Nature Stakes a Claim on San Jose’s Historic New Almaden Quicksilver Mine

Street View of Casa Grande
Street View of Casa Grande

Look closely at the rolling green hills of the Capitancillos Ridge on the southern end of San Jose, CA. At times the peaceful landscape is jarred by large pieces of rusting machinery, remnants of California’s first mine. No, gold wasn’t found in them there hills but mercury aka quicksilver. The element was used in the gold and silver mining processes to separate the precious metals from crushed ore. Lucky for the ‘49er gold rush crowd, operations to extract quicksilver from San Jose’s New Almaden mines began in 1846 a few years before the gold frenzy.

Almaden Quicksilver Park
Almaden Quicksilver Park

On our way to find out for ourselves what’s left of the 170-year-old New Almaden mine, my husband and I pass multiple new housing developments on previously rural farming land. I remembered reading that the local reservoirs contain high levels of mercury making the fish unsafe to eat. I wondered at the decision to build new homes in the area and if the residents had to be mindful of mercury exposure.

Casa Grande, New Almaden
Casa Grande, New Almaden

The suburbs transition to fields, as we take New Almaden Road off the expressway toward the forested community of historical homes nestled between Alamitos Creek and the rising hillside. Entering Casa Grande, a three-story mansion which was home to the succession of New Almaden Mine managers, our imaginations go back in time and deep underground. Antique furnished parlor, library and drawing rooms give a sense of the activities of those who lived there.

A very knowledgeable docent met us as we toured the home and made our way to the Quicksilver Mining Museum located inside Casa Grande. The interpretive museum and docent answered our questions about the mercury mining process. Examples of red cinnabar ore mined deep within the earth are on display. The process of filling tall slender flasks with liquid quicksilver after cinnabar is heated to separate mercury and sulfur is depicted. Black and white photographs of the miners hauling ore and squeezing on the lifts that took them on their decent hundreds of feet underground cover the museum walls.  Visitors catch a glimpse into what mining life must have been like.

Water tower behind Casa Grande
Water tower behind Casa Grande

Back outside we stroll through Casa Grande’s lush green yard to look up at its swaying palms and clear blue sky. Then we started down the street on a section of the 1.6 mile historic home walk that loops around Casa Grande and the Alamitos Creek. Although historic, the colorful homes circa mid- 1800’s  with white picket fences and built with a variety of materials: brick, adobe, wood are all private residences. We walked along a length of original brick sidewalk while reading the informational markers in front of each house. Soon we felt at risk of becoming Peeping Toms with residents clearly going about their day. We decided to get back to the car and see more of the area by road.

Barn at Senador Mine Trail
Barn at Senador Mine Trail

Driving around the perimeter of the Almaden Quicksilver Park I spotted rusting mining equipment jutting up from the treetops at the Hacienda park entrance. We continued along the wooded drive passing the Almaden Reservoir and recently opened access to Mt. Umunhum. Then wrapped back around the hills and entered from McAbee Road closest to the Senador Mine. Walking on the wide shaded path, we passed an old wood barn near the park entrance.

Senador Mine Furnaces
Senador Mine Furnaces
Closer look at furnaces
Closer look at furnaces

About a half mile into the walk we found the concrete chimney remains of the Senador Mine. Three crumbling furnaces where cinnabar was once roasted stand, a perfect dystopian backdrop. Markings of the past are everywhere along the park trails, from covered ore cart rails, foundations of buildings or strikingly majestic ruined equipment. I wonder at the natural beauty of the hillsides and its hints of a long forgotten internal apocalypse.

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Visit 100 Years Ago Today at History San Jose – Part 2

San Jose’s Pacific Hotel

After exploring the Trolley Barn, we discovered our pancake breakfast had worn off. We walked down the wide street of San Jose’s History Park wondering if we could order up a hot dog for lunch. Turning a corner, we faced the Pacific Hotel, a replica building that grounds visitors with a sense of what the city of San Jose originally looked like. The first floor of the hotel houses O’Brien’s Ice Cream Parlor. O’Brien’s a local favorite for candy and ice cream from 1868 through the mid-1900s. Since it was the only food-related establishment in sight, we walked into the white counter, mirrored, air-conditioned shop.

What’s for lunch? Ice cream!

I asked the ice cream server if there were any other places serving food in the park and the answer was no. So I went ahead and ordered a hot fudge sundae for myself and a chocolate milkshake for hubby. We ate, a little guiltily at first, but finished our sweet treats trying to remember if we ever had a lunch like this before.

Electric Light Tower

Back outside in the warm afternoon sun, we set out to explore the rest of the park’s extensive grounds. The replica Electric Light Tower catches visitor’s attention rising above the park. John photographed interesting geometric designs looking up through it. The original was erected in 1881 at a busy downtown San Jose intersection and was quite a spectacle then.

As we continued down the block, we met up with Rosie the Riveter across the street from the replica 1869 Empire Firehouse. Rosie looked like a real person from afar. I thought she was checking out the firehouse but discovered she’s a statue.

Rosie the Riveter across from Empire Firehouse

The dark wood paneled Stevens Ranch Fruit Barn at the back of the park is a museum sharing Santa Clara Valley’s history as an orchard and farming community before its transformation into Silicon Valley. Next to the barn are a few samples of migrant worker one-room houses giving an idea of what living conditions on area farms was like.

Historical homes of founding San Jose families were moved to the park. The preserved homes help tell the story of the families that used to live in them. Some of the structures are furnished to re-create what life was like during the period of the home. Other homes are sponsored by cultural groups displaying cultural relics and exhibits. We peered in windows, walked through homes, and peeked in backyards. It dawned on me that we were amongst the highest concentration of outhouses in the Bay Area, maybe even the entire state of California. Little wood structures – painted similarly to the home they sat behind – covered rickety wood benches with centered cutout.
Closing out our trip to San Jose’s History Park we stopped by the print shop on the way out. A docent and member of the printer’s guild spelled my name backward and upside down demonstrating typesetting. She showed us how a few of the printing presses ran leaving us in awe of how time intensive (and dangerous – squished fingers?) printing used to be.

It’s really amazing how much history is available to explore in one place – San Jose history, California history, transportation history, immigrant history and much more. Activities happen throughout the year featuring different aspects of the park. Come once to explore all of the buildings, and then come again to focus on just one area of interest, if you can narrow it down that is!

Find visitors information for San Jose’s History Park here.

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Visit 100 Years Ago Today at History San Jose – Part 1

Associated Gasoline Station

Recently my husband and I were looking for something to do that would divert us from our everyday life. We couldn’t go great distances for our getaway but we could go back in time. How’s that done? You may ask.

I was pretty sure that San Jose has a collection of old buildings open for touring. We looked into it and confirmed that a section of Kelley Park houses San Jose’s History Park . After a big pancake Saturday breakfast we were ready to visit history.

History Park’s main entrance at the end of Phelan Avenue opens up to a wide pedestrian-only tree lined street – huge wood barn on the right and historical homes on the left. We veered right toward the crusty Associated Gasoline station and the blacksmith shed with early farm tractor out front. Taking in the scene by snapping pictures, we spun back to the Trolley Barn.

Electric Horseless Carriage
Electric Horseless Carriage

Caught Up in the Trolley Barn

Trolley Barn volunteers – train and trolley enthusiasts – greeted us and shared their wisdom about some of the vehicles found inside.

14 Car Batteries and Charging Station

The 1914 electric-horseless-carriage caught my attention. I was amazed that a car from so long ago runs on 14 car batteries (no gas) and has the capability to be re-charged. I did “know” that different car manufacturers tried out different fuel sources – electricity being one of them. But I’d never seen a car with a carriage inspired frame filled with 14 car batteries before. And it works!

Vintage San Jose Trolley
Vintage San Jose Trolley

The barn houses several vintage trolleys that volunteers preserve, display and give rides around the park on. We got to check out a 1930s era streetcar, with a guided demo on how to start it and clang the bell to get pedestrians off the tracks.

Later in the day we rode the outdoor track around the perimeter of History Park. The car we were in was open air at the ends – nice for warm San Jose days – while the middle of the car is covered.

Steam Engine
Steam Engine

I highly recommend the Trolley Barn to car, train or trolley buffs. Don’t miss their special Transportation Day celebration held on Father’s Day every year. All the cars and trolleys – that are able – are taken out for a spin.

Cable Car Ride
Cable Car Ride

Catch up on our adventure at History Park next week: Ice Cream for Lunch at O’Brien’s, Wild West to Orchards and Housing Cultural History – all covered in Part 2.

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A Curious Saltbox on California’s Coast

Johnston House, Photo by John Barrows

Driving over the gravel road that swoops around the front of the historic ranch house we bounce in our seats. Climbing slightly in elevation acres of empty farmland stretch out before us on the way out to the Pacific Ocean. A variety of hearty coastal grasses blanket the field in thick tufts and thin seed laden stalks that brush against the breeze. Green rolling hills cradle the estate to the East with larger forested hills beyond.

The view of the ocean often times obscured by wispy fog or diffused by sea mist was clear for our visit. The ocean carved inland up the coast to the crescent shaped Half Moon Bay.

The James Johnston House built in 1853 doesn’t have a stitch of architectural ornamentation but manages to be the most striking historic home on the Half Moon Bay coast. From head-on, the home is two stories, painted simply in white with ample glass pained windows trimmed by forest green shutters as the home’s sole decoration.

Johnston House – Photo by John Barrows

Approaching the house from the side reveals something unusual: the roofline slopes down to one story in the back. Ah yes, it’s the two stories becoming one at the back that catches Californians cruising past the site off guard. I liken this architectural maneuver to a hi-low dress hemline but on a building. This style of home is called “saltbox” and was a popular colonial design originating around the 1650s on the East Coast.

James Johnston, a gold rush entrepreneur, built his saltbox home while established Californio families lived in Spanish adobe and his American peers were putting up in vogue Victorians. Johnston’s sentimental choice of architecture was based on the home he grew up in, in Ohio.

Whizzing by on the highway before I knew much about the James Johnston House, I thought that it could be a Civil War movie set. I’d never seen another structure like it. An out-of-fashion Yankee Colonial in gold rush era California connected the frontier to the deep rooted nation established back East.

The home became abandoned over time and was unprotected from the stormy coast and grazing farm animals. A picture of the home from 1965 shows the back one story level had been hacked off, the exterior paint stripped and window frames void of glass. The coastal community and outside preservationists recognized the uniqueness of the structure and worked over many years (mid-1960s to present) to bring the Johnston House back to life.

Side View Photo by John Barrows

Walking up to the house, visitors pass a rose garden with white picket fence. A pair of partially salvaged fence posts atop weathered wood pillars mark the walkway.

Entering the home through the back door, the brown shingled roof hovers inches away from our heads. The one story section of the home houses a small gift shop and museum office. Victorian costumed docents greet us and start the tour at the front of the house. Our tour guide wears sneakers with his black pants and burgundy vest, eager to show us around.

Bedroom Photo by John Barrows

Original Johnston family furnishings are on display throughout the house along with period correct decorations. A sample of the original wallpaper was found preserved inside a Catholic alter within the home. The paper, mostly white featuring strokes of silver, was recreated and placed on the walls. The white of the paper keeps the interior of the home bright and cheerful on cloudy days.

One bedroom was left unpainted so that visitors can see the fine locally sourced redwood paneling that was used as building material. A patch of wall beam is uncovered by paneling to display the mortice-and-tenon construction work used to create the home.

The living space that was created by the dramatic roof slant is triangular in shape and runs the whole length of the home. I stood comfortably at the start of the room but ducking is required to occupy the lower region. The space was used to house ranch workers and was also available to coastal travelers needing shelter for the night.

Kitchen Photo by John Barrows

The docents comment that they find new items in the house during the monthly tours. A “new” child’s rocking horse in the kids room or a new painting on the wall of the living room. Continued restoration projects and gardening help bring the house back to life inside and out. The coastal architectural curiosity reminds passersby of another time and another place.

The home is open to tours January through September on third Saturdays between 11am and 3pm.

http://www.johnstonhouse.org/

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3 Historical Peninsula Gardens to Visit

Gazebo at Gamble Garden, Photo by John Barrows

Looking for a quick escape from the daily grind? A local garden may be just the place to breathe deep and collect your thoughts. There’s a number of in bloom historical garden get-a-ways throughout the San Francisco Peninsula. Grab your sun hat and check out these relaxing respites.

Gamble Garden, Palo Alto CA

Gamble House, Photo by John Barrows

Gamble Garden is tucked away in Old Palo Alto, a neighborhood of older homes with architectural variety. The garden surrounds the 1902 home of Elizabeth Frances Gamble descendant of Procter & Gamble’s co-founder. The garden is close to the Stanford Shopping Center and University Avenue, a perfect spot for a mid-day retreat.

Scarecrow at Gamble, Photo by John Barrows

An edible herb garden with sun faded scarecrow greets visitors entering the gardens from the back of the property. Sunshine fills the gravel lined walkways off the central gazebo. A bush trimmed into the Easter Bunny patiently awaits the seasons to change back to spring.

Gamble Garden Sundial, Photo by John Barrows

At the far side of the property a tranquil water fountain trickles, its sound mingles with that of the breeze flowing through the tops of surrounding trees. A circular rose garden, encompassed by a 6-foot tall hedge, offers droopy white blooms shedding petals to the ground.

Rose at Gamble, Photo by John Barrows

Benches dot the property situated under shade trees invite guests to stay awhile. Watch birds, bees and squirrels move about their daily garden life.

Filoli, Woodside CA

The Peninsula is home to an English country estate museum house and extensive gardens. The home at Filoli estate was completed in 1917 with the gardens following soon after. Filoli is a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Filoli Pools, Photo by Eva Barrows

Prepare to meander and contemplate in Filoli’s many gardens. Soak up the sun’s piercing warmth with clear blue sky overhead framed by a variety of swaying tree tops. Eye catching lush green lawns complement red brick footpaths. The fountains and reflecting pools produce the soothing sounds of water.

Garden Passage at Filoli, Photo by Eva Barrows

As the afternoon progresses, watch the fog push over the coastal redwood hills at the foot of the property. The seeping dry ice effect of the cascading fog creates a feeling of magic.

Wonder further back into the gardens, passing through archways in ten-foot tall hedge walls. Discover a variety of vegetation throughout the property: rose garden, herb garden, and squash gardens to name a few.

Filoli Manor, Photo by Eva Barrows

Find activities enjoyed by the inhabitants of the estate placed throughout the garden. A relaxing spa like pool house offers seating for visitors steps away from the sparkling swimming pool. Tennis courts are a short walk from the home and placed at the outskirts of the garden. Walk all of the way to the back of the gardens and find the “High Place” a great place to look out over the estate.

Central Park Rose Garden and Japanese Garden, San Mateo CA

Central Park Rose Garden, Photo by John Barrows

San Mateo’s Central Park was once the site of a mansion estate. The ornate brick and iron fence lining El Camino and the cast iron dog statue guarding the rose garden are remnants from that time. The rose garden with trellis gazebo and the many tree varieties throughout the park are cared for by the San Mateo Arboretum Society.

Central Park Rose, Photo by John Barrows

The rose garden is full of colorful flowers abuzz with honey bee activity. Sniff the buds of pink, yellow, white and red roses. Check the names on the plates next to each rose variety because they can be pretty funny like “Hot Cocoa” or “Barbra Streisand.” A row of benches line the garden under shade trees, a perfect place for visitors to sit and smell the roses.

Central Park Garden, Photo by John Barrows

Don’t miss the Japanese Garden in Central Park. It’s walled off by a traditional Japanese wood wall with a large gated entrance. Step inside to experience a peaceful escape in the middle of downtown San Mateo. The garden is built around a central koi pond with tons of large and playful koi pushing around tree debris at the water’s surface and splashing in water spouts.

Buddha in Japanese Garden, Photo by John Barrows

Walk around the pond on a slim pathway, under dangling trees or cross the water on stone bridges. Several pagoda temples and statues made of stone or bamboo are placed throughout the grounds. Relax on the tea house benches to take in the colorful fish and idyllic scenery.

Japanese Garden, Photo by John Barrows

Visiting the Gardens:

Gamble Garden
https://www.gamblegarden.org/
1431 Waverley Street, Palo Alto CA 94301
Free admission
Garden open daily during daylight hours
Main House open Monday through Friday 9 am-2 pm

Filoli Estate
https://filoli.org/
86 Cañada Road, Woodside, California 94062
Tuesday through Sunday 10 am to 5 pm
General Admission $20 adults

Central Park San Mateo
Rose Garden
http://www.sanmateoarboretum.org/
Open day light hours

Japanese Garden
http://www.cityofsanmateo.org/3319/Central-Park-Japanese-Garden
Monday through Friday 10 am to 4 pm
Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4 pm

Free admission
50 E 5th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94401

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Twice Removed: Lathrop House, Redwood City, CA

Lathrop House, Photo by Eva Barrows
Lathrop House, Photo by Eva Barrows

The Lathrop House wasn’t always located only three-yards back from a busy downtown street with no front or back yard. Just the opposite is true. It was originally a grand estate with a number of service buildings surrounding it, unattached kitchen, outhouse…that sort of thing. All on beautifully landscaped and gardened acreage in Redwood City, CA.

But now, the ornate by modern standards, home is cruelly close to a street full of people rushing to the towering superior court house across the street. Encroaching new construction behind the home and on all sides, make it seem as though the Lathrop House is the structure that doesn’t belong.

The house is no stranger to being made to move. It was moved to the back of its own land to make room for a school and then moved again by a new owner. That’s a lot of moving especially for something built in 1863.

The Redwood City Heritage Association opens the house twice a month for visitors to explore the interior. I recommend going on the third Saturday of the month to avoid the crazy parking situation on the other day it’s open, the second Wednesday of the month. Yes, parking really is that bad.

Visitors have full access to the first and second floors of the home with a docent tour. Lathrop House was constructed with local redwood. The owners decided to have the redwood look like more “expensive” wood by having the visible trim painted to look like oak. Original wallpaper was uncovered in the house during restoration. There was enough left to be reproduced for a full repapering of the home.

My favorite part of the tour was the walk-in closet off the master bedroom. The docent advised that the closet may not have been original to the home. Some Victorian era clothing was on display and a wool swimsuit hung on one of the closet doors caught my attention. I always pictured wool swimsuits being made from thick wool that would be heavy with water once it got wet. However, the wool cloth was very thin and did not feel scratchy to the touch.

While I was inside the Lathrop House, I got to peek into what life was like 150 years ago for about forty-five minutes. Then I walked out into the loud, growing and groaning modern world and couldn’t help wishing I could stay in the past a little while longer.

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