Category Archives: Local History

Tour of Abandoned Alviso

Have you ever been strangely attracted to a place for no apparent reason? Somewhere that feels like home even though you’ve never been there before, except perhaps in a previous life? For Dick, that place is Alviso, a community that rises out of the mudflats at the bottom of San Francisco Bay.

Between its mobile home parks and abandoned buildings, Alviso doesn’t look like much today. But in the 1800s its port was the hub for the Santa Clara Valley, with steamboats bringing passengers and goods on daily trips from San Francisco. Alviso was first home to a mill that produced up to 300 barrels of flour a day, then a fruit cannery after the valley filled with orchards. During the depression, what was once the US’s 3rd largest cannery closed, the salt pond operations expanded, the port silted up and the town’s regional economic role declined.

What’s left of Alviso is ordinary–even ugly–to most people, but intriguing to my husband, who rides out to Alviso almost every week. I recently joined him and brought along a new camera to see if I could capture the charm of Alviso, Silicon Valley’s most neglected historic town.

Is there a place that is special to you in a way that is hard to explain, even to people who know you well?

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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Backroads, Local History


Yes, Sir. I’m a Military Wife

Because I met my husband after he had retired from the Coast Guard, I’ve never considered myself a military wife. I guess Dick didn’t either since he never bothered registering our marriage with the military. But there are valuable benefits to being a military spouse, so we pedaled across town to Moffett Field to get my first military identification card. In 20 short minutes and after a little playful ribbing from the clerk, it was official.

I proudly showed my newly minted card to the guard at the main gate and we rolled onto the base for a quick tour. Having lived for decades next to Moffett Field, I had only been on base and up close to the imposing Hangar One a few times. Built in the 1930’s to house dirigibles, Hangar One is so massive that folks say clouds form inside. Unfortunately, its shell contains PCBs, asbestos and other harmful substances. Once slated for demolition, they’re tearing off the toxic shell instead while they search for someone to fund the renovation.

Then we stopped in at the commissary to check out the selection and the prices. The commissary system sells groceries at cost with a 5% surcharge to cover operating expenses. The first item I saw was Peet’s coffee: $5.99 for a 12 ounce bag. A 20 oz bag of peeled and cleaned shrimp was $6.79. At those prices, we filled the panniers for $56. When I got home I compared the prices online with Safeway: $85. Wow.

For those military families (both young and old) that struggle to make ends meet, a 35% discount is invaluable. When they closed the commissary at the Presidio ten years ago, it must have been a huge blow to families in San Francisco and Oakland. The commissary at Moffett Field is 40 miles south, and the one at Travis Air Force Base is 60 miles northeast. Too far to be worth the trip.

But the most valuable benefit of being a military spouse is that I’m covered by TRICARE, the military health care program, which means I won’t have to pay $500+ per month for COBRA. I haven’t visited the doctor yet, but I discovered this morning that the co-payment on my allergy drugs went down from $30 to $12. Thank you, Uncle Sam! And thank you, Dick, for your years of service to our country.

What benefits or perks do you get from your job that you value the most?

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Posted by on January 16, 2012 in Around Town, Local History


Reservoirs and Water Temples in Calaveras Valley

There’s a famous quote: “The history of the West is the history of water.” In semi-arid land like California, those who controlled the water controlled the population. When we planned our ride around Calaveras Reservoir, it was for the scenery, however, not because it was a major water source for San Francisco dating back to the mid-1800s.

From the outskirts of Milpitas, we climbed straight uphill through horse farms and a county park with a green golf course that stands in sharp contrast with the surrounding brown hillsides just starting to recover from the dry season. After the final assault up a steep wall, we got our first glimpse of the reservoir. The water level was surprisingly low, given the exceptionally wet previous rainy season. I later learned that due to seismic concerns for the dam since the 1989 earthquake, the reservoir is restricted to 40% capacity.

Calaveras Road wends itself in and out among the canyons high above the reservoir. Since the road doesn’t directly connect anything, its travelers are all joyriders: bicycles, motorcycles, sport car enthusiasts and Sunday drivers. Beautifully remote and an ideal route for a rouleur like me with its rolling terrain.

From there we followed Calaveras Creek down to the town of Sunol, home of the Sunol water temple, which preceded the Pulgas water temple on Canada Road by 20 years. Who woulda thunk there was more than one water temple? And what’s the point of a water temple anyway?

Well, in an area that gets less than 15 inches of rain a year, a water temple honoring a carefully planned and expensively built aqueduct makes a lot of sense. Water is life, and therefore worthy of veneration. This particular water temple is located at the nexus of three aqueducts that once provided San Francisco with half its water supply, before the famous Hetch Hetchy aqueduct was built. (Look carefully to see the temple)

These days more people visit the Sunol store, home of all kinds of junk food and a customer-only port-a-potty. I’ll just write off my Drumstick ice cream cone as a small price to pay for a bathroom access.

From Sunol we headed back up to the reservoir, with a side trip to the Sunol-Ohlone Wilderess, yet another fabulous, but underutilized county park. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never been there: wildflowers, golden eagles, and large rocks in Alameda Creek deemed “Little Yosemite”, all feeding into a remote feeling you’d never expect so close to the East Bay.

Although it’s smack dab in the middle of a major watershed, the park has to truck bottled water in for campers. That’s how water is in a dry land. It flows uphill to money, and unfortunately a county park doesn’t have much pull.

How much do you know about the water that flows through your tap? Where does it come from? Where does it go?

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Posted by on October 26, 2011 in Backroads, Local History


Roadside Attractions: The Hidden Grotto

If you’re a roadie living on the San Francisco Peninsula, I’m sure you’ve ridden over this little stone bridge and I bet never noticed anything odd about it. Like me, you were probably focused on the climb ahead, perhaps hitting the lap timer on your bike computer or heart rate monitor to record your time up the hill.

Last week, I gave the bridge an extra look and discovered that the stones were fake. Not fake like concrete-shaped-into-stone fake, which is pretty common in our landslide-prone hills, but fake as in thin-mortar-over-a-wire-mesh fake.

What’s more, under the bridge there is more fake rock, a grotto of sorts. A rider waiting for a friend encouraged us to go down and it check out. He said it was built as a movie set, but I don’t think he was right.

An Internet search led me to the story of the massive Schilling estate that included this bridge. August Schilling, best known for his spice and extract empire, was also a garden aficionado who reworked the redwood and oak forests on his estate to suit his sensibilities. That meant ponds, cascades, pergolas, manicured lawns, extensive flower gardens–and fake rocks built by master craftsmen.

Schilling employed up to 60 gardeners who made sure there wasn’t a leaf out of place on his 150 acre estate. But after Schilling died in 1934, the grand house fell into disrepair. It was torn down in 1952, but the rocks live on. And if you’re a Peninsula roadie, you’ve probably ridden through it all without realizing it.

For the locals: Have you guessed where this “stone” bridge is located? (see comments for the location)

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Posted by on October 8, 2011 in Backroads, Local History

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