Santa Clara County History

History of Santa Clara County


The Story of Alum Rock, San Jose's Beautiful Reservation of One Thousand Acres--Judge Richards' Description of Its Beauties and Attractions--The Claim of J. O. Stratton.

The following beautiful description of one of San Jose's greatest assets is from the pen of that artist in words, Judge John E. Richards. It was written several years ago for the board of park commissioners, a civic body that went out of existence when the new charter of 1916 went into effect.

The major portion of what is now Alum Rock Park was originally a part of the public lands to which San Jose became entitled by virtue of its pueblo origin under the old Spanish regime. By an ordinance of King Philip II of Spain, each pueblo, upon its establishment, was entitled to four leagues of land. This law was in effect when the pueblo of San Jose de Guadalupe was founded in 1777. Its terms were not, however, taken advantage of until the pueblo had passed from the old dominion into American control. It then laid claim to its pueblo rights and these were accorded to it under an Act of Congress providing for the settlement of land claims in California, passed in 1851. The allotment and survey of these pueblo lands under the act extended the eastern line thereof to the summit of the first range of mountains which form the eastern boundary of the Santa Clara Valley, and thus included the tract of land which now comprises Alum Rock Park.

"That the canyon which embraces the Park contained valuable mineral and medicinal springs and that nature had there been lavish in her display of picturesque landscapes, in enchanting vistas of a mountain landscape and in the variety, beauty and luxuriance of tree and plant life, was early known to pioneer settlers in the Santa Clara Valley. The desire and attempt of private persons to acquire this favored spot awakened a determined effort in the direction of its appropriation for public uses, which led to its official surrey in 1866, and to the definite reservation of about 400 acres therein as a public park, by an Act of the California Legislature passed in 1872. By another Legislative act of the same year a board of commissioners was created for the control of the park, and for the construction of a highway into it from the City of San Jose. The beautiful highway which now bears the name of Alum Rock Avenue was laid out and constructed by this first board of park commissioners, which was composed of Gen. Henry M. Naglee, Edward McLaughlin and Dr. A. J. Spencer; and to these and other of our public-spirited citizens who thus early persisted in making the park available for the use and enjoyment of the people, a lasting debt of public gratitude is due.

"The original survey of the park gives its area as about 400 acres. To this was added in 1872 a donation of several acres. including 'Buena Vista,' a point of grand outlook, lying just south of the park proper, by Gen. Giles A. Smith, Cyrus Jones and Lewis A. Hicks, three liberal-minded citizens, who then owned a large tract of adjoining lands. About fifty-five acres more have been added by subsequent purchases in order to control the streams and springs which constitute its water supply. The present area of the park is about 460 acres and the distance from San Jose to its center is seven miles. Two excellent highways and also an electric railway, with cars leaving the park and San Jose every half hour, connect the city with the park. The rails are now on the ground for the construction of a thoroughly up-to-date broad gauge, rapid service railroad into the park by way of Berryessa.

"Alum Rock Park derives its name from the striking monolith which stands about the center of the park at a point where Alum Rock Avenue reaches the creek in its descent into the canyon. Rugged and scarred by its volcanic origin and chemical constituents, it rises a sheer 200 feet above the stream. Double sulphates of aluminum and sodium enter largely into its composition and furnish the residuum of alum dust found along its sides and in its crevices and from the presence of which it derives its name. Around the base and sides of the rock issue several mineral springs strongly impregnated with salt and other chemical properties. One of these pours its clear, cold waters into a stone basin just east of the rock. It is labeled 'Salt Condiment' and is said by physicians to possess excellent tonic and curative properties for those dyspeptically inclined. The original Indian name of the creek and canon was 'Shestuc.' Later the Spanish settlers named the stream 'Aguaje,' which means a 'watering place for cattle.' A portion of the creek, out in the valley and between San Jose and Milpitas became known in Mission days as 'Penetencia Creek' from the fact that the pious padres of Santa Clara Mission and the Mission of San Jose were wont to make penitential pilgrimages at stated seasons, to a grove of oaks which bordered the stream at that point and the name 'Penetencia' came thus to be erroneously applied by the early American occupants to the entire stream. The lands occupied by the park were also formerly known as 'The City Reservation,' but the appellation, 'Alum Rock,' has supplanted these early names and become the fixed and official designation of the park, creek and canon.

"Nature has arranged the topography of the park in three divisions, each possessing its own scenic attractions and each adapted to a particular use. The first of these embraces that portion of its area lying below Alum Rock and extending to the mouth of the canyon. This, by virtue of its level spaces and the picturesque meandering of its rivulet forms the ample and natural camping grounds of the park. Here gather annually an increasing number of lovers of outdoor life to pitch their tents beneath the shady oaks and sycamores along the winding stream; to enjoy the perfect climate of the park and to drink and bathe in its healthful and refreshing waters. The three chief natural features of this portion of the park are Eagle Rock, the Meteor and Inspiration Point. Eagle Rock is that bold and lofty escarpment which rises abruptly many hundred feet above the level floor of the park and forms a portion of its northern boundary. For many years successive families of eagles made their home among its crags and could be seen daily sweeping their majestic circles above Eagle Rock. From this lofty outlook thirty cities, towns and villages encircling the Bay of San Francisco and dotting the Santa Clara Valley may, upon any clear day, be discerned. Another natural curiosity of this park is the meteor. This immense black boulder of manganese stands half buried in the hillside a short way above the entrance to the park. Tradition will have it that this is a real aerolite which fell to earth within remembered time, but science insists that tradition is wrong in this regard and the oldest inhabitant declares that the meteor has been there from his earliest recollection. Which ever is right there can be no doubt that the meteor is a most interesting natural curiosity, which every visitor to the park should see.

"Overlooking this portion of the park also rises the wooded height which aptly bears the name of 'Inspiration Point.' From the kiosk upon its summit the whole central portion of the park is visible and the view of its varied beauty and of the bay and the valley beyond, is indeed grand and inspiring. A byway which winds in and out among the oaks of the southern hillside leads to this elevation and the lover of nature who follows it to the summit will be fully repaid.

"The next and most important section of the park is that lying above Alum Rock and up to and including the baths and developed springs. The chief improvements of the park in the way of buildings, lawns, lake, driveways, deer paddocks, restaurant, gardens, bath houses and other facilities for the conservation and use of the mineral waters, are within this area, the cultivated portion of which contains about twenty-five acres. Here are the aviaries, where all sorts of birds, from the stately peacock to the pretty California canary, furnish endless enjoyment to children. Here also are the deer paddocks, where several species of these shy and graceful creatures may be seen. Across the way a big, ample and comfortable den in the mountain side is the home of a great, good-natured brown bear, while from the nooks of an enclosed sycamore some large gray squirrels and a family of chipmunks peer and chatter at whoever will offer them nuts to crack or hide for their winter store. A vine-embowered restaurant, with its wide and shaded porches invites to refreshment; and yonder the children's playground with all its accessories, and the dancing pavilion, resound through all the summer, with merry laughter and the rhythm of dancing feet.

There are no 'keep off the grass' signs upon the lawns of Alum Rock Park and the one request which the commissioners make of the public is that they will pluck no flowers.

"The baths and offices are grouped near the mineral springs; and while not yet as elaborate in architectural or permanent in form as might be desired, the tub and plunge baths are capable of ministering to the comfort of a considerable number of visitors daily. The time will come, and that probably soon, when the people of San Jose will awaken to the real value of the park and especially of its mineral springs as features of public attraction worthy of world-wide fame, and will expend sufficient money in their improvement and development to put them on a par with other resorts of far less varied excellence to which many thousands of the world's seekers after health, rest and pleasure annually find their way.

"While the scenic attractions of Alum Rock Park are surpassing, its chief element of use and value consists in its mineral springs. No other place in California, or hardly elsewhere, possesses within a like area, such a variety of pleasing and healthful chemical waters. In the immediate vicinity of the park center and within a few hundred feet of the depot there are eighteen developed mineral springs besides a large number of other springs not yet developed and analyzed. An analysis of  several springs, made some years ago by William Ireland, state mineralogist, shows the prevailing presence of soda, white sulphur, black sulphur and iron in the composition of their waters. He says: 'Sulphates are practically absent from these springs, which are highly charged with sulphuretted hydrogen. The absence of any notable quantities of carbonate of lime and comparative abundance of sulphuretted hydrogen give more than ordinary value to these waters from a medical standpoint.' Both hot and cold springs are to be found issuing in close proximity to each other. The soda springs are especially agreeable to the palate, while the sulphur springs are capable of furnishing an abundance of water for the tub and plunge baths. The park commission is proceeding as rapidly as possible with the development of these springs and their inclosure in artistic and substantial drinking founts composed of native sandstone, of which the park has an inexhaustible supply.

"Travelers from all parts of the world, who have visited the park, agree in the statement that the most famous and popular resorts of Europe have not the equal of these mineral springs in number and in variety and pleasing and health-giving properties of their waters; all that is needed is their development to give them and the beautiful park, which contains them, world-wide fame and patronage.

"Just above the springs the visitor enters the picnickers' paradise. A Japanese tea garden stands invitingly at its entrance, and beyond the canyon widens sufficiently to provide a secluded little vale covered with spreading oaks, alders, maples and sycamores through which the creek makes its rippling way, and among which may be seen on every pleasant day, parties of picnickers enjoying their luncheon or reclining in shady nooks along the whispering stream. Beyond the picnic grounds a winding path follows the creek to its forks, about a quarter of a mile above the springs; and thence up either branch of the divided rivulet one may wander along shady and romantic trails to 'The Falls'.

"These beautiful cascades may be found a little way up either fork of the creek and will amply repay the effort to reach them. Tumbling down over moss-covered rocks into deep, fern-embowered pools, they present artistic visions of nature, in her most entrancing moods. The park extends some distance beyond The Falls, but only the persistent climber or the occasional disciple of Walton will venture to follow the stream beyond The Falls and up into the wilder fastnesses of the canyon to their source.

"Aside from the aviaries and animal enclosures and from the area of cultivated gardens and grounds, Alum Rock Park is the abiding place of a considerable variety of wild birds and animals and displays a great luxuriance of native trees, plants and flowers. The dainty California canary, the cheery linnet, the shy wood-thrush and the bustling little wren inhabit every bower, while the quail's piping note or rapid whirr, and the yellowhammer's loud, clear call, are frequently heard among the wooded hills. The loiterer along quiet by-paths often hears the scramble of a startled coon or sees the graceful form of a silver fox outlined against the green hillsides, or even catches a glimpse of a wild deer gliding through the undergrowth; while the camper or picnicker can strike up friendship any hour with whole families of brown squirrels with which the canyon abounds and which through long immunity have lost their fear of man and will come and frisk around the feet of children or even eat from out their hands.

"The flora of the park is also of great and, fact, of almost infinite variety. Practically all of the trees, shrubbery and flowers, which are distinctively Californian, flourish here. During spring and summer, the California poppy, the golden rod, the yellow buttercup and the mariposa lily glorify its banks and brown uplands, while within the canyon's shaded dells bright Indian pinks, fragrant Solomon's seal, dainty bluebells, tall, wild tulips, lusty lupins, the blue and scarlet olumbine, the delicate and aromatic shooting star and a hundred other varieties of wild flowers, abound. All winter the toyon bushes and the madrone trees fling the glory of their red clusters of berries along the hills and stream where the abundant brown bulbs of the buckeye tell of a springtime of fragrant blooming. Thus at every season of the year the park is beautiful.

"The foregoing sketch gives but glimpses of the attractions of Alum Rock Park. It must be seen to be appreciated and those who once visit it for even a hasty hour, carry away impressions of its variety and beauty which remain with them a pleasing memory forever.

" 'The quaint madrone, the laurel trees
And countless shrubs that cover
The mountain sides; the soft, warm air
The blue sky bending over;

"Make it a spot, when weary-worn,
You seek with loved companion,
And find the gods of rest and peace
Dwell in this matchless canyon.' " (1)

Since the above sketch by Judge Richards was written the park has undergone many artistic changes and improvements strictly up-to-date. More land was acquired until now the park comprises about 1000 acres. The broad gauge railroad over a newly constructed road now enters the canyon, while automobiles, provided with proper parking grounds, come by the thousands every week. Eleven years ago the park commission began to carry out a system of permanent improvements. The tea garden was removed and a first-class cafe has taken its place. Instead of two roads to the park in the old days there are now three, the third leaving the main road at the summit and half-circling the park along a beautiful winding way high up in the hills to the heart of the park. A new bath house has been constructed at a cost of $78,000. The cafe cost $4500. The springs have been encased with cement walls and the creek has been walled up to protect the park from the occasional winter floods. More improvements are contemplated. Since the adoption of San Jose's new charter in 1916, the park has been under the control of the city engineer, C. B. Goodwin.

An interesting story concerning the park was furnished in the experiences of J. O. Stratton. For many years he was the proprietor and manager of a hotel in the park. This hotel had been built by Woolsey Shaw, who in the late fifties had acquired by preemption and purchase over 700 acres of what was then called the Alum Rock ranch. This tract extended some distance beyond the tract afterwards claimed by the city of San Jose. While Shaw was in possession of large portions of the park (then called the City Reservation) suit against him was brought by the city under the claim that about 450 acres held by Shaw was part of the pueblo lands belonging to the city. Before the suit ended Stratton had bought from Shaw that section of the Alum Rock ranch that took in the hotel, bath houses and several outbuildings. All three improvements had been made by Shaw shortly after he had entered into possession of the land. The suit was decided in favor of the city and immediately thereafter Shaw and Stratton were dispossessed. This was in the 70s. While the suit was pending Stratton offered to give up the land he had bought from Shaw if the city would pay him $3000 for the improvements. The petition was referred to the Alum Rock Commissioners, and after the court decision they presented a report awarding Stratton $1000, the actual value of the lumber purchased for the erection of the buildings. Stratton accepted the award, but when he asked the council to confirm the commissioners' report, he met with a refusal. The council claimed that it had no jurisdiction. In other words it could not deal with matters of equity. Stratton admitted that he had no legal claim for reimbursement but thought it no more than just that the city should pay him for his improvements, first because the city was then using them and secondly because he had bought from Shaw in good faith, believing that Shaw had lawful title to the lands. Year after year Stratton presented his claim for reimbursement and year after year the council refused to grant it. At last Stratton gave up in despair. He died many years ago and his heirs have never made any attempt to have the decision of the council reversed.

Source: Sawyers, Eugene T. History of Santa Clara County, Los Angeles, Calif; Historic Record Company, 1922.

(1) These two verses are from Carrie Stevens Walter's Rose-ashes and Other Poems (San Jose: A.C. Eaton & Co. 1907, page 104):

Alum Rock Canyon

Once, long ago, when Nature's hand
Was busy at formation,
She found a box of chaos scraps,
The loveliest of creation.

And so, in sweet caprice—who knows?—
To please some dear companion,
She took the store of beauty-scraps
And made this matchless canyon.

The wildest, sweetest, fairest things
Are here in glen and torrent,
You'll vow there never was a place
Like Alum Rock, I warrant.

The quaint madrone, the laurel trees,
And countless shrubs that cover
The mountain sides; the soft, warm air,
The blue sky bending over,

Make it a spot—when weary worn—
You seek with loved companion,
And find the gods of rest and peace
Dwell in this matchless canyon.


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