San Mateo County History

Tales of the San Francisco Peninsula
Theron G. Cady
A series of articles first published in 'Peninsula Life Magazine'
Published by C-T Publishers, San Carlos, California, 1948

The Legend of Frenchmen's Tower

        Standing stark and alone on the banks of Matadero Creek in the picturesque hills back of Stanford University is one of the Peninsula's most famous landmarks, Frenchman's Tower.
        There are many tales surrounding the Tower and Peter Coutts, the man who built it.  Some are weird and fantastic and some rival the thrilling tales of pirates and their vast stores of treasure-trove.
        Our story dates back to a spring day in 1874 when a mysterious French gentleman, giving the name of Monsieur Peter Coutts, arrived in the small town of Mayfield (Palo Alto) with an invalid wife, young son and daughter, and their governess, Mlle. Eugene Clogensen.
        Monsieur Coutts was an unusual mannered man of about sixty years.  His youthful elastic step and straight ramrod posture indicated long years of military life.  Although friendly to all his newly acquired neighbors he maintained a strict air of aloofness and effectively evaded all inquisitive questions put to him by curious townspeople.
        They mysterious Mr. Coutts gave every indication of possessing great wealth and after many visits to the hills west of El Camino Real he let it be known that he would soon construct a country home equal to the crested estates of far-away Europe.
        Soon the small village of Mayfield was buzzing with excitement.  The noise of hammers and the whine of saws could be heard coming from the vast acreage purchased by Peter Coutts from Delavan Hoag and William Paul.  On this land, bounded by El Camino Real and the street now known as Stanford Avenue, the mysterious Frenchman established his home and a huge stock farm.  The family dwelling, which is well preserved, is still standing on Escondite Road.  It is an L-shaped structure of one-story and is now known as Escondite Cottage (Hiding Place).  It was named by Dr. David Starr Jordan who lived there for a few months in 1891 as the young president of Stanford University.  The living room or parlor ran the full width of one ell with the kitchen and dining room in the shorter part of the ell.  Inside walls were constructed of native redwood and covered with a French chintz which bore designs in pastel shades on a soft grey background.  All the rooms opened onto a narrow hall which extended the full length of the wing.
        Soon after Peter Coutts and his family settled down to peaceful living at Escondite Cottage a mysterious story of sinister meaning spread rapidly through Mayfield giving the residents something fresh to gossip about.  All of Peter Coutts' land purchases and business transactions were made in the name of the governess, Mlle. Clogensen.  Regardless of the rumors being circulated, the mysterious foreigner kept himself and hundreds of men busy improving his vast estate of some 1,200 acres.  Buildings were constructed, trees planted, and a site between two lovely hills was chosen as the place for a beautiful artificial lake.  A broad driveway, lined with poplar trees ran past the lake up to the crest of the sloping hills.  Here in this exquisite setting Monsieur Coutts planned to erect a twin chateaux similar to those of his native France.
        Today, all of this has changed.  Where once stood all the man-made beauty and splendor of the vast estate, nothing remains but broken stones, tangled weeds and crooked oaks twisted by westerly winds.  Should a person with an inquisitive nature venture up the hills west of Mayfield, he would find the crumbling foundations of the twin chateux, which for some strange reason Peter Coutts never finished.  He would also find the remains of time-stained sandstone walls which once enclosed the artificial lake and all its beauty.  In a field covered with wild oats just east of Coronado Street between Mayfield Road and Gerona Street at the edge of the college campus stands an arched bridge of stone and brick which was once a part of the lake's elaborate beauty.  Here and there, poking jagged fingers through the soil are the decaying remains of the once great wall.
        To supply water in sufficient quantities for the lake and farm Monsieur Coutts penetrated the hill on his property with six long tunnels bringing them together at one common center.  Sweating men dug hundreds of feet into the hills and removed tons of dirt before they finally succeeded in finding a subterranean stream with sufficient flow for his purposes.  Then on Page Mill Road, west of Mayfield, he erected a red brick tower some fifty feet high and fifty feet or more in circumference.  The tower, with narrow arched windows and parapeted top, and known as "Frenchman's Tower," was built to serve as a distributing reservoir.  Although weather beaten and scarred with hundreds of visitors' names scratched in the brick, it is as well preserved as the giant oaks that keep it company on the lonely hillside.  Looking down into the tower is like looking into a deep well.  There is nothing at the bottom but rubbish thrown there through the arched windows by visitors.  About five feet from the top is a floor or platform, its purpose is not quite clear.  There is no apparent entrance from the outside and the only means of egress is through the slender windows or over the parapeted top.
        When news of this structure reached town the curious townspeople refused to accept the true purpose of the huge castle-like tower and the tunnels.  They maintained that the tower, which strongly resembled a fortress, was constructed for an entirely different reason than that of supplying water.
        For six long years the people living about the countryside regarded Peter Coutts, his tower, and his tunnels in a mysterious light.  Then one day Peter Coutts vanished.  His disappearance was as sudden as his arrival and the townspeople, although surprised, were positive now that all of the rumors of the past and all the sinister meanings cast at Peter Coutts, his tower and tunnels were well founded.
        One rumor which seemed to be more persistent than the others had Peter Coutts fleeing the country for his very life.  Agents of the French government, together with secret police, had searchecd him out and were about to descend upon him for a forced journey under irons to his native France.  For, as the story goes, Monsieur Coutts had been in the paymaster department of the French Army at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War.  He suddenly disappeared from France and soon afterward French Army authorities announced a shortage of some $5,000,000 in their funds.
        This, according to his neighbors, explained many of the mysteries associated with Monsieur Coutts.  They now felt they knew why the brick tower was built at Escondite Cottage.  It was a "watch-tower" from which he could scan the coutntryside for possible French pursuers.  The tunnels were not designed to carry water but were built to serve as secret "escape-passages" as underground vaults to conceal his ill-gotten wealth.  The massive brick tower on Matadero Creek with its high windows was constructed as a fortress where food and ammunition could be stored for a siege, if necessary.
        Nearly a year after Peter Coutts vanished and the townspeople had partly forgotten him, he suddenly reappeared and the old story of hidden wealth and mystery flamed anew.  He had returned, they said, to recover the vast stores of gold secreted in the hills.  His visit to the farm was brief, however, for he soon departed for France accompanied by his wife and family never to return.  Then in 1882 it was learned that he had sold Matadero Ranch and the stock, through the Anglo-California Bank, to Senator Leland Stanford.
        Years after the mysterious Frenchman had returned to his native country the old legend of hidden gold, secret passages, and escape towers still remained.  Townspeople were firm in their belief that vast sums of money were still hidden in on or more of the six tunnels.  So cinvincing were these tales that nearly every year Stanford students would form exploration parties and search the tunnels and hills for hidden treasure.  None of these parties ever turned up any wealth;  however, in 1916, a student, Raymond Bevier, unearthed an ancient musket in one of the tunnels.
        The true story of Peter Coutts, his towers and tunnels, will probably never be known.  The old legend, now steeped in mystery and fantasy, will ever remain but, in 1925, Dr. Edward Pallett of Los Angeles, gave his version of what he considered the true story surrounding the strange Frenchman.  According to Dr. Pallette [sic.], Peter Coutts was really Paulin Caperon, a director of the Bank of Bordeaux during the Franco-Prussian War.  In 1870, shortly after the French Army was beaten by the Prussians, a financial panic occured which closed the doors of the bank permanently.  Bank officials, under French law at the time, were responsible to the depositors for all bank indebtedness.  Paulin Caperon, being a man of great wealth, chose to leave the country and live under a fictitious name rather than remain and assume the bank debts which would have ruined him.
        Dr. Pallette's story was substantiated by the late Charles Koenig of San Francisco, and his son, Charles, both of whom sailed to France with Paulin Caperon in 1880.  The Koenigs reported that Mr. Caperon, through the influence of his brother and cousin, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, was able to adjust his differences with the French government and was permitted to return to his native land where he invested the balance of his wealth in a business venture in Paris.  Paulin Caperon died in 1894 at Marseilles.
        During the eight years Paulin Caperon resided on Matadero Farm he spent more than $40,000 annually for improvements.  He erected great brick barns for his blooded stock and had a force of 100 men to care for his herd of 200 milch cows, one man for every two cows.  His racing stables built on the site of the old Stanford Airport, equaled the stables of Senator Stanford.  On the present site of Stanford's inner quadrangle and Memorial Church he maintained dog kennels, poultry yards and pigeon lofts.
        "The Frenchman" was a most peculiar man, and while he was feared by many he was respected and esteemed on account of his many kind acts.  Early every morning it was his custom to tour the estate, walking rapidly and talking to himself and striking the ground vigorously with his walking stick.  He was usually in a bad humor until after he had eaten dinner, when he relaxed and became a charming companion, talking fluently and brilliantly upon any subject.
        Upon Paulin Caperon's return to France he built the castle, Chateu du Martelet, at Evian les Bains, for his family.  It was here that his daughter Marguerite died at age fourteen.  His son, Albert, married the niece of the governess, Mlle. Clogensen.  Two daughters were born to them, one, Marguerite, married a French army officer who was killed in the early action of World War I.
        Marguerite then became interested in nursing and joined the French Army Corps.  During one of her many visits to the hospitals she met Lieutenant Peter Berlin, a wounded American officer.  After a "whirlwind" courtship she married the young lieutenant and returned with him to his home in Los Angeles.
        And it was Marguerite, granddaughter of the mysterious Frenchman, who explained some of the mysteries surrounding Peter Coutts, his towers and tunnels.  According to her story her grandfather established the French newspaper, "La Liberte."  In the columns of this publication he took issue with Napoleon III and as a result he and two of his associates had to flee to Switzerland before coming to Matadero Ranch.
        And here closes the legend of "Frenchman's Tower."  Although records have been diligently searched, nothing was ever found to prove conclusively which of the many stories was the true one.  The tales of Peter Cloutts [sic.] or Paulin Caperon, his mysterious manners, tunnels and towers will always remain, and as time goes on they will become more elaborate and more fantastic.

© 1948 Theron G. Cady. All rights reserved.
Posted here with permission of his granddaughter, Andrea Van Norman.
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