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Santa Clara County, CA



Gary B. Speck



LOCATED IN THE WESTERN FOOTHILLS of the Diablo Range about eight miles northeast of Downtown San Jose, this is the crumbled remains of a once-grand resort that capitalized on the mineralized waters and hot springs that flowed from the sedimentary rocks along the bottom of Penitencia Creek in Alum Rock Canyon.  Some of the springs included: sulfur, magnesia, iron and carbonated soda springs.  The 720 acre park was established by the City of San Jose in 1872, the first municipal park in the state of California.  It was originally known as The Reservation, the City Reservation or Penitencia Reservation.  The name Alum Rock Park wasn’t used until around 1900 and came from a farmer who named the area after a whitish powder that appeared on the rocks near the springs.  That powder was not alum, but another mineral called thenardite.  Even so, the name stuck.


Right around the time the park was established and deeded to the City of San Jose, a saloon and hotel were already in operation in the canyon to take advantage of the beautiful area, as well as the 27 hot and other mineral springs.  There were some issues with the building’s lease, and it mysteriously burned around 1890. 


In 1891, the Parks Commission began development of a formal park, building a new hotel called the Alum Rock House, private mineral baths, a dance pavilion and picnic tables were all added.  The nasty, but ever-present poison oak was temporarily eradicated.  Other amenities included additional bathhouses with tiled tubs, livery stable, mineral water dispensing pagoda, restaurant, a large outdoor swimming pool (the Open Air Plunge).  Tunnels were dug and the springs were fed into stone grottoes and basins to showcase them.  Steps were built of native rocks, while stone bridges crossed the creek, allowing access to springs on the opposite side.  All the rocks and stones used to build these stonework structures were collected from the canyon.  Water was piped from the grottoes to the various bathhouses where it was heated and used by the patrons.  A seven-mile long brick road was then built from the city to the park.


By the mid 1890s the resort had become a nationally known health spa.  More people came, and it was affectionately called “Little Yosemite.”  As in that larger park, it was nearly loved to death.  As people came, the natural beauty was affected.  In 1896, a steam-powered, narrow gauge train known as the Alum Rock Steam Railroad was brought in, trestles and tunnels built, and a depot erected near the hotel.  In 1901, the steam trains gave way to an electric engine and the line was extended deeper into the park, and a new depot was built in the flat grassy area located near the present Youth Sciences Institute. 


In 1904, a large stone hotel, the Alum Rock Lodge, was built near the main entrance of the park to house guests.  It still remains, although is privately owned.  Through the early 1900s, the park was a popular place to stay and play, but washouts and cave-ins plagued the railroad route, and a couple of fatal accidents in 1903 and 1909 with the railroad made news.  In 1911, a major flashflood decimated the park’s buildings and railroad.  This was almost the death knell for the park, but by 1912, construction began on a new standard gauge rail line to the park.  The Southern Pacific Railroad bought out the holdings of the previous owner, and got to work, and the first train arrived in the park in 1913. 


1913 was the year of rebuilding.  Some of the new accoutrements included: a new pavilion, a 45’ x 90’ heated pool with diving boards and a large slide housed inside a Natatorium, an aviary, café, a bandstand, a tea garden, men’s and women’s bathhouses and a strong promise of a new hotel (which never did get built).  Bridges, grottoes and other rockwork were rebuilt, and Alum Rock Park was making pretensions of a wannabe European Spa.  However, the park did not draw as well as anticipated.  The Great Depression and the popularity of the automobile doomed the train, even though the fare for a ride was reduced from a quarter to a dime.  Most folks found it easier to drive to the park, so in 1932 the train finally shut down.  In 1934, the train station was torn down and the rails removed, leaving the only access to the park via trail or automobile.  In 1936 a dam was built above the park, thus preventing additional disastrous floods like the 1911 one.


Despite the demise of the train, the park remained extremely popular, with as many as 10,000 people trying to shoehorn into the narrow canyon on Sunday afternoons.  A penny-arcade, log cabin, merry-go-round, and a small zoo were added, bringing more people.  The record seems to have been set on Easter Sunday 1935, when 4400 cars were counted.


Through the 1940s-1950s, many visitors still went to the park, but the heyday of the spa was over.  Overcrowding was frequent, and the City moved towards showcasing the natural beauty, rather than the multiple uses of the park.  By the 1960s most of the structures had been abandoned and rampant rumors of crime and other nefarious acts helped the reputation of the park quickly deteriorate from a fun place to a dangerous place.  When I was a student at San Jose State University in the early 1970s, I heard those rumors and never visited the park, even though I was extremely interested in the history of it.  Hindsight is 20-20, and now I wish I would have heeded those urges to visit, as I would have had a chance to see some of the buildings and other structures before they were demolished.  The city actually removed most of the abandoned, derelict buildings in the mid-1970s, including the Natatorium and merry-go-round in 1975. 


Today picnic areas and 13 miles of unpaved and paved hiking/biking trails predominate, while visitors wander about the ruins of the old resort, curious as to what the structures were.  Portions of the railroad grade are still visible along with its massive, concrete trestle abutments, bridges and foundations.  Also visible in the park are several rock bridges, grottoes and rock tubs, old light poles whose lights are shaped like bells, the 1890s mineral water pagoda, the 1916 log cabin and the 1930s era building now housing the Youth Sciences Institute. On the day of our visit, only one other couple was wandering the park, and a few runners and bicyclists passed us by: a far cry from the days when 10,000 people a day would crowd into the area.  Today all is quiet.  Huge oaks and sycamores are interspersed with smaller trees and bushes such as California Madrone and Buckeye, while the understory is colored with wildflowers, ferns, moss and lichens.  Chattering squirrels scamper amid the fallen leaves, numerous calling birds flit about the tree branches and Penitencia Creek bubbles and burbles its way down the canyon.  The mineral waters still seep, lending a slight sulfurous aroma to the natural vegetation smell. Alum Rock Park has seen its boom.  It’s seen its bust.  Now it rests, enjoying the resurgence of nature.


NOTE:  Access is via Penitencia Creek Road, NOT Alum Rock Road.



·        Latitude: 37.3977168  / 37° 23' 52" N

·        Longitude: -121.7996751  / 121° 47' 59" W


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FIRST POSTED:  January 04, 2010

LAST UPDATED: February 02, 2010





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