Historic Peralta Adobe in San Jose, California
Historic Peralta Adobe in San Jose, California

by Lee Foster

Beyond the dramatic new developments in downtown San Jose, a traveler to (or resident in) the Silicon Valley will find much to explore. Here are some of the main pleasures of the San Jose-Santa Clara area, starting with some background on how it all began.


Shortly after George Washington crossed the Delaware to do battle with the British in 1777, Padre Thomas de la Pena was planting a wooden cross on the banks of the Guadalupe River to establish Mission Santa Clara de Asis, honoring St. Clare of Assisi, the first Franciscan nun. Settlement of the fertile Santa Clara Valley began with the founding of the mission and the pueblo of San Jose.

Today you can get a sense of the mission by visiting the University of Santa Clara to see its replica of one of the later mission churches. Aside from scattered historic monuments in Santa Clara and San Jose, the best place to get a feel for the development of San Jose, especially as the 19th century progressed, is first in the downtown area at the Peralta Adobe, which records the Spanish-Mexican era, and at Pellier Historic Park, which celebrates the development of fruit agriculture, especially the prune orchards. Then proceed to the San Jose Historical Museum, 25 acres of Kelley Park.

Finally, the prominence of an unusual mineral, mercury, also called quicksilver, was significant in the development of the region. You can visit the mercury mining area by driving south from San Jose to the Almaden Lake Park. Near the park is the former mine manager’s home, Casa Grande.


This mission was founded in 1777 as the eighth in the Franciscan chain. It is located on the campus of the present Santa Clara University, off The Alameda in Santa Clara, 408/554-4023.

Based on the Franciscan padres’ own measure of success, Santa Clara exceeded every other mission in California. That criterion was, of course, the number of heathens baptized into Christianity, and 8,536 Indians passed through these rites at Santa Clara between 1777 and 1832. In 1800 it was recorded there were 1,228 Indians associated with Mission Santa Clara. This was one of the largest concentrations of Indians in a mission at the time. Every Saturday 12 cattle were butchered for their food. Santa Clara also ranked fourth in total livestock among the missions in 1832.

The viceroy of Mexico envisioned Santa Clara as a perimeter supply post and fortification for Mission Dolores and Yerba Buena, the early name for the city of San Francisco. Santa Clara was to be the food-producing unit that would help sustain the regional Spanish presence. In this task the mission succeeded, assisted by the fertility of the soil, cooperation of the Indians, and able leadership of gifted executives in the Franciscan order. The mission artisans were also well known, especially for their weaving.

On the campus today you see a replica of the third mission church, from 1825. Floods, earthquakes, fires, and inappropriate site choices damaged the four earlier, smaller churches. Fragments of the original mission cross are preserved under glass in the current cross in front of the church. An adobe wall from the 1822 mission period remains, along with an adobe structure that now serves as the faculty club. These adobe structures are the oldest buildings on a college campus in the western United States. Behind the adobe wall are olive trees, also from the 1820s. This peaceful, floriferous, enclosed area approximates for the visitor the calm, orderly garden compound of the early mission, with the pealing bells marking the routine of the day. Bells from as early as 1798 still hang in the tower.


As you turn into the college and mission grounds, a guard will give you a temporary sticker to make close-in parking easy. Ask also for a map of the mission grounds and campus. After you park, visit the church, the rose gardens to one side, and the wisteria and banksia rose-covered arborway on the other side, where the adobe wall is also located. The grounds are well maintained, and the flowering purple wisteria and yellow banksia roses reach their peak in May, an ideal time to visit.

The paintings of Santa Clara Mission were much praised in the 19th century. Agustin Davila, a gifted professional painter from Mexico, was brought north to teach the Indians painting and to oversee painting the facade and ceiling of the 1825 church. The 1929 replica, built after a devastating fire leveled the earlier structure, repeats Davila’s facade design, but in concrete rather than in paint. The interior of the church still includes a reredos and an early crucifix, plus a duplication of the Davila ceiling paintings. A plaque outside the church points out that this was the first California mission to honor a woman, something of particular interest in this era of the women’s movement.

After Secularization, the church and grounds were eventually given to the Jesuits, who founded a college that became Santa Clara University.

One of the amenities fostered by the mission was a string of black willows planted on either side of The Alameda between the pueblo of San Jose and the mission. These trees, no longer standing, protected pedestrians from marauding, wild cattle. The padres also hoped that such an inviting, clearly marked road would guide the faithful to frequent worship. As the trees grew, they provided welcome shade from the merciless sun of summer.

Mission Santa Clara’s history includes the stories of several characters and eccentrics among its padres. One was Magin de Catala, who became known as “the Prophet.” It is said that he correctly predicted the arrival of Americans, discovery of gold, loss of California by Spain, and destruction of San Francisco by the Earthquake of 1906. Another was Jose Viader, a priest who might have heard another calling as a wrestler. In 1814 the muscular Viader was attacked by an Indian brute named Marcelo, who had violence in his heart. Viader thrashed Marcelo and two accompanying henchmen. Chastised completely, Marcelo thereafter became one of the mission’s faithful supporters.


The de Saisset Museum on the Santa Clara University campus contains artifacts and photos that tell part of the story of the restoration and generally describe the mission. Among the Indian, mission, and university memorabilia is a large photo of Chief Ynigo, 1760-1864, chief of a tribe that once lived near the present Moffett Field. The museum also hosts changing art shows and displays works from its collection of historic and contemporary art. For current exhibits, call 408/554-4528.


The university was founded in 1851 by the Rev. John Nobili, S.J., with $150 and 12 students. First classes were held in an abandoned adobe from the mission or in an adjoining grape arbor. Meals consisted of meat, soup, and vegetables, all cooked in one large iron pot.

Santa Clara University is the oldest private institution of higher learning in California, but the school has extremely modern as well as historical architectural interest. Visit the Thomas E. Leavey Activities Center, a fabric roof-covered structure built in 1975. This is the largest air-supported fabric roof in the West. The builder, New York engineer David Geiger, has covered many commercial buildings and outdoor pavilions with this remarkable material. The largest such covering is the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, which encloses 10 acres.

The Leavey Center consists of 65,000 square feet of Teflon-coated fiberglass kept inflated by four large fans that maintain a slight pressure of five pounds per square foot. Thick cables on the roof prevent the cover from blowing off. Revolving doors keep the structure air-pressure tight. Translucence of the fabric roof reduces the need for lighting the basketball courts and other athletic areas. A greenhouse effect, caused by the covering, minimizes the requirements for additional heating, creating in fact an environment suitable for tropical plants that flourish at one end of the building. Energy savings in operation and the original savings in construction costs make this style of architecture most attractive.

The complex covered by the fabric roof includes a 5,000-seat basketball arena, handball and squash courts, two small volleyball and basketball courts, and locker rooms.


After visiting the mission and campus, make a short drive to see an early adobe and the markers noting the first mission sites.

North of the university stands one of the oldest adobes in the Santa Clara Valley. A marker at 3260 The Alameda, near Benton, tells the history of the building:

Santa Clara Women’s Club Adobe. This adobe, among the oldest in Santa Clara Valley, was one of several continuous rows of homes built in 1792-1800 as dwellings for Indian families of Mission Santa Clara. It links the Franciscan padre’s labors with California of today.

The adobe itself is closed, but you can enter the grounds through the front gate to look at the gardens, which include a wisteria-covered pergola made from timbers salvaged after the original mission burned.

The first site of the Santa Clara Mission is near Central Expressway and De la Cruz Boulevard, where a marker mounted on steel poles next to the airport property tells the story:

Mission Santa Clara de Thamien. The first mission in this valley, Mission Santa Clara de Thamien, was established at this site by Franciscan Padres Thomas de la Pena and Joseph Antonio Murguia, January 12, 1777. Here, at the Indian village of So-co-is-u-ka, they erected a cross and shelter for worship to bring Christianity to the Costanoan Indians.

However, the site experienced repeated flooding, so a second and finally a third site were chosen. A cross marking the second site can be found in a small garden, complete with wisteria and olive trees, at the corner of Martin Street and De la Cruz Boulevard.


Your best source of information when exploring this area is the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce, 1850 Warburton Avenue, Santa Clara, CA 95050, 408/244-9660, web site www.santaclara.org.

Adjacent to this office, next to fountains and landscaped grounds at El Camino Real and Lincoln Street, stands a statue of Saint Clare, namesake of the city. The sculpture is by Ann Van Kleeck.

Next to the sculpture is an interesting historical marker. Santa Clara and San Jose vie with each other as cities with the densest number of historic sites in the Peninsula region, and well they should. Santa Clara was the site of the mission and San Jose was the site of the pueblo, which was the first city in California. This particular marker honors one of the more unusual incidents of the transition period from Mexican to American rule, the Battle of the Mustard Stalks.

Perhaps the most bizarre battle in California history was this so-called Battle of the Mustard Stalks in 1847. Tensions ran high in those years of 1846 and 1847 as an increasing flood of Americans entered California. Who would control the territory, eventually? The Battle of the Mustard Stalks was one expression of that tension. Historian Dorothy Regnery, in her excellent book, The Battle of Santa Clara, has tried to sift legend from fact in reconstructing the event.

This incident occurred on January 2, 1847, when 101 Americans faced about 250 native Mexican Californios. The Americans fortified the mission and blocked the road with trees from The Alameda. A small cannon was also brought into play, which fired one six-pound shot. The skirmishes took place in fields of head-high mustard with combatants at a fairly safe distance from each other. No one was killed or injured before the posturing was considered sufficient. The Americans agreed not to commit further depredations against Mexican life and property. The Mexicans submitted, tensions were somewhat released, and California plunged toward inevitable control by the United States, especially after the gold discovery in 1848 brought teeming numbers of Americans to California.

The marker recalls these events, as follows:

Santa Clara Campaign Treaty Site. After armed confrontation nearby on January 2, 1847, and a truce meeting the following day, Marine Capt. Ward Marston, Commander of the U.S. Expeditionary Force, and Francisco Sanchez, leader of Mexican-Californian Ranchers, agreed to a treaty here on January 7. United States forces were to recognize rights of Californians and to end seizure of their personal property.

While exploring in Santa Clara, Central Park is a good place to picnic and relax. This park, at 909 Kiely Boulevard, houses the International Swim Center, where several Olympic champions from the region have trained.


Near the historical marker lies another testimony to the early life of this valley, the canvases of artist Theodore Wores depicting wildflower scenes and fruit orchards. Wores’ paintings are a major resource of the Triton Museum of Art at 1505 Warburton Avenue, 408/247-3754. A graceful, new facility opened in 1987 to house the collections.

The Triton Museum also offers changing exhibits of folk art, contemporary paintings, and classic fine art. Be sure to see on the museum grounds the Jamison-Brown House, a well-preserved Victorian-era structure noted especially for the wood craftsmanship of its floors.

Seven acres of landscaped gardens at the Triton Museum feature an eclectic sculpture collection, with several sculptures by Sascha Schnittmann, most notably a reclining female figure called Espoir and a horse called the Morgan Horse. Further cultural offerings include theater performances, plus a juried spring show in varying media and an autumn ethnic art show.


The city of Santa Clara now moves its focus inexorably toward the Bay. A Convention Center, near Paramount’s Great America theme park, has drawn the creative forces of the city into a high-tech business environment. The light-rail system from San Jose finds its terminus at the Convention Center. An adjacent Tech Mart building displays the region’s products, but not to the public. If you drive out to the Convention Center area, you’ll find a new cluster of lively restaurants in the yuppie mode, such as David’s at 5151 Stars and Stripes Drive, 408/986-1666, where the pasta or fish are good choices.

Lest the visitor feel that Santa Clara’s face is exclusively high-tech, modern, and industrial, there are antidotes. One charming example would be alternative lodging in a small, refurbished Victorian, a bed-and-breakfast, run by Theresa and Ralph Wigginton. They call their establishment The Madison Street Inn, 1390 Madison Street, Santa Clara, CA 95050, 408/249-5541, 800/491-5541.


In November 1777, sixty-six soldiers, settlers, and family members were chosen from the Presidios at San Francisco and Monterey to found a new pueblo, San Jose de Guadalupe, at the south end of San Francisco Bay.

This pueblo was one of only three secular entities that would be founded in California during the Spanish era. The others were Los Angeles in 1781 and Branciforte, now part of Santa Cruz, in 1797. The rationale for pueblos was to boost food production that could sustain the presidios and missions, institutions with which the Spanish had much experience in settling new territories.

San Jose grew slowly. By 1841 the population had risen from the original 66 to only about 300. Travelers commented that it was a small village with a few adobes and palisada, or tamped earth, houses. Life in San Jose was simple and primitive, yet the climate was attractive and retiring soldiers favored it for their homes. San Jose was a key point at the end of the immigrant trek from Sutter’s Fort around the south end of San Francisco Bay, after the immigrants had crossed the Sierra Nevada. The Santa Clara Valley was often called the Valley of San Jose in those days. Later it received the affectionate name Valley of Heart’s Delight because of the beauty of the fruit tree blossoms.

The San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau is at 333 West San Carlos Street, Suite 1000, San Jose, CA 95110-2720. Their phone is 408/295-9600. The Visitor Bureau offices overlook the vital, developing downtown area, now in the midst of a major renaissance. Ask the Visitor Bureau for walking-tour maps of the downtown and for a Country Crossroads map, useful for exploring rural Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Park your car and walk in the compact downtown area.


At 175 W. St. John Street, near North San Pedro Street, you’ll see the premier historic structure in the region, the Peralta Adobe. The marker reads:

The Luis Maria Peralta adobe. The last vestige of El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe. This simple adobe was rehabilitated in the mid-19th century. It is believed to have been built before 1800 by Manuel Gonzalez, an Apache, who was one of the Pueblo Pobladores founders. It was later owned and occupied by Sgt. Peralta, pueblo Comisionado from 1807 to 1822, who also came to California with the Anza expedition in 1775-76.

When you enter the grounds, you’ll see the adobe itself, whose interior can be viewed through barred windows. Other exhibits include a scale model of the original adobe complex and a detailed map of all early San Jose’s adobes.

Luis Maria Peralta and his wife, Maria Loreto Alviso, populated the countryside with 17 children, a not uncommon number for Californio families. As a reward for military service, Peralta was given one of the largest and most valuable Spanish land grants, Rancho San Antonio, 44,000 acres. When he died in 1851, Peralta’s net worth exceeded a million uninflated dollars.

In the twilight of the adobe era, excitement ran high as the Mexican War with the United States began, in 1846. San Jose then had a public house and three or four small stores. Captain Thomas Fallon, whose later wooden house stands opposite the Peralta adobe, rode into town with his group of California Volunteers, captured the jail, and hoisted the American flag.

In the early years of the American period, San Jose enjoyed prominence as the first state capital. The presence of this original California legislative body, dubbed The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks, caused wild land speculation, but the capital was soon moved to Sacramento. A marker on the 100 block of Market, in City Plaza Park opposite the Fairmont Hotel, tells the story:

Directly opposite this tablet was located the first State Capitol Building in which California’s first Legislature assembled in December 1849. San Jose was the seat of government from 1849 to 1851.


The most sustained blood of economic life in this valley, before the recent electronics boom, was fruit agriculture, especially prunes. Pellier Historical Park, at Terraine and West St. James streets in San Jose, recognizes this contribution with plantings of prunes, pears, and other orchard crops, plus grapes, dedicated to individual pioneering agricultural families. The park is only a block from the Peralta Adobe.

This is the best place in the Santa Clara Valley to comprehend the full force of orchard agriculture. The father of this fruit industry is commonly agreed to be a Frenchman named Louis Pellier, whose portrait you see at this park. His City Gardens Nursery once occupied the site. An historical marker at the entrance to this small park reads:

Site of City Gardens Nursery of Louis Pellier. Pellier, native of France, and founder of California’s prune industry, came to California in 1849. In October 1850, he established a nursery called City Gardens. Here, aided by his brothers Pierre and Jean, he introduced the French prune, “Le Petit d’Argen,” during the winter of 1856-57.

Interpretive displays at the park convey with clarity the story of this agricultural drama. The demand for fruit was strong among gold miners, whose usual diet was meat and grains. In 1853 dried apples were selling for three dollars apiece in San Francisco. An orchard was a surer way to fortune than was a gold mine.

Historic Peralta Adobe in San Jose, California
Historic Peralta Adobe in San Jose, California

Santa Clara Valley had two main virtues, climate and location. Until 1868 apples and pears dominated the orchard crops, but prunes then boomed. Up to 1870 this valley also led all other regions of California in wine production. The transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, opened up new markets for all types of fruit production.

Prunes were cultivated between the first of March and mid-April. Harvesting began in mid-August. As part of the drying process, the prunes were dipped in boiling lye water, which checked the prune skin, hastened drying, and prevented fermentation. The prunes were then dipped in clear water and placed on trays to sun dry, or “cure,” for 10 days. There were more than 50 canneries and packinghouses for prunes, which were the most easily preserved of all fruits.

At the peak of prune production, in 1929, there were 267.7 square miles of prune orchards. The 1940s population boom began the long, continuing destruction of orchards as subdivisions claimed the acreage.


Few American cities now experience as extensive a renaissance as San Jose. The process of transformation in the heart of the city is so complete that a current traveler has a feeling of a work in progress. The canvas for this artistry is the urban landscape. An important ingredient in the process is the human animal, a political being, squabbling and visionary, visceral and industrious. More than a billion dollars in public and private money has gone into the redevelopment in recent years.

Today San Jose is California’s third largest city, ranking after Los Angeles and San Diego, but ahead of San Francisco. The city is the 11th largest city in the country. Backers of San Jose feel Megatrends author John Naisbitt was correct when he asserts that San Jose and environs would be one of 10 “cities of opportunity” in the U.S. through the end of the century.

One cornerstone of this transformation is San Jose’s bid to address gridlock automobile traffic, the region’s largest single concern, with a 20-mile light-rail system. Modern light-rail cars will carry commuters during busy hours, but the system is also destined to become a tourist attraction, with refurbished, 1930s trolleys used during off hours and on weekends. The historic cars can now be seen at the city Historical Museum in Kelly Park.

Critics of the light-rail system argue that it is a bandaid solution and that what was needed was another BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) underground system. The latter would certainly have been preferable, but the complexities of transportation politics made an underground system impossible in the San Jose context.

Rebuilding of the downtown now surges ahead at an exhilarating pace. The luxurious Fairmont Hotel, a gracious 541-room structure that informs the downtown, anchors the restoration. In few cities could it be said that a hotel helped re-create the city downtown, but San Jose and the Fairmont are an exception. The pink-granite hotel, which opened in October 1987, commands the most prominent location in the city, downtown on the historic city plaza park. The massive, but set-back design of the hotel, topped by triangular motifs echoing other structures downtown, creates a distinguished architectural signature unique to San Jose. This $150 million five-star facility, an investment of the Swig family, has brought a major after-hours vitality to the urban center. The Lobby Lounge Bar of the Fairmont has become the fashionable and cheerful meeting place of the city, with piano music drifting through the expanse. Four restaurants, leading off the lobby, have transformed the gastronomic scene here. The Pagoda Restaurant, 408/998-3937, styled by Chinese-cooking master Kee Joon, is classy Chinese. Les Saisons, 408/998-3950, features gourmet French cooking with vintage wines by the glass. Each restaurant has its own bar and a separate entrance to the street. The choice rooms at the Fairmont are the fourth floor lanai suites, complete with their own patios fronting a large outdoor pool, flanked by palm trees.

A 425,000-square foot Convention Center was completed in 1989. The downtown transformation that will focus national travel attention on San Jose lies in the future. That entity is the High-Tech Museum, more properly known as the Technology Center of Silicon Valley, which promises to become a major travel destination. What better place could be found than in the heart of the Silicon Valley to celebrate America’s electronic inventiveness? A Children’s Discovery Museum has been developed first as a hands-on adventure for children in the worlds of science, technology, and cultural diversity.

A visitor in these years, who can kick aside the rubble and envision the future, sees a great city emerging, rising to share the spotlight with its glamorous sister to the north, San Francisco. The languid Guadalupe River, for example, which now meanders through San Jose, has become a landscaped urban stream, whose banks are known as River Park.

Much of modern downtown San Jose is devoted to tall commercial buildings, with handsome landscaping, coupled with some smart townhouses. As a major urban landscape, these buildings exhibit a satisfying low-rise human scale, required partly by the flight path over the city of planes to San Jose International Airport, which serves nearly 9 million passengers per year.

Amidst the downtown commercial structures, two entities are of interest to the general public.

The Romanesque-style post office building at 110 South Market Street has become the San Jose Museum of Art, 408/294-2787. Though much of earlier downtown San Jose has disappeared before the forces of modernization, this handsome old post office was saved. A marker at the site notes:

United States Post Office. Constructed in 1892, this was the first federal building in San Jose. It served as U.S. Post Office from 1892 to 1923. Designed by Willoughby Edbrooke and constructed of locally quarried sandstone, this Romanesque style structure is the last of its kind on the West Coast.

If the building seems to you constructed of stone similar to that used for Stanford University’s quadrangle buildings, your hunch is correct. The same quarry provided rock for both constructions. The museum features changing shows in most of its galleries and rotating materials from its permanent collection in one upstairs gallery. An unsettled recent past in the museum’s history has pitted ambitious directorial plans against meager budgets, with inevitable personnel casualties. A gift shop exhibits crafts and a judicious selection of books about the region.

As a counterpoint to the Romanesque post office/art museum, walk past a host of banks to the corner of Almaden Boulevard and Park Avenue to see the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. In front you’ll find a characteristic, granite Benny Bufano sculpture, called California Bear, reminiscent of his other depictions of animals. The center started shakily in 1972 with a balcony cave-in, but recovered to become a focus of creativity in the downtown area.

Performing arts are flourishing in San Jose. The Symphony has its financial problems, as do symphonies everywhere, with the threat of a musicians’ strike on opening night a nightmare that became a reality in 1987. However, the San Jose Symphony pulled through, without going bankrupt, something that could not be said for neighboring Oakland’s symphony.

The San Jose Repertory boasts sellout performance seasons. Civic Light Opera is also flourishing in its new dwntwn venue at 101 Paseo de San Antonio.

For information on what are the current cultural offerings in San Jose, call from a touch-tone phone the FYI (For Your Information) number, 408/295-2265. This ingenious phone tree allows you to select from a menu of choices the information you seek. Such a phone system is particularly helpful for changeable data, such as what’s on at the San Jose Repertory tonight.

Some interesting restaurants can be enjoyed in downtown San Jose beyond the Fairmont. Scott’s Seafood Grill and Bar, 185 Park Avenue, 408/971-1700, is the main fish and shellfish restaurant of the city. For California cuisine, try Steve Borkenhagen’s Eulipia Restaurant, 374 S. First Street, 408/280-6161. The landmark Italian restaurant is still Original Joe’s, corner of First and San Carlos, 408/292-7030. A diner longing for breaded veal and red cabbage should select the premier German restaurant, Hochburg von Germania, 261 North Second, 408/295-4484.

For fine dining and classic French cuisine, visit Rue de Paris, 19 North Market Street, 408/298-0704.

The major annual festival in downtown San Jose, occurring over the Fourth of July weekend, is called the San Jose America Festival. Food, arts and crafts, and live entertainers are featured in this two-day, multicultural event. With San Jose’s rich ethnic mix, several other festivals can be enjoyed, such as Japanese Obon in July, Mexican Cinco de Mayo in May, and Italian American Cultural Festival Day in October. The new, major ethnic presence in the city is Vietnamese, with its own enclave on East Santa Clara.


Kelley Park, 176 acres of greenery two miles southeast of downtown San Jose, includes the San Jose Historical Museum, which offers good access to the late-19th-century history of the region. The adjacent Japanese Friendship Garden is a setting for a tranquil walk. The museum and gardens are off Senter Road between Keyes and Phelan.

The San Jose Historical Museum is a 25-acre, open-air park at which 26 buildings and structures reflecting the region’s history, especially from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have been gathered or re-created. The park has existed only since 1972, and backers hope it will eventually house some 75 Santa Clara Valley historic structures. Membership is encouraged.

You enter by an old water tank, typical of those that supplied water and pressure at almost every farm and house in the early days of San Jose.

Start at the Pacific Hotel, the heart and headquarters of the museum, 408/287-2290. This structure reproduces the original hotel that stood at 74-80 South Market Street in the late l9th century. From here tours begin periodically to acquaint you with the other buildings. In the Pacific Hotel there are interesting displays on periods in Santa Clara Valley history, beginning with the Costanoan Indians, who lived from hunting, fishing, and acorn gathering. Here you can see an acorn granary used to store these fruits of the oak trees through the winter season.

The Mission/Pioneer-era displays show the land grants given to specific Spanish families. Cattle was the main production until l880, when fruit orchards began to dominate. Grain farming also flourished briefly, with wheat production peaking in l874 and then rapidly declining. Frank Norris’s novel, The Octopus, recounts this brief wheat boom. The orchard era was bound to be more enduring because of the combination of mild winters, brilliant spring and summer sunshine free of rain, and suitable soil for fruit crops.

A special exhibit features the famous San Jose man to whom we all owe a debt, Andrew Putnam Hill, painter and photographer, who started the Sempervirens Club and lobbied to save the Big Basin redwoods from logging. One of Hill’s interesting paintings here shows The Alameda, the black willow-lined street that led off from the Santa Clara Mission.

Other exhibits at the Pacific Hotel include coverage of the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine, complete with a piece of red cinnabar rock, the mercury ore, and an example of the steep wooden steps up which laborers carried 200-pound baskets of the ore, mined deep in the ground.

The early bicycling era in San Jose is portrayed with several nostalgic examples of high wheelers. On the ground floor of the Pacific Hotel you see 19th-century fashions.

Upstairs is the book collection, plus the written and photographic archival holdings of the San Jose Historical Museum. Call ahead to make an appointment, 408/287-2290, if you want to peruse this collection for some special interest.

From the Pacific Hotel you can make a self-guided tour or take a guided walk. Next door is the O’Brien’s Candy Store, said to have been one of the best in the West in its day. Today O’Brien’s serves sandwiches, soft drinks, and ice cream cones.

On the corner stands a replica of the humble beginnings of the Bank of America, first called the Bank of Italy when founded by A. P. Giannini, a native San Josean. The building reproduces the first out-of-town branch of the Bank of Italy.

Near the Bank of Italy you’ll see a unique tour de force of city lighting, a re-creation of San Jose’s unusual Electric Tower. The original was built in 1888 of tubular wrought iron for $3,500 and stood 237 feet above the intersection of Market and Santa Clara streets until a windstorm blew it down in 1915. This re-creation is only half as large as the original, but still completely dominates the skyline. You can see one of the six original 4,000-candlepower arc lamps in the Pacific Hotel.

The Print Shop, formerly a residence built in 1884, offers a good selection of historical books and pamphlets on the Santa Clara Valley region. Look here or at the gift shop in the hotel for the encyclopedic San Jose: California’s First City by Don DeMers and Edwin Beilharz. Historic photos are reproduced and sold as postcards.

Nearby is a 1927 gas station, built when America’s romance with the automobile was totally euphoric and motor clubs were springing up everywhere as touring became the fad. This Associated Products gas station shows the fuel, oil, and tools of the day, complete with photos of the adventurous going on their excursions. With the auto came a demand for better roads, and with the roads came a further commitment to the automobile. Today, when pollution, energy costs, and land use are major concerns, it’s nostalgic to look back at the innocent first decades of this century, when the auto was pure fun.

The Thomas E. Gallup Dental Offices building shows something of the medical and dental practices of the valley in the l9th century. This office originally stood on Benton Street in Santa Clara. It was opened in the 1870s by Dr. Henry Hume Warburton and used continuously by medical providers until the 1950s.

The Dashaway Livery Stables reconstruct the trades of horseshoeing, blacksmithing, and harness making so essential to the era when horse, wagon, and stage were the main means of transportation.

All considered, the open-air museum is a worthy collection. Some of the buildings are reconstructions rather than originals, but without them San Jose would have few approximations of its early days.


On lawns and tables outside the historical museum you can picnic or take a miniature train ride to a children’s petting zoo and small amusement area called Happy Hollow.

But the main pleasure adjacent to the San Jose Historical Museum is the Japanese Friendship Garden, six acres of highly sculpted landscape with granite boulders, pools of Japanese carp (koi), laughing waterfalls, stone bridges, and carefully manicured bonzai plants. The koi are particularly beautiful, a rainbow moving through the water. A teahouse opens when visitors are numerous. The park is exceptionally well cared for, an encouraging experience in the modern world of minimal park maintenance. If you want to be carried off in a tranquil, meditative state, commune with the surroundings at this Japanese Friendship Garden.


Few institutions in the San Jose region were more important to California and the nation than the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine, 11 miles south of San Jose on Almaden Road (G8). A marker near the mine reduction site on the right side of the road reads:

New Almaden Mine. The Indians used pigment from this cinnabar hill for paint. Mercury was mined as early as 1845. The gold discovery made mercury indispensable, and the mine, the most productive in America, became world famous. It sold for $1,700,700 in 1864.

California’s first mining dramas concerned quicksilver, or mercury, rather than gold. Before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill on the American River, men were digging out cinnabar in these hills. In fact, this was occurring even while California was part of Mexico.

The mercury mines at New Almaden were not only the first, but also the richest mines in California. Between 1845 and 1975 about 70 million uninflated dollars’ worth of mercury was mined.

Political implications of this mine were also decisive, in two ways.

First, the presence of mercury in this new-world location ensured domestic control over California gold mining when substantial deep-rock mining of gold in quartz-bearing veins occurred. The 49ers soon picked up all the gold nuggets in sight in Sierra Nevada streams, but the later discoveries of gold in quartz rock required that the rock be crushed, then mixed with mercury, which adhered to the gold but not to common ferrous metals. From this amalgam gold could be recovered by vaporizing the mercury, which was condensed again for reuse. No other technology was available for this procedure. The other major known source of mercury was the Almaden Mine in Spain, controlled by the Rothschilds of England. These foreign interests would have played a substantial role in controlling California and Nevada mining if mercury had not been discovered near San Jose.

Second, the New Almaden Mine was crucial in California’s decision to side with the Union rather than the Confederacy in the Civil War. Title to New Almaden was shaky because, aside from the expected quarreling inspired by greed, the original mining claims failed to acknowledge that the lands had been deeded to another party earlier. After substantial investment had been made in the mine, this fact came to light. New York financiers who had an interest in the outcome asked President Abraham Lincoln to step in and invalidate the claim. All mining claims in California would have been shaky had such a decree been made, and California might well then have sided with the Confederacy. Lincoln wisely stayed out of the fray, and California remained with the Union.

The New Almaden story began when Andreas Castillero, a Mexican military captain with a knowledge of chemistry and geology, had Indians from Mission Santa Clara lead him to the cave from which they took red ore for ceremonial body painting. Castillero perceived in 1845 that the ore was indeed cinnabar, filed a claim, and began working the mine. Cinnabar must be crushed and roasted to release the mercury vapors, which can then be condensed. Castillero sold out to the Barron Forbes Co., which invested more capital in the operation. Under Forbes the New Almaden operation pushed forward, with the building of a Casa Grande, still standing, as quarters for the mine manager. An Englishtown and Spanishtown were established for the miners. Litigation began when Forbes learned that Castillero had filed on land that had already been granted. In the end Forbes was forced to sell to the Quicksilver Mining Company, which operated the mines until the company went bankrupt in 1912.


Today you can relive this historic time by driving past the outstanding New Almaden Mining Museum (now closed, unfortunately) and walking the Almaden Quicksilver County Park, site of the mines.

Unfortunately, as noted, The New Almaden Mining Museum at 21570 Almaden Road is not currently open. The museum has been a notable private effort to sustain the historical story.

However, the museum is half a mile down the road from the historic Casa Grande building, once the sumptuous quarters of the mine manager, now the setting for the Opry House satirical entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. The Barbary Coast Players put on these antics, 408/268-2492. Attend the theater if bawdy entertainment is to your liking.

The museum is closed because its director, Constance Perham, has been ill. Constance Perham has been an energetic appreciator of history. She conceived of the New Almaden Museum at the age of 18, in 1926, and has been working to develop it since then. She personally has led tours, telling the story of mercury mining in its larger context of world history. The tour and artifacts in the museum are full of fascinating detail on the miners, including Mexican, Chinese, and Cornwall men. Past visitors have seen stamp mills used to crush the cinnabar, whaling try pots first used as primitive retorts, and the 76-pound flasks in which dense mercury was stored. Mercury’s use through the ages was discussed, from the Romans, who combined mercury and sulphur to make a durable ink for their important documents, to the modern electronics manufacturer, who uses mercury in switches and lamps. Constance Perham has also been a lifelong collector of California artifacts and has excellent displays on California Indians and such crucial earlier trades as blacksmithing.

The Almaden Quicksilver County Park lies above a maze of tunnels where workers went down to 2,400-foot depths to get the cinnabar ore. Most of the shafts have now been plugged up for safety reasons, keeping people above the 110 miles of underground passages carved while mercury mining flourished, 1845-1975.

Since the Santa Clara County parks system bought the mine property, several miles of hiking and horseback riding trails have been built. You can walk past some of the closed shafts and see red tailing dumps, but the compact area of the major mining activity is closed off as dangerous. In future years there will be ambitious historical and nature interpretation at the park.

The most accessible entrance to the park, including picnic grounds, is off Mockingbird Hill Lane in a terrain of oak trees and grasslands. Equestrians share the trails with walkers.



  1. Why was Polhemus Street’s name changed to Taylor? Polhemus was a significant figure in the area’s development… who was Taylor? (name changed in the 1960’s)

  2. i haven’t been on the silicon valley but i would really love to visit that place. i bet that it is a very exciting place to visit ..*


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