South San Francisco proudly advertises its history to every passing motorist northbound on Highway 101. Industry has changed, though, since the sign’s 1923 construction: biotechnology has replaced steel mills and slaughterhouses.
Members of the Chamber of Commerce etched and whitewashed the sign’s letters on the hillside. Five years later, a city bond issue provided $5,000 to construct the current upgrade: 60-foot-high letters made out of concrete four inches thick.
Ships, Steak and Steel
Big S.S.F. industries in the 1920s were W.P. Fuller Paint, Western Pipe and Steel, the Metal and Thermit Corporation, and the Western Meat Company. Forty-five ships for World War II were constructed in 48 months at the shipbuilding yard on Oyster Point.
Today, Genentech is the city’s top employer. The company has paid for highway signs that proclaim South San Francisco as “the birthplace of biotechnology.”
As S.S.F. became less defined by its industry, groups of residents tried to have the sign removed. Their efforts were thwarted by Edna Harks, who persuaded the United States Department of the Interior to recognize the sign in the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
Local thrill-seekers enjoy skidding down the steep letters on rectangular pieces of cardboard or wood. Best rides are down the “F” in “Francisco,” the “T” in “South” and the “T” in “Industrial” because their slopes end in a pile of soft brush.
Every weekend, 8 to 10 teenagers from San Mateo Juvenile Protection work on the hill with S.S.F.’s Department of Public Works, weeding around letters, repainting them, and creating and maintaining the trails.
A tall pole crowning the summit of Sign Hill is used as the frame of an electric Christmas tree that shines from Thanksgiving to Jan. 6. The frame was modified in 2008 to illuminate “100” in celebration of S.S.F.’s centennial.
After the Giants won the World Series on Monday, local celebrants painted two letters of the sign bright orange: the “S” in “San” and the “F” in “Francisco.”