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El Palo Alto

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El Palo Alto, circa 1900. Photograph by Robinson and Crandall, Stanford University Postcard Collection (PC0078: 0542)
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El Palo Alto and the Caltrain tracks in the city of Palo Alto, 2003. Photograph by Linda A. Cicero for Stanford News Service News Service.

El Palo Alto simply means “the tall tree” in Spanish. The name is believed to originate with the 1769 expedition of Gaspar de Portola (1716-1786), later governor of the Spanish territories in California. During their exploration of San Francisco Bay, de Portola and his men camped under the giant tree, which served as a landmark and was visible for miles.

Governor Leland Stanford purchased 650 acres of territory near the San Francisquito for his country estate and stock farm in 1876. After the death of his son Leland Stanford Jr., some of this property was dedicated as Stanford University. Governor Stanford also led the foundation of the city of Palo Alto in 1894 as a temperance town in which alcohol was banned — in reaction to the nearby town of Mayfield, which refused to close its thirteen saloons. Mayfield was incorporated into Palo Alto in 1925.

Despite several health scares caused by pollution and drought over the years, this long-lived coastal redwood tree thrives on the banks of the San Francisquito Creek. It continues to serve as the heart of the Stanford University seal and the Block “S” emblems, not only because of its historical significance but also because it stands as a symbol of strength, independence, and endurance.