article picture

Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes and the Bells of El Camino Real!

by Gloria Lenhart

article picture

Mrs. Forbes with one of her bells in 1906.

First in a series of articles about extraordinary women in California history. From, used with permission.

The El Camino Real was a trail blazed by early Spanish soldiers and missionaries in the 1700s, connecting the 21 California missions. By the 1850s, much of the El Camino Real had become overgrown and the missions were falling into decay.

Around 1900, two women’s groups, the Native Daughters of the American West and the California Federation of Women’s Clubs joined forces to preserve the California missions and mark the historic El Camino Real. Mrs. Armitage Suton Carion Forbes (she preferred using her husband’s name) helped design the bells. The 11-ft high shepherd’s crook that holds the bell is a reminder of the walking stick used by Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions. Mrs. Forbes and her husband bought a foundry to cast them and formed the California Bell Company.

article picture

Mrs. Forbes cast the first bells in 1906.

The bells were California’s first highway markers; each carried a sign showing the distance to the next town. The first bell was installed in Los Angeles in 1906. The bell project reached San Francisco around 1909. At one time, there were 450 bells or more stretching all the way from San Diego to Sonoma.

The Automobile Association took over the maintenance of the bells in the 1920s; Cal Trans became responsible for them in the 1960s. In 2000, John Kolstad, a bell enthusiast, resurrected the California Bell Company. In 2003, hundreds of bells were replaced or refurbished --except in San Francisco, where the project ran into political and union trouble.

article picture

The map, produced in 1920, illustrates the route of El Camino Real in 1821. The road back then was merely a horse and mule trail.

Today, only two bell markers remain in San Francisco – one in front of Mission Dolores and one at Third and Market, across from Lotta’s Fountain.

You can purchase your own El Camino Real bell, cast in historic molds, from the California Bell Company at

Photos Courtesy: California Bell Company/more information and photos at

Map Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

Send comments and questions to
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.