San Francisco Tour Tales

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

By Gloria Lenhart

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.

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.

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.


Mrs. Forbes with one of her bells in 1906 (Courtesy: California Bell Company/more information and photos at

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the September, 2013 issue of Guidelines, a publication of SF City Guides.