The Mile Houses of Visitacion Valley

October 20th, 2021 No Comments »

Six Mile House in the early 1900s. The roadhouse stood on today’s Bayshore Boulevard near Visitacion Avenue. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAB-1862)

by Woody LaBounty

From its earliest days, Visitacion Valley was the doorway to San Francisco. Perhaps most nineteenth-century visitors arrived by water at one of the docks, but anyone traveling by land had few options to skirt or climb the hills hemming in the city from the peninsula. There were the San Jose and Mission Roads, merging together just south of the San Mateo County line, and the San Bruno Turnpike Road, splitting off from Bernal Heights to run southward across the mouth of Visitacion Valley.

Beginning in the 1850s, roadhouses were established up and down these roads as places to get water for horses and a stronger drink for their owners. Many of these refreshment stops used a “Mile House” naming convention that noted how far they were from the city center, the assumed destination or departure point. This was a popular tradition for inns and outlying public houses in Great Britain, across the United States, and throughout Gold Rush California. For instance, in the 1850s the fields and Sierra Nevada foothills had a spider web of “Mile Houses” referencing the distance to Sacramento, with a Four Mile, Five Mile, Ten Mile, Twelve Mile, Fourteen Mile, Sixteen Mile, Eighteen Mile, Twenty-Six Mile, and even a Forty-Mile House.

Measuring the purported mileage to San Francisco’s heart—which at the time was Portsmouth Square—city and peninsula roadhouses ran from One-Mile House (Mission and 5th Streets, a distance which hardly seems worth the effort to note) to Millbrae’s 17-Mile House on El Camino Real.

Visitacion Valley had three of these mile houses. Two of the original buildings are still intact and one is still serving food and drink. Let’s take a look from north to south:

Five Mile House
3556–3564 San Bruno Avenue

Five Mile House operated out of the building set back from the sidewalk on the 3500 block of San Bruno Avenue from the 1890s to roughly the 1940s. (Heritage photo.)

At one time there were two Five Mile Houses operating on different San Francisco roads. The larger and better known one was run by horse dealer and trainer Charlie Shear at the intersection of Mission Street and Silver Avenue, where the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living stands today. But as early as 1865 a Five Mile House served drinks on the San Bruno Toll Road, today’s San Bruno Avenue. At the top of a ridge out of Visitacion Valley and facing Bayview Hill, it was a popular stop for dairy workers (“Milk Dealers”) to have a drink after trudging up the incline with their wagons in the morning or heading back to the ranches with empty delivery cans in the afternoons.

Five Mile House had a number of owners, operators, and business models over its 120-years of existence, but it was always, in essence, a bar. The original building burned down in 1896, replaced by the structure still standing in the middle of the 3500 block of San Bruno Avenue, now tucked behind a row of storefront additions. The name lived on when the business relocated a block away to the ground floor of the skinny apartment building at 3600 San Bruno Avenue sometime just before World War II.

View west on Wilde Avenue, with the relocated Five Mile House at 3600 San Bruno Avenue in the background on the left. (OpenSFHistory/wnp14.3459)

This later incarnation was still open when I was going to my first Giants games at Candlestick Park in the 1970s (not that I went inside as a ten-year-old). It may have lasted into the late 1980s. I’d love to hear more information on when it closed, and if anyone chooses to fix up and reopen the Five Mile House, in either building, I’ll buy the first round.

Six Mile House
San Bruno Road (now Bayshore Boulevard) near Visitacion Avenue

Six Mile House on Bayshore Boulevard near Visitacion Avenue in 1925. Closed, its northern wing appears to have been demolished. (Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, BANC PIC 1996.003:Volume 20:21b–fALB)

Henry “Pop” Blanken’s Six Mile House was a much grander affair than the Five Mile House and was often described as a “rural resort.” Occupying most of the block of what is now Bayshore Boulevard between Visitacion and Sunnydale Avenues, its grounds had shade trees, gardens, bowling alleys, trap shooting, and training facilities for boxers.

Blanken started his career as a roadhouse host with the Overland Mail House, a smaller place across the San Bruno road from the Five Mile House and named for where the long-distance mail carriers changed their horses. The Six Mile House shows up on maps as early as 1861, although Blanken’s 1915 obituary claims his version of it opened on the Fourth of July in 1876. Drinks, lodging, and clam chowder were all available to those choosing to stop for an hour or a weekend.

Like many roadhouse proprietors, Blanken made a sideline as a “sporting man,” working with horse breeders, betting men, and boxing trainers who used his facilities for both their occupation and their recreation.

The historic building was demolished in 1938 for a garage and gas station, but Blanken Avenue in Little Hollywood keeps Pop’s name alive in the neighborhood.

7 Mile House
San Bruno Road (now Bayshore Boulevard) and Geneva Avenue

7 Mile House when it was owned by Egidio Micheli in the early 1900s. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAC-1769)

The still-thriving 7 Mile House is technically just over the county line in Brisbane, but it is in every way a fixture of Visitacion Valley life. Stories have been passed down that “The 7” started in the late 1850s. That’s likely when the San Bruno Toll Road tollhouse was set up on the same spot, and the roadhouse probably grew out of that building.

The clientele for 7 Mile House has been very and proudly blue collar for its entire life: dairy and farm workers, hostlers and teamsters, blacksmiths, truckers, railroad and factory workers. The building, whether it started as a tollhouse or not, has had additions and remodels over the decades, losing its gingerbread trim, but doubling in size and outdoor dining space. Owner Vanessa Garcia is the latest owner. Since buying 7 Mile House in 2004 she has made it a welcome place for locals and travelers alike with old photos of the last operating mile house proudly displayed inside. It’s one of my favorite spots for lunch.

7 Mile House on the left in January 1910, when Bayshore was only starting to grow out of its country road origins. (Crop of John Henry Mentz photograph, SFMTA photo Archive, U02520)

Although mile houses gave off an authoritative air with their numbered designations—implying some transit-related officialness, maybe even that some surveyor was involved—their names were more marketing than wayfinding aids.

7 Mile House is not a mile from where 6 Mile House was—more like half a mile distant. Six Mile House was a similar distance from where Five Mile House stood. And none of the three is exactly five, six, or seven miles to Portsmouth Square or any other notable San Francisco landmark.

7 Mile House may be in Brisbane, but is still a fixture of Visitacion Valley life.

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