Eric Mason hangs an 85-pound El Camino Real bell at Cochrane and

Roadside mission bells from Sonoma to San Diego will guide
travelers along El Camino Real
Residents can now see a little piece of California history every time they drive in or out of the city.

A project to install roadside mission bells along the original El Camino Real – which linked the 21 California missions and follows much of U.S. Highway 101 – has reached Morgan Hill, on its span from San Diego to Sonoma.

Hundreds of the bells and signs reading “Historic El Camino Real” are already in place, mostly between here and Santa Barbara. Weather permitting, crews will continue erecting the question-mark shaped cast iron bells in the area.

The original bells first went up starting in 1906, to guide travelers and to preserve the old highway Father Junipero Serra traveled while establishing the California missions. The group installing the bells did little to maintain them, however, and through the years many fell into disrepair or were stolen.

For a while, AAA was replacing and maintaining the bells, and in 1974 Caltrans took over the project throughout the state.

The bell replacement project was set into motion four years ago, when John Kolstad of Saratoga purchased the company that originally made the El Camino Real bells. Kolstad “reluctantly” took the torch, he said, even though all he had really wanted was a bell like the one near his childhood home in Whittier.

“I had loved the bells since I was in the third grade, and we studied them in the fourth grade when we studied California history,” Kolstad said.

In 1998, he approached the elderly owner of the California Bell Co., to buy one for his backyard. The man wouldn’t sell one bell, but he would sell the whole company, including the parts and molds that could be used to make new bells.

“I felt badly, because if I didn’t buy it and something happened to him, all the stuff and all the history would have gone to the dumpster,” Kolstad said.

After making the purchase, Kolstad approached Caltrans with his restoration and replacement project.

“I wanted to get them back up, and I contacted the right person at Caltrans – Keith Robinson – and he had always wanted to get them back up, too,” Kolstad said.

Robinson arranged for a $1.4 million federal grant to fund the project, and now Kolstad loosely oversees the installation.

South of Los Angeles, El Camino Real departs from Caltrans freeways, but Kolstad is working with individual cities to put bells along the entire historic route, from the San Francisco de Solano mission in Sonoma County to the San Diego de Alcalá mission in San Diego County.

Over the years, Kolstad has put up numerous bells on his own and sells them through his company’s Web site. And, yes, a 1906 mission bell marker now stands in his own backyard.

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Lori Stuenkel covers crime and public safety for the Gilroy Dispatch. She can be reached at 847-7158 or [email protected].

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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