The weird, fun and fascinating stories behind the names of Bay Area towns
When the town was looking for its official name in 1898, they chose to name it Cupertino Creek, nearby. The stream, in turn, had been named by Franciscan priests after Saint Joseph of Cupertino. Joseph has been said to be “remarkably clever” but able to levitate, a claim that modern historians are seriously indignant about. Some think he was very good at gymnastics. Others believe he suffered from ergot poisoning. In any case, he is the patron saint of air travelers, poor students, astronauts and the namesake of Cupertino.
By the time 13-year-old John Daly arrived in California in the 1850s, life looked bleak. His mother had died while crossing Panama, and young Daly was forced to find work on a dairy farm in San Mateo County. But Daly, brilliant and kind in every way, quickly rose to the top. By 1868 he owned 250 acres on the “top of the hill”. When the San Francisco streetcars stretched over this hill, the stop became known as Daly’s Hill. Daly helped house and feed refugees from the 1906 earthquake and when the town was incorporated in 1911, the town was named in his honor.
Irish immigrants flocked to this place in Alameda County. In the 1870s, the township was teeming with Irish names: Fallon, Donlan, Dougherty and more. According to local tradition, the first settler James Witt Dougherty once said, “There are so many Irish here, you might as well call it Dublin. Whatever its origin, the name stuck.
El Cerrito was created in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire. San Franciscans fleeing the destruction set up a refugee camp, which turned into a town in its own right. It was first named Rust after the town’s first postmaster, but locals changed it to El Cerrito in 1916, a word that means mound in Spanish.
As you can guess, Emeryville got its name from a Mr. Emery. Joseph Stickney Emery came to California during the Gold Rush and became president of the California and Nevada Railroad. He owned large tracts of land called “Emery’s” by the locals. The city took its name when it was incorporated in 1896.
When the Mexican Rancho Suisun land grant fell into the hands of clipper captain Robert Waterman in the mid-1850s, he decided to break up the town and rename it. He chose Fairfield in honor of his hometown, Fairfield, Connecticut. The nearby town of Cordelia was named after his wife.
You probably remember this guy from your elementary school history lessons: John C. Fremont. The Californian explorer and politician – he ran for president in 1856 as the very first candidate of the new Republican Party – mapped part of the region during his study of the region in 1846.
John Gilroy, who gave the town his name, was an interesting guy – and wasn’t actually called John Gilroy. John Cameron was a Scottish sailor who arrived in California in 1814 and jumped from the ship in the Monterey area. He changed his name to Gilroy and lived among the natives and Mexican settlers as one of two English speakers in Alta California. He married a ranchero’s daughter, and the Gilroy settlement grew around their land.
Half moon bay
This one is pretty self-explanatory. In 1874, the inhabitants of “Spanishtown”, so called because of its many Spanish speakers, chose to change the name of their town to Half Moon Bay. It’s a nod to the city’s half-moon shaped harbor. From one descriptive name to another.
Travelers between Oakland and San Jose in the 1850s were likely all familiar with the Haywards Hotel and the General Store. Opened by William Hayward in 1852 after his job as a prospector failed, the inn was a famous stopover on the road between towns. When the city was incorporated in 1876, the name Haywards was chosen. The ‘s’ was dropped soon after.
The name of Hercules is – excuse the pun – pretty explosive. In 1881, the California Powder Works company began producing dynamite and black powder. It was sold as Hercules Powder, a marketing ploy meant to show off the power of dynamite. When the city was incorporated in 1900, community leaders, who also worked as factory managers, chose Hercules as their city name.
Lafayette went through several iterations before settling on its current name. It was, at different times, known as Dog Town, Brown’s Corner, Centerville, and Acalanus, the name of the original Mexican land grant. When Benjamin Shreve became the town’s first postmaster in 1857, he favored Centerville. But, as it was already taken by another Californian city, he opted for his second choice, La Fayette.
Like John Gilroy, Robert Livermore rose to fame after leaving the ship near Monterey. The English sailor arrived in California in 1822 and teamed up with local Jose Noriega to raise cattle and grain. Livermore eventually bought out Noriega’s stake in the land claim and passed the ranch on to her children. When the city was founded in 1869, it took the name of Livermore.