Alum Rock Park already had a history before it was designated as a public park by the California State Legislature in 1872. It had been home to native American people who called it “Aguague” or watering place. It was part of the Spanish pueblo system beginning in 1777 when Spain’s King Philip II established the pueblos to provision the San Francisco presidio. The City Reservation, as the park was also known, had a rocky beginning (no pun intended) growing in fits and starts over its first twenty years or so.
The park was quite a rugged place when its first hotel was built in the early 70’s. It burned down under suspicious circumstances which just might have had something to do with some squabbles concerning its lease. Two righteous, upstanding citizens, T.C. Smith and E. B. Goodrich came to the rescue with plans in hand for a park which would be “in every particular such a place as any lady in San Jose may visit with her children.”
And that’s the sort of place Alum Rock Park became. T.C. and E.B. developed the mineral springs, had picnic tables built and destroyed the poison oak (at least for the moment). Ever more ambitious, they built a stylish hotel, a swimming bath and a pavilion. A fine place indeed for an outing for those San Jose ladies in their bustle skirts and parasols.
By 1894, livery stables, a restaurant, a superintendent’s cottage, two bath houses and an engine house had been installed. The open-air “plunge,” a large concrete swimming pool, joined an aviary and the mineral water pagoda to draw outsiders and local folks to this spa and resort. One of the springs was naturally ninety-eight degrees and the health-giving properties of the sulfurous waters brought “world-wide fame and patronage” - or so went the PR of the period. Some began calling the park “Little Yosemite.”
Just before the turn of the century, a railroad was constructed from downtown San Jose into the park. It went out Alum Rock Avenue to Fleming Avenue where it took a dog-leg left and diagonaled over to Toyon Avenue and into what is now the Penitencia Creek Road entrance. The fare to ride from downtown out to the park was 25 cents. Flooding, bridge washouts, tunnel cave-ins and a serious accident with fatalities were a few of the challenges the railroad suffered, but it was the proliferation of the automobile which caused its ultimate demise in 1932.
The park grew enormously popular, drawing as many as 10,000 visitors on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Band concerts were a great attraction. A natatorium (indoor swimming pool), penny arcade and merry-go-round were added. A zoo which housed 77 animals including a lion family (which were fed dog food), monkeys, bears and deer was created, but the haphazard care of the animals caused it to be closed down. The surviving animals became the nucleus of the zoo at Kelley Park.
The park’s popularity almost did it in. So many people and so many cars nearly crushed the life out of the once lush canyon; the native wildlife and vegetation were near extinction. The attractions seemed shabby and old-fashioned in the new era of television. The park wound down, giving up its ragged treasures one by one until it reached a better equilibrium with nature. Today’s park focuses on the natural beauty of the terrain and its unique geological formations. Walkers, joggers, bicyclists and picnickers commune with the creek, the trails and the comforting calm of the Youth Science Institute’s nature center. The only physical reminders of the park’s rapturous youth are in the white-columned pagoda near YSI, the train trestles and the old log cabin. Still, it’s not hard to picture those bustled ladies promenading and their children marching to the Sousa tunes from the bandstand, is it?
Note: This is the first in a series of articles tracing the history of Alum Rock Park from prehistory to
The very earliest history of the area we know as Alum Rock Park must be pieced together from bits of historical writings, which dance all around the
area without referring specifically to the long, narrow canyon which defines the park. However, enough has been written in a generic sense that
we may make some assumptions about the early parklands.
Several thousand years ago, before the Ohlone Indian people arrived in the area bounded by what are now the cities of Monterey and San Francisco,
there was only the abundant animal population. Great herds of elk, antelope and deer inhabited the region and may very well have grazed the
grassy slopes of the canyon’s north rim and the meadows above. Packs of wolves probably made their home on the forested south rim competing
with mountain lions, coyotes and bobcats to prey on the bountiful herds. Grizzly bears were common everywhere in the area, but not in competition
for the herd animals because they thrived on berries and fishes.
Bald eagles and giant condors ruled the air above the canyon in the way that turkey vultures and redtail hawks do today.
Enormous flocks of geese, ducks and seabirds nested in the area. There was a marvelous richness of animal and plant life which drew the
native people, the stewards of the region until the European people came.
The Ohlones were a loose-knit group of people who lived in about twenty-five “triblets” throughout the area.
They were hunter-gatherers which meant they lived off the bounties of nature without ever establishing farmed crops. The Ohlones’ diet
was based on ground acorns which, of course, did not necessitate cultivation. The Alum Rock canyon was home to many oak trees and especially valley oaks, which produced the Ohlones’
favorite large, sweet acorns. Those and buckeye trees provided a wealth of food. All the gatherer
had to do was kneel down and pick up Mother Nature’s bounty. Acorns were much preferred to buckeyes because the latter were bitter, and even poisonous, without a tremendous amount of
A triblet called the Taunens seems to have inhabited the region where the canyon is. They, like each of
the other triblets, had their own language and could only communicate with people of the other Ohlone triblets in a most general way. The Taunen
dialect probably produced the name “Shistuk,” the earliest name known for the canyon. Life was so good and sustenance so easy that, like all California Indians, the Taunens were
stone-age people who never needed to progress past stone, shell, wood or bone as materials for tools. The Ohlones developed the weaving of tule
reeds into exquisite baskets, clothing, boats and houses. They used no metal and did not create pottery or weave cloth.
The canyon may have seen Taunen village life with round tule reed houses or it may have been just a shady resting spot for footsore travelers
migrating between summer meadowland life and winter bayshore life. Historically, the canyon floor was subject to extensive flooding in the winters and the creek dried up in the summer so it
probably wasn’t prime real estate for these nomadic people. Even so, it’s easy to believe that the Taunens appreciated the beauty and abundance of the canyon and respected its animal
denizens. They lived in an elegant harmony with nature - until the first Europeans barged into their paradise about 250 years ago.
To read more: “The Ohlone Way” by Malcolm Margolin
The native American people of the Ohlone tribelet, the Taunens,
had lived in the area of the Alum Rock Canyon for as long as several thousand years before the arrival of the first white explorers. Early in the
seventeenth century those explorers found a lush - almost swampy - landscape teeming with enormous numbers of animals which had yet to become afraid of human beings.
The Ohlones lived in such harmony with their numerous animal cousins, taking just those which were needed for food and skins, and hunting them only with the simple bow-and-arrow, that
the European visitors found they could walk among the herds of deer and elk. Quail fearlessly scampered around their ankles. Foxes, coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats, not yet wary, made little attempt to hide.
Although they were in awe of the white men who came clad in
woven cloth and bearing firearms, the Indians, too, had little fear of the occasional foreign visitor. The explorers were content to make their
explorations and to map the new territories while making no demands on the native people. Their discoveries, however, eventually led to the
Spanish expeditions which brought an end to the Eden which the Alum Rock Canyon had been.
In 1770 an expedition to Monterey Bay was accompanied by
Franciscan missionaries. By 1797 there were six missions in Ohlone territory including Mission Santa Clara. The Franciscan monks saw an
opportunity to create a Christian Utopia where the native “beasts” would become “people of reason” who could be baptized and shorn of all the debased attributes of human nature.
Like the other Ohlone tribelets, the Taunens were lured from their canyon land to the nearby mission where they received gifts and were given Spanish names.
For their own “good,” the new recruits to Christianity were held captive, segregated by gender to quell promiscuity, and taught European methods of farming and cloth weaving. Only when the ineffectual farming techniques resulted in crop failure and famine, were the native people released to gather food for the missions in their old traditional
The back of the Indian culture was broken; the people were demoralized and couldn’t fend off the white man’s diseases. The Alum Rock canyon was no longer walked by its Taunen triblet; only occasionally did small bands of disenfranchised Indians find their way there. The Taunens might not have recognized the rich canyon they had left behind. In 1804, Upper California was designated a province of Spain. In 1824 it became a province of the newly established Mexican Republic. In 1826 the first American immigrant wagon train entered the area. The new arrivals were amazed at the huge numbers of animals in the canyons and they reveled in the sport of shooting game. Hundreds of animals were shot at a time and the once fearless, bountiful, animal population became small and timid. Entire species were hunted to the point of extinction or driven from the area. The canyon became quiet and was given over to the remaining animals until 1851 when it became part of the City of San Jose.
The area that would become Alum Rock Park was part of the outermost holdings of the Spanish Pueblo of San Jose de Guadalupe as designated in 1777. During the years when the pueblos provisioned the San Francisco Presidio, the rights to the land were not exercised because such outlying lands were not considered top priority. It was not until California joined the Union in 1850 that the City of San Jose was incorporated and its rights to the pueblo territory were formalized. A provision in the original grant said that if a square tract of land were not possible, then the tract would extend to the summit of the first range of hills. Thus, the City of San Jose’s eastern edge included “The Reservation” as the canyon was called.
The canyon was also referred to as “The City Reservation” and “Penitencia Reservation” before the Alum Rock name was minted by a local farmer. He chose the name because of the white powdery coating on the rocks near the mineral springs. His assumption that the powder was alum was wrong, unfortunately, and the alum rock designation is particularly incongruous because there isn’t even a speck of alum in the park. The true name of the white coating is thenardite so perhaps that farmer did San Jose a great favor by not burdening the area with the tongue-twister “Thenardite Rock Park”!
Though there is no “alum rock” in Alum Rock, there is a richness of rocks and minerals in its dramatic formations. Sea-shell bearing sandstone and limestone are plentiful giving evidence that Alum Rock Park was a beach environment 15,000,000 years ago. Much later the sea receded and the hills were thrust up; volcanic action produced igneous rock such as the rhyolite which makes up the Eagle Rock formation. Beautiful green serpentine rock, the official state rock of California, is abundant. Minerals are numerous and common, but gold and silver mining explorations in the 1860’s and again in 1913 found none of those hot commodities.
The presence of precious ores was not necessary to convince the San Jose Common Council to recognize the park as a geological treasure. In 1866 it resolved to order a survey and to “set apart, for all time to come, as a public park” the lands in the vicinity of Penitencia Creek. The resulting survey cites a deceased live-oak tree on the Guadalupe River (a tree which had already been gone for thirty years at that point), a redwood post marked “P.S.J.1” and a live-oak “about twenty inches in diameter.....on the west side of the summit of the ridge” as survey references. The survey showed the park to measure 400.55 acres.
It was 400.55 acres of public park with a few strings attached!
Alum Rock Park already boasted a rustic hotel and the health benefits of the mineral springs were well-known when the California Legislature cleared the title to the land and deeded it to the City of San Jose in 1872. San Jose's mayor at the time, Adolph Pfister, received this "gift" with scant enthusiasm. Obviously a practical man, Mayor Pfister could see that adding the responsibility and expense of an outlying park to the City's obligations would be a challenge the City could do without. His resigned, but good-natured, acceptance of the Legislature's legacy speaks volumes:
"…It appears that the Legislature, in its wisdom, have not only determined that we shall have a reservation upon the Penitencia Creek of 400 acres, for a public park, but that we shall have a shady avenue, leading from our city to the park. While many of our citizens-including myself-were not anxious to have so much greatness thrust upon us, it becomes our duty to avail ourselves of all the advantages which may accrue to our city by the investment of the money which we will be compelled to expend in the carrying out of the project…" He was not without compassion toward the afflicted, however, as he ended his message with assurance of the "right…of the sick and needy (to) the privileges of enjoying the benefits arising from a free use of the sulfur springs."
To have to build a seven-mile-long "shady avenue" from downtown to the east foothills was truly burdensome for a young city which had few paved streets itself. Street-building in the 1870's cost on average $1.50 per lineal foot which would bring the expense of creating seven miles of road to a figure in the realm of $55,000. San Joseans had to bear a special tax for four years to pay for the road.
The City did well by the "Alum Rock Road," however. While most streets in San Jose were constructed of "asphaltum" at the time, the road to the park was surfaced with brick to give horses good footing going up the inclines. Great lines of trees were planted on each side of the road with eucalyptus from what today would be King Road to Jackson Avenue, elms from Jackson to White Road, and pines the rest of the way to the park entrance. Some historians claim that the original road was 100 feet wide, but this figure was probably exaggerated. A photo from the period shows a horse and carriage on a rather narrow brick Alum Rock Avenue with fences and eucalyptus on either side. Tourist "literature" never was known for its strict adherence to veracity, was it? Very little of Alum Rock Avenue is 100 feet wide even today!
As if Alum Rock Park’s physical beauty weren’t enough, Mother Nature provided an extra special lure - twenty-one natural mineral springs. The medicinal qualities of mineral water were much valued around the turn of the century and a large group of San Jose physicians vouched for the healing properties of these natural elixirs. It was trendy and fashionable to “take the waters,” as foul smelling as they were. The springs pick up their warmth, odors, flavors and mineral characteristics from the rocks through which they percolate. One of the springs is a constant 98 degrees. Another, which was capped off early on, bore traces of arsenic. Some of the springs are salty, some carbonated and most are sulfurous. The sulfur in the water is the source of the rotten-egg odor which permeates the air, and the water in the creek, in the area of the springs. A Midwesterner visiting the springs in the 1890’s sent a post card home with the message that he was sure he’d experienced a taste of purgatory!
The Alum Rock mineral springs were said to have “world-wide fame and patronage,” but perhaps this was a wee bit of Chamber of Commerce hype. Of course, water which could cure “kidney and stomach troubles, rheumatism and malarial affections” would draw a great following during an era when the art of medicine was rudimentary at best and often was outright hokum. One forward-thinking fellow suggested that if a fine hotel were built in the park and the springs’ reputation properly developed, the park could be promoted along with the new Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton Road, and San Jose would be the only place anyone would ever wish to visit. The man who held that opinion might also have been the guy who described Mount Hamilton Road as being “wide and of easy grade” and “one of the grandest roads in the state.” Now that’s a stretch!
The grottoes and fonts of the springs are a source of confusion today. Each spring seems to have a stone bathtub around it and the obvious conclusion is that people who indulged in the waters, picked their way down the stone steps (presumably in their long-legged swim togs and parasols) and bathed outdoors in these tubs. In reality, each grotto is more like a fussy little architectural statement marking an individual spring. The building style just reflects the taste of the times. The actual bathing took place in bathhouses where the water was piped in and heated. The ladies’ bathhouse is described as being constructed of tiles and was more refined than the rustic one in which the gentlemen soaked. Around 1904, the Alum Rock Lodge was built near the park’s entrance; it’s the fascinating stone house on Canon Vista Drive overlooking the park. The lodge featured baths of hot mineral water (pumped up from the park) which were enjoyed in a large copper tub. Guests (plural) would sit in the tub while it was rocked by hand. The water would slosh and froth – obviously the forerunner of the Jacuzzi!
Today the mineral springs are just a curiosity. The water has become polluted by agricultural runoff from the ranching operations above the park and is no longer drinkable. From time to time, a rattlesnake will take up residence in one of the grottoes or another. People don’t expect to be medicated by their bath water and it seems no one is interested in drinking the vile stuff anymore. After all, sulfur water tastes just the way it smells!
Folks who had a horse and carriage at their disposal could set out for Alum Rock Park via beauteous, state-of-the-art, tree-lined
Alum Rock Avenue by 1875. Average Joe, the city-dweller, didn’t own a horse, however, and was dependent on the streetcars, trolley lines and
railroads to get himself and his family where they wanted to go. It was only natural that a rail line would be extended to the park to
accommodate Mr. and Mrs. Joe and the kids, but it took several tries before the first train puffed into the park.
The same geologic formations that create the rugged beauty of the canyon proved to be challenges to laying down the first
narrow-gauge (three feet) rails. Two tunnels had to be constructed through the steep hills, bridges had to be built, and rock had to be blasted
away in order to make a near-level roadbed. By the time the Alum Rock Railway Company had a viable route into the park in 1896, several men were
bankrupt or, at the very least, mighty disillusioned by their unsuccessful efforts.
Because steam locomotives were noisy and dirty, downtown dwellers did not want the Alum Rock Park line to start in their
neighborhood (this illustrates that NIMBY is not a 20th century concept.) Instead, the western terminus was established at the end
of the horsecar line on Santa Clara Street at McLaughlin Avenue. An interesting note: the “steam dummy” locomotives were disguised to look
like ordinary streetcars so as not to frighten the horses! Riders paid 25 cents for an excursion through the lightly settled ranchlands along
Alum Rock Avenue to what today is Kirk Avenue where the tracks took a left-hand jog. At McKee Road, the tracks turned right and ran for a short
distance to the Pala Rosa olive groves where they took a northerly course to Penitencia Creek and then turned right for the final leg through the park’s lower entrance.
Before the train pulled into the terminal at the intersection of Penitencia Creek Road and Alum Rock Avenue (about where the
Rustic Lands picnic area is today) kids had great sport while traveling through the olive groves on the bobbing, swaying cars. They would reach
out the open windows and pull olives off the trees. Fresh-from-the-tree olives are not the taste treat one might think.
As a matter of fact, until they’re cured, olives are incredibly bitter. Many a time even grown-ups couldn’t resist the temptation of inviting unsuspecting Eastern visitors to pick
and taste a “ripe” olive just to see the wry faces they made!
This early little train usually consisted of just three components: a small locomotive, one passenger car and a flat car.
The train was so lightweight that on its arrival at the entrance of the park, men would load rocks on the flat car to help hold the passenger car on the tracks when it crossed the
bridge over Penitencia Creek. Even with this ballast, sometimes a car would slip off the tracks and dangle over the chasm. Fortunately, none ever
dropped all the way to the creek bed and there were no serious injuries – yet.
There were frequent minor mishaps which sometimes led to hours-long delays. It was
not unusual for holes to be burnt in passengers’ clothing by flying cinders and it was the expectation that everyone would be covered in soot when they arrived at their picnic.
But, what the heck, the train ride just added one more exciting dimension to a wonderful day at the “World Renowned” Alum Rock Park and Reservation!
The Alum Rock Railway line into the park switched from steam engines to electric during the great push for electrification and
expansion of the Bay Area railroad system in 1901. The largest gasoline-fueled electric powerhouse on the entire West Coast was constructed at
the mouth of Alum Rock Canyon close to the park’s lower entrance. At about the same time, tracks were extended further into the park.
The new terminus and depot were deep in the canyon near the gazebo. Now folks could ride the “narrow-gauge electric” all the way to the bathing area and not arrive peppered with soot from the steam engines’ fireboxes.
The railroads’ only fatalities in the park came during two frightening incidents during the first decade of the new millennium.
In 1903, a train car, sans engine, was being boarded on a siding in the park when for unknown reasons it began to roll down hill. The
grade of the tracks in the park averaged about 3% between the depot and the canyon mouth. This was sufficient to allow the car to build up speed and go careening down the tracks at what
observers estimated (rightly or wrongly) at sixty miles per hour after the helpless conductor was unable to work the brakes. The car was
demolished and the passengers were sent flying into the air when the car crashed at the tight bend near the tunnel at the Alum Rock. A man was
grievously wounded and died before he could be taken to town. A little girl and another adult died of their injuries in the hospital the next
Then, in 1909, a fifteen-year-old boy playfully stuck his head out of a train window just as the train was entering a tunnel -
with exactly the fatal results one would expect. Ever after, the conductor would order all the windows closed as the train neared that tunnel,
but even so, after this horror no San Jose parents were able to relax until their kids were safely home from their jaunt to the park.
A different kind of fatality hit the park when the rains of March 1911 produced a humdinger of a flood on Penitencia Creek and all
the waterways of the Santa Clara Valley. This time the victim was the railway itself! The flooding
caused an eight foot wall of water to inundate the tunnels - erasing the narrow-gauge railway. All but one of the railroad bridges were washed away, one tunnel was completely destroyed, the
ties and tracks were totally washed out of both tunnels.
The park’s entire infrastructure was nearly destroyed as well. The creek’s
channel was altered, hills were eroded, wagon bridges were gone, roads were impassable and the park’s water system was kaput. It was a disaster
which left the park with few of its modern improvements intact – in effect it rendered the park a blank slate for installation of the new, improved “railway of the future,” the
Peninsular Railway’s broad-gauge line. By 1912 steam shovels were at work bringing yet another
railroad into Alum Rock Park.
The catastrophic washout of its railroad during the floods of 1911 didn’t diminish Alum Rock Park’s magnetic allure. The owner
of the doomed narrow-gauge line was driven out of the railroad business by his loss, but the mighty broad-gauge Peninsular Railway, a holding of the Southern Pacific, was ready to fill the
breach and tap what was seen as a potentially lucrative market of resort-goers.
Steam shovels gouged their way through the narrow canyon creating an entirely new heavy-duty roadbed.
The new line was built along a higher elevation out of reach of future floods. In one part of the canyon, construction of a two-mile
stretch of track cost the enormous sum of $150,000. Five bridges with spans ranging from 170 to 260 feet were built over Penitencia Creek.
The longest of them, which includes the archway which still stands at the junction of Alum Rock Avenue and Penitencia Creek Road, carried the “Big Red Cars” across the chasm to
join up with the narrow serpentine rail bed running along the edge of the cliffs. Today the site of that rail line is part of the Creek Trail, a
narrow footpath enjoyed by hikers.
The Peninsular arrived at the park station in 1913 to much (self-generated) fanfare. The
railroad’s spokesmen said the railroad “has all the earmarks of a transcontinental railway” and promised Pullman (sleeper) cars which would go right into the heart of the park.
Needing to make the most of their huge investment, the railroad promised the public an ambitious array of amenities including a “first-rate” hotel.
A new café, pavilion and indoor swimming pool were built, but the long-awaited hotel remained forever just an item in the promotional brochures of the period.
Despite advertising that large parties riding the train could request special stops at the park’s famous “meteor” (“possibly
the largest in the world”) and other special perks, the new railroad proved to be barely profitable. Weekday ridership was so sparse that the
fare was reduced from 25 cents round trip to ten cents each way. The weekend crowds barely kept the line afloat until the mid 1920’s when Henry
Ford’s ballyhooed, “A Ford in Every Garage” became the near-reality which gave the kiss of death to the railroads. The Peninsula limped along until the 1929 stock market crash and called it quits in 1931. Its rails were used by the
Civilian Conservation Corps in the next several years to improve the trails and bridges in the park and, ironically, in 1934, to carry the CCC workers into the park to tear down the train
Heavy flooding in the park would not have happened in 1911 if the suggestion of a dam above Penitencia Creek had been heeded.
Since prehistoric times, the canyon had flooded severely in wet winters and a dam had been prescribed at least since the park was established forty-five years earlier.
For mysterious reasons (most probably political in nature) a dam was not built until 1936. $36,000 was spent that year damming the creek
high up in the hills to the east of the park. The dam created Cherry Flat Reservoir which can be opened and closed like a spigot to control water
flow. Now the animal life of the park as well as human visitors have a guarantee of water in the creek year round.
The park’s most mystical and alluring attraction, the Alum Rock Meteor, was a wonderful asset to the publicists of the early
days. How could anyone resist a visit to the large, mysterious alien rock (the largest on earth, it was said), which had plunged to earth near the Penitencia Creek entrance to the park?
After all, here was a bona fide visitor from outer space! Old-timers vouched for the meteorite’s authenticity – they had personally
seen it streak through the night sky to come to rest in the east foothills and found it (still smouldering perhaps, with its shiny black hulk glistening and glowing?), in Alum Rock Park.
Trying to capitalize on its enormous investment in the park, the Peninsular Railway hyped the big rock and erected a sign
indicating that it was the “Alum Rock Meteor” and that it weighed an estimated 2,000 tons. Each train stopped at the site and the motorman would awe the riders with the rock’s extraterrestrial provenance. Every park visitor walking into the park via Penitencia
Creek Road stopped to gander at it. A photograph of the rock shows a woman dwarfed by its great mass and two-story height.
The rock would still be in the park today if its composition hadn’t been identified as manganese in 1918 during the early part
of World War I. Manganese is an earthly metallic element which, when alloyed with steel, enhances its strength. It was in great demand for the war effort. The rock’s
otherworldly persona was hastily discarded when the San Jose City Council realized that the city coffers could be enriched by $22,000 when a “mining man” offered such a sum for it.
The purchaser soon discovered that the 2,000-ton rock actually weighed only 389 tons. Only thirty-nine tons of high-grade manganese ore
was extracted and the buyer went broke. The City apparently was not able to collect on the debt and lost a big attraction to boot!
The massive rock probably had been in the park for millions of years, possibly part of a much larger rock mass which had eroded
away. So much for urban legends! It was mysterious, however.
It was a “remarkable assemblage of manganese minerals found in a single great boulder” and was found to include several ores not previously known in California.
A new mineral to be called “kempite” was discovered in its composition.
Today’s park rangers say that small pieces of the big rock are still found in Penitencia creek near the “1909 bridge” on the
road between the central picnic area and the park’s back entrance. There is a large chunk in the visitors’ center where one can stroke the
cold, smooth, metallic surface and hope that perhaps the meteorite legend was true and that one is actually touching a special wonder from another world.
No matter what its origin, Alum Rock Park lost a rare treasure when the rock was mined.
From the earliest times, the hot, dusty, pre-air-conditioned days of summer brought droves of San Joseans out to the park for a cooling dip-of-the-toe. At first, of course, that toe-dipping was done in the cooling trickle of Penitencia Creek - provided it hadn’t dried up for the season. Later, folks could jump right into one of the real swimming pools that were created.
In the mid-1890’s the first swimming pool, the “Open Air Plunge” was constructed. It was a simple concrete reservoir which varied in depth from two to twelve feet. It was fed by the natural mineral waters from the park’s springs. To make it useful year-round, the pool was later enclosed within a large shed which helped trap the warmth of the water, but also held in the reeking sulphurous fumes. The covered plunge became the model for something much better.
The destructive flooding of 1911 scoured away the park’s improvements, taking out all traces of the first plunge but, of course, doing nothing to remove the odor. Around 1915, a new crop of concessions was constructed including a new, improved indoor pool grandly named “The Natatorium.” Probably because its given name was such a mouthful, it unofficially took on the name “the Plunge” which was what regular folks in the first part of the twentieth century called a swimming pool.
It was a wondrous building which stood on the site of today’s service yard near the visitors’ center. It had the character of a World’s Fair conservatory, roofed over by a large vaulted ceiling with skylights running its length. Inside, on the side walls, were high galleries from which observers could watch the daring antics going on below.
A short 1922 Chamber of Commerce film (available through the San Jose Public Library), Roscoe D. Wyatt’s “The Valley of Heart’s Delight,” shows scenes of vintage bathers. They’re mostly kids bobbing around the edges, but also some major risk-takers barreling down the tallest sliding board imaginable – on their stomachs, head first! The Natatorium was also equipped with a state-of-the-art, high-powered spring diving board and two tall diving platforms. Curiously, the histories of this era of Alum Rock Park are free of references to swimming accidents except for a brief mention of a little girl who lost the sight of one eye when some unidentified particles flew into her eye while she was negotiating the so-called death defying slide. Perhaps “death-defying” really was the right name for it!
By 1975, the Natatorium had been demolished as part of the Park’s return to more natural conditions.
Over the years from its formal beginnings as a bona fide park in 1872 to the present, Alum Rock Park has had several very different characters. It was a rustic canyon with few improvements other than the Alum Rock Saloon and the Alum Rock House hotel in the early 1870’s. The hotel burned down in 1890; the saloon was dispossessed soon after when developers decided to make the park a more suitable place for women and children by outlawing liquor sales. A bigger, better, more elegant hotel was recommended as the park became more sophisticated, but there was never another hotel built in the park. For many years, unlike now, park visitors were allowed to camp-out in tents!
When the tracks of “the Big Red Cars” of the Southern Pacific Railroad were extended deep into the park in 1913, the park’s character did a sea change from simple rusticity to a would-be European Spa style. A great surge of building took place – most of the new buildings were tightly concentrated in what is now the grassy area where the YSI building, children’s playground and the Visitors’ Center now stand.
Picture this small area with full-size trains pulling into a sizable station. Now imagine the scene when all the new concessions were added to the original drawing card, the mineral springs. A tall, graceful aviary boasting five rare birds was created. There were a “deer paddock,” dance pavilion, tea house, and café. A replica log cabin was added in honor of California’s early pioneers. A formal “music court” with a bandstand was constructed. There were both men’s and women’s bath houses as well as the wonderful 45’ X 90’ indoor swimming pool, the “natatorium.” There was a so-called “Devil’s Slide” independent of the “death-defying slide” housed in the natatorium. Thrill-seekers didn’t need to bring their bathing suits to climb the steep steps to the top and slide down on a burlap mat to the bottom of this tall, take-your-breath-away, outdoor slide. There was even a merry-go-round which stood until 1975.
The park’s fame was bolstered by recreational visits of soldiers during both WWI and WWII. They spread the word of the beautiful park and its many recreational features far beyond the Bay Area. With cars becoming available to ordinary folks in the 1920’s and ‘30’s there was a huge influx of visitors arriving in their own vehicles. Young folks thought nothing of driving down from Burlingame or San Francisco for an evening of dancing at the pavilion. Records show that on Easter Sunday, 1935, there were more than 4400 cars in the park. And this was during the Depression! Contrast this with the approximately 100,000 visitors (not cars) the park hosts every year in modern times.
Alum Rock Park covers about 720 acres, but much of the land is taken up by steep wooded or chaparral-covered hillsides. Its geological features don’t afford much level ground for building outside of the area where today’s YSI building, the Visitors’ Center and the maintenance yard stand. The railroad and its station and all of the big drawing card features of the park’s heyday years were crowded into this small, confined space. The canyon and its natural beauty were nearly smothered by the hordes.
Various plans for the future of the park were outlined and all seemed to point toward encouraging a simpler, more natural park with a minimum of recreational facilities. So, as the older attractions grew dated and seedy, they were quietly removed. It seems that San Jose was ready for a sea change in the park and welcomed the Santa Clara Junior Museum in 1953. In 1958 it became the Youth Science Institute which is a small, serene mecca where the avid or casual nature lover can learn about the natural history of the Santa Clara Valley from the days of the Ohlone Indians to the present. YSI’s menagerie of native raptors, reptiles and mammals gives children and adults a close-up look at some of the usually-elusive creatures of the area. The Visitors’ Center next to the Ranger Station also offers information on the wildlife and history of the park as well as photos and maps illustrating the park’s evolution.
The park’s main (Alum Rock Ave.) entrance is temporarily closed to cars due to an El Nino landslide, but drivers can enter the Penitencia Creek Road entrance at the park’s northwest edge. Visitors can enter either entrance on foot or bicycles.
The carnival-like atmosphere of Alum Rock Park's "glory days" (roughly from 1900 to 1950) brought hundreds of thousands of tourists and local folks to dance, ride the rides, view the zoo animals, "take" the mineral waters, picnic and swim. People in trains, cars and buses jammed into the tight quarters of the park. People on foot, horses and bicycles came in droves. Little thought was given to the fragility of the canyon, its structures or its ecosystems.
The park covers about 720 acres, but much of the terrain is made up of steep wooded or chaparral-covered hillsides. Its geological features don't afford much level ground so that nature-lovers and thrill-seekers who visited the park were packed into the floor of the narrow canyon on just a few acres. The earth was trampled and the facilities worn down to seediness by the sheer numbers of guests. The park's popularity brought it to a near-fatal swoon.
Reacting to the feel of decay in the air, fewer families chose the park as their destination. Less-wholesome guests filled the void. The park's reputation suffered as exaggerated stories of hooliganism and mayhem were reported in the press. A major overhaul was ordered.
One by one, the dowdy old attractions were dismantled leaving only the mineral water pagoda (pre 1900), the log cabin (1916) and what would become the Youth Science Institute building (1930's) to represent the eras of the past. Little by little, Mother Nature was reintroduced. The new focus would be on natural history with the Youth Science Institute moving into the park in 1953 to be at the core. New emphasis was put on trail building. Native species were encouraged. A dedication to conservation of the park's delicate geology and ecology brought the promise of sensitive, dedicated care to preserve San Jose's most wonderful asset for future generations to enjoy.
Today the park is suffering the effects of heavy rains which fell during the El Nino winter storms of 1998. Retaining walls along Penitencia Creek were washed out and a landslide developed across the park's main Alum Rock Avenue entrance cutting a gash all the way down to the bottom of the canyon at the creek's edge. The City opened the long-closed Penitencia Creek entrance to traffic last fall and closed the damaged Alum Rock Avenue entrance. Many neighbors in the area are waging a campaign to have the necessary studies done to facilitate landslide repairs to restore the park's integrity.
Meanwhile, because the changes to park access have deterred some visitors, the park is hosting fewer people than usual. With a diminished human presence in their territory, the animals are encouraged to multiply so there are more deer and ground squirrels than ever and the fast proliferating non-native wild pigs are spilling over onto (and digging up!) the lawns of the park's neighbors.
Ranch lands on the north side of the park are being dedicated as open space which will assure that the views from the park will always be green even though the acreage will not become part of the park. Recommendations have been made that the City buy the Alum Rock Stables property at the Alum Rock Avenue entrance and several small properties near the Penitencia Creek Road entrance to add to the park's acreage. These additions would provide opportunities to optimize usage of the park's scarce level land and to improve traffic flow.
As with all natural places, Alum Rock Park is always in a state of change. It began as a beautiful rugged canyon; then, over time, it took on various characters: first as the rustic "Reservation," then as a European-style health spa and finally as a rather tawdry amusement park. Today it is a natural history mecca beckoning San Joseans to come have a stroll or a picnic and to drink in Nature's glory. In a charming poem, a judge of the early 1900's described Alum Rock Park as San Jose's "matchless canyon." Throughout all its incarnations, the park has surely lived up to that portrayal.
Copyright© 2001, 2002, 2003 by Allan and Judy Thompson. All rights reserved.