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The area that is now Westlake was originally under the control of the Republic of Mexico. Most of this land was known as Laguna de la Merced. Although true ownership of this land was the subject of many disagreements and lawsuits, a U.S. government survey of 1853 established much of the area to be government owned. Since it was owned by the government, it was therefore available for sale. The first settler was Robert S. Thornton of Rhode Island, a blacksmith who had arrived in the San Francisco area in 1851, after a grueling 17,000-mile, 8-month sea voyage around the tip of Argentina. His wife, Sarah Ann Smith of Massachusetts, joined him a few years later. Thornton laid claim to the area and soon became a successful real estate investor. Thornton Beach State Park was later named in his honor. In 1856, in conjunction with early settler Patrick Morgan Brooks, Thornton established the Jefferson School District.

An event of historical significance took place in the area now known as Westlake on September 13, 1859. U.S. Senator David Broderick and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court David Terry were longtime political enemies who fought a pistol duel there over the issue of slavery. Some consider this Pre-Civil War duel to be the first shots fired in the political and economic war over slavery that would later divide the entire nation.

Broderick, representing the anti-slavery side, lost the duel when his gun misfired and he was shot in the chest. The place where the Broderick-Terry Duel took place exists today as a historic site and is open to the public.

In the same year a conflict of another sort began, as land ownership disagreements flared up once again. Surveyors from the Laguna Merced Rancho contradicted the U.S. government’s survey and deemed the goverment's sale of the land to Thornton and nearby settlers invalid. Robert Thornton then spent nearly six years representing his neighbors as legal counsel and activist in defending and re-establishing the true ownership of this land (then called Colma), making several journeys to Washington D.C. and appearing before the Supreme Court. During this time, the early settlers were fortifying their positions with guns and refusing to be ousted from their lands. Some of these were, however, forced from their homes and farms and displaced for periods of up to 3 years. By December 1865, Thornton had finally won his case in the Supreme Court for himself and his neighbors and returned home early the next year.

The Ocean Shore railroad was later built in this area and served the coasts transportation needs for many years. Its accessibility was appealing to San Franciscans and eventually the area became a site for vacation homes and weekend getaways. The 1906 earthquake also raised awareness of the area after the fire destroyed thousands of homes and forced many families to find a new life outside San Francisco.

The Spring Valley Water Company eventually took possession of the land and leased it out to numerous farmers and ranchers whose families had earlier settled the area. This site was chosen because the hilly areas all around formed a basin that led into the Ocean. It was thought that a water collection system could be built there to serve San Francisco’s water needs. This came in the form of the creation of Lake Merced. Originally this area was open to the ocean, but a huge landfill was built along the coast to isolate the inlet and capture water for the City’s use. Lake Merced served as San Francisco’s water source for many years. Eventually it was determined that the Spring Valley water Company had more land than it needed, and that a large part of it could be sold off as excess land to private investors.

In 1945, developer Henry Doelger, who had built large sections of San Francisco’s Sunset District, went against the advice many of his friends and advisors and purchased this sandy, foggy, seemingly remote piece of land. Doelger’s foresight was once again 20-20, as the post World-War II housing boom was poised to begin. In 1947, Doelger and his associates began building what was to become Daly City’s huge Westlake district, one of the earliest large-tract suburbs in America and a true “city within a city.” Click on the links at left to learn more about this area.

Robert S. Thornton
Return to the Homepage of the Westlake SectionCommunity and Business SpacesRead a profile of Developer Henry Doelger
View a slideshow of historical photos