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The Atlantic to the Pacific: What to See and How to See it (1873), by John Erastus Lester

Santa Clara Valley.

Santa Clara Valley.—My Visit to the hot springs was followed by a brief sojourn in ‘Frisco,’ after which I set out (May 29) for the Santa Clara Valley to the southward. As soon as we were out of the suburbs, the fertile farms of San Mateo County were seen upon either side of the line. We are now going in a south-easterly direction, along a narrow ridge of land, which pushes north towards a similar jutting spur, which extends to the south, and separates the Bay of San Francisco from the Pacific. As we pass along the low stretch of shore to the East, towards the bay, we have on the West the hills of the Sierra Monte Diablo range, which hide from view the ocean.

A few miles out we pass directly through the great farm of D. O. Mills, Esq., President of the Bank of California; on the right, just upon the foot-hills, stands his palatial residence, built of brick, in the style of the French Rénaissance, surrounded by conservatories, which are a necessity with us, but here more for ornament, as it is only for a few weeks, during the great rains, that any plants, even those in pots, require protection. Near the track are situated his extensive barns, milk-houses, and other necessary farm buildings, up to the doors of which a ‘siding’ has been run, so that the milk from this great dairy can be taken directly from the barn upon the cars, to be transported, in a very short time, to the city. Away to the East a beautiful reach of low, marshy meadow intervenes between us and the waters of the Bay. The whole farm gives proof of unbounded wealth; and it seems a good omen that Mr. Mills sees fit to carry on this magnificent farm, improve the breed of cattle and horses, by experiment decide the most useful crops, and by his example teach others how to till the ground, that health and plenty may come to the people of the State.

Our train draws up at a station called Belmont; and, as we had been told that this was the station nearest ‘Ralston’s royal mansion,’ we looked around in hopes of seeing that house; but it is so situated among the foothills that it cannot be seen from the road. When I describe an entertainment given to a party of ladies and gentlemen at this mansion, and of whom I had the good fortune to be one, I hope to make you acquainted with the house and grounds, and know something of the sumptuousness of the private life of a rich Californian.

We now enter the Valley proper by making a little turn eastward; and at once we see that we are within one of Nature’s great parks. This Valley has been often called the ‘garden of the State;’ but we would rather term it the ‘park.’ The greak oak-trees, both the black and the live oak, stand in all their majesty upon the plain, and from their branches hang the mosses, just as you see them in the States bordering the Gulf of Mexico. They are scattered through the fields just as the landscape-gardener would desire them, but in an order which he always fails to get whenever he tries his hand at imitating Nature’s planting. The grasses look greener and fresher than anywhere else that we have seen in the State; and, although we do not see a great variety of flowers, we do have the yellow blossoming mustard-plant, covering acres in one mass of gold. We see wheat-fields of 1,000 acres—that is, with no fence between, and the only breaks being dead-furrows; orchards of apple, pear, peach, and nectarine, of great extent; as well as plantations of English walnut, almond, cherry, and fig. From this valley come as fine strawberries as are produced in the State; and we visited one strawberry-patch which contained sixty acres, the vines covering the ground almost entirely. Oats, barley, and, to some extent, corn, thrive; and the potato produces large tubers, but the quality is not as good as in sections further to the north. The hay made from the wild oats and the volunteer crops—that is, grain which grows from the droppings from the last planting (they have here none of our grasses), is considered very nutritious; and the fields which we visited yielded immense returns. One field upon which we went was being cut for the second time; and the farmer said he should obtain one more crop before the drought succeeded in killing all green things.

The villages through which we pass have a look of thrift; and the many fine grounds and elegant mansions which are seen along the line convince us that here ‘wealthy Friscans’ love to make their homes. Back from the railroad, the spires and housetops of the old town of Santa Clara appear in view; and, after a ride of three miles, we arrive at the city of San José, which is located in the very heart of the valley, and just fifty miles from San Francisco.

The Spanish had their military post, called the Presidio, near the entrance to the Bay in 1776, which is now within the limits of San Francisco. The commander of the post in 1777 resolved to make an agricultural settlement near the mission which had already been established at Santa Clara some ten months, and accordingly, on November 29 of that year, made a beginning on the banks of a creek, which they had named Guadaloupe: but the early settlers were much annoyed by the floods which overflowed the banks of the creek and destroyed their property; so they moved their town to the North. All that is now left of the ancient town is one large store-house, and the Halls of Justice, both built of adobe, and now in a very dilapidated condition. In 1797 the town had changed its location and occupied the present site. All this was in the time of Charles IV., when all that section, of which California is only a part, belonged to the crown of Spain, and was ruled by a governor, who with soldiery kept the Indians in subjection. The name given to the new town was El Pueblo de San José de Guadaloupe. In 1814 there were only twenty dwellings; and the only foreigner (that is, not a Spaniard or Indian) was John Gilroy, a Scotchman. In 1831 the population was 524; and, as late as 1834, there were in all the town only twenty foreigners. In 1844 arrived the first party of Americans from Missouri; and in 1846 another party of 120, commanded by Fremont, reached this valley, and came to the city. On July 11, 1846, Capt. Thomas Fallon took possession of the town in the name of the United States. It was the first capital of the State; and here the legislatures of 1849 and ’50, and 1851 and ’52, were held. After this the capital was removed to Sacramento. San José has now a population of about 14,000, and is increasing faster, proportionally, than any of the cities. Although the loss of the capital was a severe blow to the little town, still it grew slowly, as the centre of a rich farming section. People seeking a pretty town to reside in, after they had ‘dug from the earth a fortune,’ came here; and soon the community was one where existed great individual wealth—a position which it still retains.

The streets are broad, laid out at right angles, and mostly well graded. The city is well supplied with water; as in most parts, by sinking an artesian well, the water rises several feet above the surface—a pleasing substitute for windmills. The depth of these wells does not average more than 30 feet. This gives to San José peculiar advantages, as water in California is the great desideratum during a large part of the year. The building were very commonplace till within a year or so, during which time several fine blocks have been erected, doing credit to the enterprise of the citizens. The Court House is the finest public building (save the Capitol at Sacramento) which we have seen in the State. The State Normal School building, built of wood, in the Corinthian style, is the finest, as well as the largest, wooden building in the State. It is to be ready for occupancy in about a year; and when the park around it is laid out, and planted, the whole will have a very showy effect. The Academy of Notre Dame is located here, and, as a school for young ladies, is of much celebrity. The Auzerais House is a good hotel, in a pleasant position, where a Yankee, by name Churchill, will see that you are well cared for, at prices which are moderate.

In the old part of the town, near the Halls of Justice, we found the old plaza, where the bull-fights used to take place; and scattered through the city are many old Spanish families, the members of which look, even now, as if they would relish ‘just one more bull-fight.’ There still remain many of the old adobe houses; but, for the most part, the residences of the people are not only comfortable, but in many instances elegant. The grounds surrounding many of the residences are very finely laid out, and the planting done with good taste and judgment: of all which we saw, those of Gen. Negley pleased us most; and when we were told that, nine years before, they were within a great field, and that most of the trees had been only three years planted, we were perfectly amazed. But we must bear in mind that here the seasons are so much longer, that the trees and plants can make much larger growth, which, when compared with the season in our North Atlantic cities, gives probably three times the growth in a year; and with many plants the proportion would be still greater.


The Alameda is the road connecting the cities of San José and Santa Clara. It is about three miles long and was laid out by the monks, who planted upon each side of the way trees (the willow, oak, and sycamore), which have now become very great, so that, for a great part of the way, their branches interlace above your head, offering a grateful shade, Tradition tells us that the monks used to walk over from Santa Clara and gather the Indians at San José around a cross which they had erected there, and tell them of God and the Bible: it is also said that the work of collecting and planting the trees was done by the converted Indians. By the kindness of Major George R. Vernon, formerly an officer in the army, who resigned to give his whole attention to his extensive farm, we were driven about the city, and over the Alameda, rendered historic by the old monks of the mission, who wended their way on foot over this very ground to carry ‘good news’ to the Indians. I care not what was their creed; to them belong honour and thanks for the self-sacrificing spirit which led them to the holy work of converting the savages, To this day the good they wrought remains, and through them this great section was opened for the advance of civilisation.

Our drive over this famous road prepared us to retrace our steps next day and visit the town and mission of Santa Clara. The town is old and dilapidated, without any appearance of business or even thrift. There are still remaining many old adobe houses, built by the Spaniards and Mexicans. In one which we visited we found some dirty, ignorant Mexicans, unable to speak English, and with only the rudest implements for housekeeping; in a shed adjoining the old house, enveloped in rags and filth, lay an old woman; and in another part of the house, in a room without windows or fireplace, was a woman with several children. These people are descendants from the proud Castilian and the native Indian— a deplorable race, and more hated by the few pure-blood Spaniards who still survive the misfortunes which have overtaken their rule in America than by the Americans themselves. Many of the men live in the saddle, and get their food and blankets from the occasional sale of a pony, or some odd property which they have secured in way of trade. They disdain all work and love a nomadic life. Even the young, boys show great expertness in the use of the lassoo.

Being tired of looking about the town, we called at the entrance-door of Santa Clara College, and were ushered into a neatly-furnished parlour. We had not waited long, when a priest called, whom we afterwards found to be the learned Rev. Prof A. Cichi, through whose untiring efforts this institution has now one of the most extensive collections of philosophical apparatus in the whole country. He said he was ready to show us around the college; and we visited the several recitation-rooms, the laboratory, the museums, in all of which every ‘appliance of learning’ was to be found. We were taken into the dormitories and the dining-halls, where the greatest neatness was apparent; into the rooms of the debating society, and the great hall fitted up with the accessories of the theatre, as well as into the various rooms for the teaching of special studies, as photography, mining, &c.; through the beautiful gardens, where now are growing the fig and olive trees planted by the early missionaries and under whose shade the ‘brothers’ were now walking as they recited to themselves the words of their prayers, and willed their thoughts from things temporal to those of ‘the life to come.’ From the garden we went into the old adobe church, built very narrow, but very long, as the early builders knew only how to lay beams across from wall to wall, instead of sustaining the roof upon a truss. The interior of the church is, of course, very rude; and the old altar is still there, around which the ‘brothers’ and their converts have often knelt. The old paintings brought from Spain still adorn the walls; and some of the painting and colouring upon the ceiling is just as it was originally. The sides of the buildings have been incased in wood to preserve them; and above the old tile-roof another has been placed to keep out the rain. This church is much better preserved than the old Mission Dolores in San Francisco, which we visited; for, while there much that is modern has been introduced, here all is old, nothing new. The same three bells—a Spanish custom—are still rung at morning and evening.

The mission is very old, older by far than the town but the college was not founded till 1855, by Rev. John Noblii. Since its birth it has been very prosperous, being patronised by all denominations, as the studies are so arranged that a Protestant is in no way debarred from the privileges of the school. The average number of scholars is about 200.

The New Almaden Mine.—Seven miles from San José this famous quicksilver mine is found. A stage runs to the mines, but it is far better to go by private carriage. The road is pleasant, and is lined with the most magnificent sycamore-trees which can be imagined, their great branches stretching 30 feet from the trunk, and resting themselves upon the ground, with gnarled forms which tell of antiquity. Every one of them is a study for an artist. We soon enter a defile in the Santa Cruz Mountains; and, as it narrows, we come within the property of the company. Passing the church, the residence of the superintendent and the neat cottages of the miners, we drew up in front of the hotel—a long one and a half story stone building, into the rooms of which you pass directly from the side-walk. In front of us are the offices and smelting furnaces of the company, together with shops and various buildings required in the production of quicksilver from the cinnabar ore. We are now in the part of the property called the ‘Hacienda.’

The superintendent of the works offering us every facility for seeing the property, we proceeded first to one of the furnaces which was in operation. It is built of brick strapped with iron, and has five openings along its sides. From a platform above it is charged; that is, the reddish ore called cinnabar is packed into the fires chamber: this is connected with the other chambers by long pipes, which gradually recede from the influence of the heat, and at last find an opening far up the sides of the hills in a chimney, out of which pour the poisonous vapours of arsenic.

The ore is heated above 480° Fahrenheit, when the quicksilver in it is sublimed, and passes along into the chambers and flues, and, as it is separated from the other substances, is gradually cooled, until it is precipitated, and runs from the chambers in little globules into a trough extending around the sides of the furnace, and which, by its inclination, carries the quicksilver into a large receptacle, which looks like an old-fashioned set iron boiler, and from this it is dipped, weighed, and poured into the flasks, which are made of cast iron, hold 56 pounds, and are closed by a thread-cut stopper. Having seen this part of the work, we next drove, by one of the finest mountain-roads that could be made, up to the mines and villages on the hill. The grade is so adjusted that heavy loads are drawn up the mountain-sides and the ore taken down to the shutes, through which it slides to the level of the furnaces. As we rode up we found two villages of mineers—one of Mexicans and one of Welsh and Cornish miners. The entrance to the mine is a great dark hole, through which you pass, and grope around for several thousand feet within the hill. A car brings up the ore; and under a long shed it is cleaned and assorted, and prepared for the furnaces. Down about 700 feet below the old mine another opening has been made; and very rich ore is now taken out. There is, of course, much ore which is very rich, but which is too fine to pack; this is mixed with clay, made into bricks, and in this shape they furnish a good lining for the furnace, and the quicksilver is saved.

The houses perched about on the steep mountain-sides looked as if they would tumble down from their elevated positions. Children were playing about the schoolhouse which the company had established, and where a good school is maintained. A well-stocked store supplies the miners; and those whom we saw at work, and going to take their turn in the mines, were a hardy set of fellows. The whole property told of present good management; and I could see no reason why some of the dreams of the early owners had not been realised; but large properties are the prey of those who work alone for their own interests, unmindful of the stockholders, who, as a rule in such companies, are only consulted or troubled when a new assessment is to be called for.

The property owned by the company is large, its landed estate is extensive, its machinery costly; and it would seem that they possessed every appliance for making the ore yield large returns in cash to be divided among the holders of the stock.

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