The Rich and Dark History Behind Tanforan Mall

3 mins read

Photos courtesy of the San Bruno Public Library collection.

Just 3 miles away from San Francisco International Airport is the Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno. From horse racetrack to Japanese American detention center, Tanforan has played an integral role in the history of San Mateo County and the Bay Area. 

Before its use as a racetrack, the Tanforan Mall area was part of the Mexican land grant Rancho Buri Buri. Governor Jose Castro gave the land to Jose Antonio Sanchez in 1837, and it would be used for agricultural purposes until Sanchez died in 1843. His land was divided among his children, one of whom was Toribio Tanforan, whose land was purchased by the Western Turf Association in 1898 and is the namesake of what would later be the Tanforan Racetrack from 1899 to 1970. 

Tanforan Grandstands

Throughout its multiple uses from 1899-1964, the one consistent characteristic throughout Tanforan’s history was racing. Many famous racehorses competed at the racetrack, including Seabiscuit, who was briefly stabled there in 1939. 

Seabiscuit Racehorse Memorial

When horse racing was made illegal in almost every state in 1908, the track hosted alternative events to remain in business. While Tanforan mostly held automobile racing during this time, the rise of aviation swept the Peninsula during the 1910s, leading to later automobile exhibitions with automobiles going against planes in 1911. 

The racetrack reopened for horse racing in 1923 but prohibited betting. However, this would be short-lived––the horse racing only lasted two 25-day seasons. In 1933, John Marchbank reopened the track for horse racing when pari-mutuel betting was legalized in California.

During the First World War, the racetrack was used as an army training camp for a volunteer regiment of the 144th Field Artillery of the U.S. Army. 

After World War II, the racetrack continued to be used for horse racing until 1964, when the grandstands caught fire and the racetrack was eventually demolished.

Tanforan Fire in 1964


Many historic moments in the history of Tanforan had to do with aviation. In 1911, Eugene Ely accomplished one of the most historic aviation feats when he flew his biplane from the Tanforan racetrack and landed on a flight deck built on the USS Pennsylvania. This historic flight would signify the start of naval aviation in the U.S. Military. 

Unfortunately, a large part of Tanforan’s history is tainted by its use as an assembly center for Japanese Americans during World War II. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which incarcerated over 125,000 Japanese Americans in the United States. From April 23 to October 13th, 1942, the Tanforan Racetrack was used as a temporary detention center for Japanese Americans and had a peak population of 7,816

Documentation of Japanese Interment Camps at Tanforan

The San Bruno Public Library has compiled multiple interviews with people who lived in the assembly center, in the library’s San Bruno Voices collection. One of the interviewees was Frank Ogawa, a resident of Oakland when Executive Order 9066 was issued. “All we knew about Tanforan was that it was a racetrack,” he said. 

Ogawa continued, “We only had about 3-4 days’ notice to pack and sell everything to be ready to depart to Tanforan.” 

Japanese Americans living at Tanforan were forced to live in the horse stalls as they didn’t have any other form of shelter for them. “In this small horse stall were just 2 cots and a big canvas sack was on the bed, I didn’t know what that was for,” Ogawa said. “Later we found out that was gonna be our mattress.” The people living in the Tanforan Assembly Center had to fill their canvas with hay to have a mattress while living there. For many Japanese Americans, this was their first time at Tanforan and their only experience there.

After World War II ended, racing continued in the Tanforan Racetrack once the military installations were taken down. The racing lasted from 1950-1964 but the 1963 and 1964 seasons at Tanforan were canceled and moved to the Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo. On July 31, 1964, the grandstands at Tanforan caught fire, ultimately leading to the racetrack being demolished. In 1970, the Hapsmith Corporation developed the Tanforan Shopping Center where the racetrack once stood and currently is still open to this day. 

Additional Tanforan Memorial

Tanforan Mall is full of memorials to its rich history, as even the entrance of the mall has a bronze statue commemorating Seabiscuit, the legendary racehorse. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Tanforan has a memorial of the Tanforan Assembly Center which contains the names of everyone who was forced out of their homes to go to Tanforan during the war. To learn more about the history of San Bruno, the San Bruno Public Library contains newspaper clippings and books that archive the long and detailed history of the city, additionally, you can learn more about the Tanforan Memorial here

D’Anjou Libunao is a sophomore in his first year in journalism. He enjoys writing reviews on popular media like movies, music, and more! Outside of school he loves spending time with friends.

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