A century after California service groups dotted the original El Camino Real trail with mission bells, the California Department of Transportation is reviving the tradition with a restored bell installed in San Francisco today.

The centennial bell, erected on the southwest corner of Third and Market streets, is a rare and restored original, according to Caltrans spokesman Steven Williams.

In the early years of the 20th century, several California service clubs spearheaded a movement to mark the famed El Camino Real, a historic route now largely the domain of U.S. Highway 101, with mission bells, one to two miles apart.

The original bell at Third and Market streets was dedicated in November 1909, according to Caltrans. By 1913, more than 450 bells dotted the route from San Diego to San Francisco.

However, years of damage, vandalism and theft reduced California’s mission bells to fewer than 100 by 1996. Caltrans has since received a $1.4 million federal grant and have produced 555 replacement bells from the original mold.

The San Francisco bell, dedicated in a ceremony at about 10:30 a.m., is a rare original, Williams said. The bell was originally the 13th erected in Northern California.

Caltrans recently received a second grant to add bells to the final portion of the system, from San Francisco to Sonoma. That restoration will be completed by 2010, according to Caltrans.

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