the levee after the pipeline. Here’s a picture of the utility construction along the little channel that goes from basically the Rainbow Bridge on Hillsdale Boulevard out to the treatment facility. The pumps, the drainage pump station these are sewer and water lines these were constructed in around 1964.