They Called it Saratoga

From Campbell's Gap to Saratoga

The usual process of naming a town involves someone who says, "I'm going to establish a town here and name it after myself," or who names it for some other person or, perhaps, a geographical feature. Or, maybe, the name just grows by usage and custom.

By October 1864, the residents of a little settlement strung out along the banks of a stream on the western edge of the Santa Clara Valley, variously known as Arroyo Quito and Campbell Creek, had been through all that.

The place had been called Campbell's Gap, after the man who built a sawmill on the stream some two miles up the canyon; Tollgate, after the barrier that had been erected across the road leading to the mill; McCartysville, after the man who laid out the streets; Bank Mills, after the impressive stone structure and its ponderous water wheel which enterprising Charles Maclay had built near what is now the present entrance to Hakone Gardens, and now the citizens - gathered at a patriotic event, for it was during the Civil War and even communities in remote California were divided by the conflict raging more than 2,500 miles away - were going to decide on the permanent name.

They called it Saratoga.

There was good reason for the choice. During the 1850s, in a canyon that branched off from the one in which William Campbell built his sawmill, and some distance below the mill itself, mineral springs were discovered, the waters of which, it turned out, had almost exactly the same chemical content as the great Congress Springs, one of the ninety or so sources that compose Saratoga Springs, New York.

Already the property had been purchased by a group of financiers headed by Darius Ogden Mills, and there was talk of a resort to be built in the grand manner of the eastern Saratoga spa, then a center of fashion.

Indeed, what more logical name than Saratoga?

If the name's purported origin was known to the California town's residents, it didn't deter them. Saratoga, it is said, is derived from an Iroquois word, Se-rach-to-que, literally, "floating scum upon the water," a completely understandable interpretation to be put on the presence of mineral deposits showing up as vari-colored film on the surface of a pond.


As much as any settlement in the American West, the newly named Saratoga could claim status as a pioneer town. Its first acknowledged permanent American settler, William Campbell, had spent an uncomfortably moist winter in 1846-47 in the dank and musty abandoned adobe buildings of Mission Santa Clara, and he correctly surmised that the settlers who were beginning to come to the Santa Clara Valley would want to build sturdy wood houses, reminiscent of the homes they had left in the East.

The sawmill-building operation which he started with his sons, Benjamin and David, in 1847, was delayed somewhat when, in the spring of the following year, another millwright a couple of hundred miles farther north found yellow flakes in the stream where he was working the American River and touched off one of history's great migrations, the California Gold Rush.

No such discovery attended the project here, even though there were to be later reports of copper and silver deposits in the region, and a revenue-producing lime kiln actually did go into operation close to the present village area.

For more than half a century, the wealth of the mountains was timber, mostly redwood, and the town that was to be called Saratoga owed its start and early development to that wealth.

In 1850, a vigorous young Irishman named Martin McCarty leased the mill the Campbells had started and set about to improve the wretched access situation by having a road built to the site. To recoup his investment, he erected a tollgate, near the present intersection of Third Street and Big Basin Way, and charged a fee for the use of the road. It was a common practice in those early days for counties to grant franchises for roads to be built on a private-enterprise basis, then, after a period of time, take them over and maintain them as public thoroughfares.

In McCarty's case, although the tollgate was used only about a year, it was of sufficient renown for the settlement to be known by that name for some years afterward.

Motorists traveling across the valley floor feel ill-used when traffic signals and congestion result in a half-hour being expended for a 10 or 12 mile trip. A century and a quarter ago it took a teamster with his wagon load of logs or rough-sawn timber two and sometimes three days to come down from the mountain and make the trip to San Jose.

Saratoga was one of the overnight stopping places, and the passage of these great wagons gave the town one of its first economic reasons for existence. Hotels and saloons were strung out along Lumber Street, now Big Basin Way, and a rough frontier atmosphere prevailed as late as the 1880's. It was concerning this period that a neighboring town's newspaper observed: "Saratoga was a notorious town . . . with its sawmills and lumbering back in the mountains. There were lots of Chinese in the village and opium smoking as well as lotteries were going on all the time. There were seven saloons in the village and to be a 'drunk from Saratoga' was the last word in drunkenness. Some of the lumberjacks would work in the timber for six months and then come down to Saratoga and spend all the wages on a 'toot'."

For all its frontier color, Saratoga then, as now, had variety as a chief characteristic. The lumberjacks may have been whooping it up in the saloons, but there were plenty of industrious citizens at work giving the town another side to its image. Ironically enough for this present day, when the term is anathema in a residential community, that side of the image was "industry."

"Saratoga, a fine little manufacturing town nestled in the foothills, is one of the most inviting places in the county. It will probably become a large manufacturing town and summer watering place." So editorialized the San Jose Mercury in September 1871. The reference to watering place, of course, was to the Pacific Congress Springs and the fine resort hotel that had been built some half-mile from the springs.

But industry? In Saratoga?

Industrial Town

Consider the potential. The town was situated on a stream which, (it is hard to visualize today) when properly flumed, could turn a good-sized water wheel. Close by were seemingly unlimited stands of timber, wood for fuel, and that descriptively named variety of oak used in the processing of animal hides, tanbark.

The first such industry, of course, was Campbell's mill. Not long afterward, one Bill York started a furniture factory, using the native sycamore, redwood and madrone, but he apparently was ahead of his time and the enterprise didn't prosper.

Of more staying power were the flour mills, for in the 1850s and later, Santa Clara Valley was a producer of wheat. The most successful of these was that built by pioneers William Haun and John Whisman and later sold to the multi-talented Charles Maclay.

Maclay, who came to California in 1851 as a Methodist circuit-rider and stayed to engage in the more worldly pursuits of manufacturing, real estate development and politics, called his enterprise Bank Mills and used his influence to get the town's post office - it had been McCartysville since 1855 - changed to Bank Mills on December 22, 1863.

Bank Mills not only included the flouring operation powered by a huge water wheel, pictures of which suggest a bit of New England calendar art, but a tannery where harness and other leather goods were manufactured.

But the industries which most closely identified Saratoga with such things as smokestacks and water pollution were a couple of mills that respectively produced heavy butcher paper and cardboard.

The latter, in fact, is credited with being the first mill of its kind on the west coast, and Saratoga with being the birthplace of the huge, west coast fibreboard industry. The mill itself was situated in the vicinity of the present Wildwood Park and was in operation there between 1870 and 1880, when it was moved to Corralitos, near Watsonville. As the Caledonia Pasteboard Mills, the operation here at one time hired as many as 12 men.

The Saratoga Paper Mill, Saratoga's only steam-powered industry, was situated near Sixth Street and Big Basin Way and flourished from 1868 to 1883, when the plant was destroyed by fire. As many as 20 men were employed there at one time, working a 12-hour day and earning from $2.00 to $2.50 a day.

At about the time these various industries were in their prime, there was some talk of routing the narrow-gauge railroad between the East Bay and the coast through Saratoga rather than through Los Gatos, as ultimately was done.

What the concurrence of rail transportation and flourishing industries would have meant for the future of Saratoga is a matter for historical conjecture. In any event, Campbell's Gap - Tollgate - McCartysville - Bank Mills - Saratoga experienced the usual vicissitudes of pioneer life, tempered somewhat by scenery and climate that were to grow in fame with the years.

But however idyllic the setting, carving a community out of what essentially was wilderness took courage, physical stamina, and a spirit of cooperation. Government services and public agencies of any kind were practically unknown in the earliest days, and such things as schools, welfare, and medical care were a do-it-yourself kind of thing.

Sons of Temperance

In such a setting, lodges and benevolent societies played an important role. Not only were they centers of social contact, they also were the agencies to which one could turn in time of need; help to fellow members was a cornerstone of lodge organization.

In Saratoga, there early appeared such an organization, McCartysville Division No. 55, Sons of Temperance, established here in 1854. In addition to meeting the temporal and spiritual needs of its members, the lodge performed a wider community service by providing the town with its first public meeting hall, built in the same year, 1854.

The only photograph extant of this building, located approximately on the site of the cafeteria of Saratoga School on Oak Street, shows an unpainted shack of hardly bungalow proportions. But this unprepossessing structure for 12 years served as school, church, and public assembly hall in the days before First Amendment church - state separation became a burning issue.

About the time it was built, the first state school funds began trickling in - prior to this time the town had a privately supported "subscription school" - so the lodge, in fact, provided the first public school building. It is reported that the first teacher, Andrew T. Swart, received $125 a month. In a variation on the Little Red Schoolhouse theme, this one was popularly known as the "little chocolate schoolhouse."

Not many buildings today survive from the era of the Sons of Temperance Hall. One of the very few is the James McWilliams house, which the Saratoga Heritage Preservation Commission, in cooperation with the Saratoga Historical Foundation and the City of Saratoga, is seeking to preserve as a permanent exhibit of the town's pioneer days.

Those pioneer days in many parts of California had a distinctive hazard, peculiar to the state because of its Spanish and Mexican origins.

This had to do with the matter of land titles, and the question of whether a particular parcel was part of a Spanish or Mexican land grant made to an individual, or whether it was public land, ceded to the United States after the Mexican War. Since the land grants were notoriously vague in their boundary descriptions, and since the validity of the grants themselves was observed by the United States government, there arose many disputes as to whether a particular parcel lay within the grant or within public lands, open to homestead.

The result was that not a few individuals found themselves paying twice for their land, once to a "squatter" who supposedly had perfected title to it, and again to the holder of the grant who, in the determination of a special Land Commission, had the only valid claim.

Ideological Battleground

There was another burden that weighed on the young town in its early years; the north-south split that divided the country and resulted in the Civil War. Remote as it was from the scenes of actual conflict, California still was an ideological battleground, reflecting the sentiments of the settlers who had come here.

Saratoga had many residents devoted to the Southern cause, and it was believed that the town had a branch of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a Secessionist secret society that raised money for the Confederate cause by, among other things, robbing stagecoaches and banks in California. It was with stunned dismay that townspeople saw two of the community's most respected citizens taken away to stand trial for their supposed complicity in a stagecoach robbery in the Sierra in 1864 in which the bandit leader had told the passengers that the gold bullion and coin would be used for recruiting troops for the Confederacy.

Charges subsequently were dropped, but the incident left a deep scar in the community, with opinion divided as to their guilt or innocence.

There was considerable Union sentiment, too; it was at a patriotic gathering, staged for the purpose of demonstrating the town's loyalty to the federal government, that the vote was taken on changing the name from Bank Mills to Saratoga. Although no units as such were sent to the actual fighting, the town did raise a company of home guards: an 80-member cavalry unit appropriately called the Redwood Volunteers. Officially it was Company E, First Cavalry Regiment.

Elsewhere and nearby, the desire to show loyalty to the government resulted in the naming of the Union District, east of Los Gatos. The name survives today in the Union Elementary School District.

In retrospect, Saratoga can be seen to have progressed through several well-defined periods, and yet there was no clear line of demarcation between them. One blended into another. That is, the lumbering days extended through the brief manufacturing period and the emergence of the orchards as the dominant economic factor in the town's existence. Then, too, Saratoga's fame as a resort center extended through all of these periods, so it never really could be said that this was a one-industry town, or that, being a small town in the physical sense, it was "small-town" in the narrow, parochial sense. The term "Saratoga drunk" may have been a particularly derogatory one, but one had to look only a short distance up the mountain side for palatial Congress Hall, or to read contemporary accounts of the scenery, to appreciate the other side of the coin.

"The mountains rise in irregular cones, one close upon another," relates the Alley-Brown History of Santa Clara County (1881) in describing Saratoga, "some bold, others covered with timber or brushwood, and all running down into softly undulating hills dotted with evergreen and majestic live oaks, which shelter many a neat homestead. To the east the mountains rise sharp and clear into the infinite blue of the cloudless sky. . ."

This natural beauty ultimately was enhanced by the orchards which at one time carpeted the valley floor and extended into the foothills. Starting in the late 1860s, the planting of deciduous fruit trees increased until it became the chief means of livelihood for the whole region.

It is easy, looking back on the scene created by thousands of acres of blossoming trees, to think of this as an enterprise conducted solely to enhance the "Garden of the World," to borrow a phrase from the title of another book of the 1880s.

But no New England farmer clearing his rocky acreage worked harder than the Saratoga rancher who had to remove not only rocks but chaparral and scrub oak trees in order to achieve the necessary soil quality for the planting of young fruit trees.

Most common of the trees was the French prune, cuttings for which had been introduced by Louis Pellier in the 1860s. These, along with Blenheim apricots, made up the bulk of the orchard plantings, although there was considerable acreage in cherries, walnuts, almonds and grapes.

The sequence of the blooming of these trees, beginning with cherries, and followed by apricots and prunes, ensured a veritable garden throughout the Valley during the early spring months. Famous authors and poets wrote extravagantly about the spectacle and their words today seem almost like a fantasy. Nevertheless, the written descriptions sent out fell short of the actual scenes.

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, someone would tie in the event of the annual blossoming of the orchards to some kind of celebration. That person was the Rev. Edwin Sydney Williams, a Congregationalist minister who, because of his initials, was known as Everlasting Sunshine. No doubt there were people who never knew him by any name other than "Sunshine Williams."

It was in the spring of 1899, the second year of a statewide dry spell, that Mr. Williams observed the clouds massing over his home on Three Oaks Way. A drenching rain soon followed and Mr. Williams, true to his calling, felt an overwhelming sense of thanksgiving. He thought of the orchards that had been saved by this rain and he envisioned the following spring when they again would appear in their white mantle.

He thought of the people in the cities who rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to see such a sight and he began laying plans for a "thanksgiving jollification".

The following spring, enlisting community support, he set up a schedule for visitors that would include a picnic lunch, entertainment and games. The published invitation the following year was, in the minds of Saratoga residents, of questionable effect in attracting San Franciscans to the celebration here on March 20, 1900. Some few showed up with their rigs at the Los Gatos depot to meet the narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast train. To the hosts' surprise, four carloads of visitors detrained and a call went out for more wagons.

The visitors were driven to Saratoga through the perfumed vistas of the famed Glen Una Ranch, then the world's largest prune orchard, with 350 of its 680 acres planted with those trees. They were warmly received. The day's events included a home-cooked meal for 25¢ served to those who had not brought picnic lunches, athletic contests for the youngsters, and open-house at most of the homes in town. At day's end, the visitors left with a feeling that they would like to return. They had the opportunity. For the next 41 years, the Saratoga Blossom Festival, with rare interruptions, provided an opportunity for people from throughout Central California to combine a trip through Santa Clara Valley's blossoming orchards with entertainment which, over the years, became more and more elaborate. Probably the high point occurred in 1926 when the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, directed by Alfred Hertz, played a concert in the natural amphitheater which had been turned into a festival grounds on Saratoga Avenue, where the present Saratogan condominium and Creekside Apartment buildings are located.

Over the years, the Blossom Festival was held in three principal locations: the Saratoga Avenue grounds, the Kuhn Fay tract, near the intersection of Fruitvale Avenue and Saratoga-Los Gatos Road, and, in earlier years, the Village Green, the property under a huge oak tree now occupied by the Saratoga Foothill Club and the adjacent residences.

The last festival as such was held in the spring of 1941, and at that time, a large, pillared entrance gate, white with gold lettering, fronted on Saratoga Avenue. In December of that year, after the Pearl Harbor attack, two batteries of field artillery moved into town on their way to the staging area for duty in the Pacific War. Encamped in the festival grounds, a miserable location at the start of one of the wettest winters in years, the soldiers painted the arch with camouflage colors of brown and green, lest the structure be conspicuous to attacking Japanese airplanes. So ended the formal trappings of the celebration that started as Sunshine Williams' Thanksgiving jollification.

A Blossom Festival by that name was staged in 1951, and there were Blossom-Time Chip-In Days, but, with the disappearance of the blossoms, later celebrations have not attempted to capitalize on the name.

Glen Una Ranch

In the agricultural era, which extended through World War II and into the 1950s, the fruit orchards were of all sizes. Most famous of all, though, was the Glen Una Ranch that was the pride of local residents on the occasion of that first Blossom Festival.

The features which brought it renown were chiefly the work of one Francis H. Hume, a young man of patrician tastes who died in the prime of life in 1897. During his ownership of the property, though, he introduced every possible modern convenience - telephones, electric generating plant, arc lights around the dry yards and incandescent lamps in the sheds, a complete water system and a method of operation that ensured that only the finest product bore the label "Glen Una," a name derived in part from the name of his wife, the former Una Handy.

Local legend has it that Hume, when he set out to install one of the first telephone systems in the area, saw to it that the link was to Los Gatos rather than Saratoga, for the aforementioned reason of Saratoga's notoriety as a drinking spot. The Glen Una ranch hands, it was said, were in the habit of getting drunk in Saratoga and not always being able to show up for work.

Whatever the reason, the Glen Una residential area which was developed on the ranch property was part of the Los Gatos telephone system, and, until the early 1950s when the toll arrangements were equalized between the Los Gatos and Pacific Telephone Companies, it was a somewhat irksome circumstance for people living less than a mile from the Saratoga Village area to have to pay extra to telephone their near-neighbors.

Saratoga's reputation as a hard-drinking town did a disservice to the many residents who campaigned strenuously to close the saloons. While there were, indeed, proliferations of drinking places, there also were five churches, several of which combined in a prolonged temperance effort to "clean up the town". Not until the county local-option law was passed in 1905 did the temperance victory become permanent, climaxing a campaign that had been waged for more than 30 years.

The Peninsular Railway Comes to Town

Other changes were coming to the town, one of the most significant being the arrival in March, 1904, of the first electric streetcar of the San Jose - Los Gatos Interurban Railway Co., later the Peninsular Railway. The line, which looped through the valley and went as far as Stanford University, had a profound effect on the community.

Now it became possible for businessmen to travel easily to their work in San Jose. Students could make a quick trip to the Normal School (later San Jose State Teachers College, San Jose State College and San Jose State University), or go to Stanford University and live at home. In its heyday, the Peninsular cars took Saratogans to San Jose in a matter of 15 minutes, a feat impossible in today's automobile traffic.

Automobiles, in fact, were the undoing of the Peninsular. When it was planned in 1902 and 1903, the idea of the then almost-ludicrous horseless carriages constituting anything like a threat to the lordly interurban cars was unthinkable. Accordingly, the streetcar right-of way was laid out along the county roads, rather than on a straight-line, point-to-point basis. At the time, the idea seemed sound, for the cars could offer localized service to ranchers who had to walk no farther than the end of their driveways. But as automobiles became larger and more numerous, the conflict became irreconcilable. Something had to go, and it was the big electric cars. By March, 1933, when the last service through Saratoga ended, the cars themselves were decrepit and the track roadbed in deplorable shape. Cars reaching a speed of 30 miles an hour or so would pitch from side to side. In wet weather, passengers were well-advised to carry umbrellas, for the car roofs were notoriously leaky. There were frequent collisions with automobiles, and when the last interurban car yielded to a modern Peerless Stages System bus, few tears were shed. Now, with the present emphasis on rapid transit and the movement of people rather than vehicles, the once discredited Peninsular Railway achieves new luster in retrospect.

Center for Creative Activity

Saratoga today has a reputation for achievement in the arts, a reputation which, it should be pointed out, was come by honestly. For more than a century the town has attracted writers, artists, poets, and people sharing a wide variety of creative bent.

The Blossom Festivals were one manifestation of this. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, Dorothea Johnston's "Theatre of the Glade" behind the Saratoga Inn was the locale for summer Shakespeare plays, and actress Olivia DeHavilland first came to the attention of Hollywood producers through these productions.

The distinction of being Saratoga's Number One patron of the arts no doubt should go to the late Sen. James D. Phelan, whose palatial estate, Montalvo, continues as a center for creative activity, as he intended. During his lifetime, the world's literary and artistic greats were his guests, and an invitation to Montalvo, which Sen. Phelan built in 1912, was a supreme accolade. When he died in 1930, the senator's will disclosed his intention that the property be maintained perpetually for the furtherance of the arts.

The dream almost was lost in the late 1940s and early 1950s when it appeared that the San Francisco Art Association, charged with the responsibility of maintaining the estate by means of a trust fund, no longer could do so because of the inadequacy of the trust's income.

At the conclusion of lengthy litigation it was decreed that the property should be held by the non-profit Montalvo Association, which organization subsequently enlisted the aid of the county in maintaining the grounds. Today, Villa Montalvo operates as Phelan intended it should, with a program of classes, artists-in-residence and musical and dramatic presentations on a year-round basis.

The public interest displayed in Montalvo was but one aspect of the civic concern displayed by the town's citizens. Schools always have been a center of interest, even among non-parents, from the days of the "little chocolate schoolhouse."

The Saratoga Fire District, which until recent years maintained a 100 per cent volunteer operation, carries on the traditions born of bucket brigades, the man-pulled hose cart prior to the 1920s, and the first Model T engine, pride of the department, which was put into service in 1925.

Public interest was stirred to new heights in the mid-1950s when, with orchards giving way to subdivisions, the annexation designs of the City of San Jose became obvious. As a result of this concern, Saratogans voted to incorporate in 1956 and to establish their own city government.

It was significant that, when the first permanent City Hall was built, the Council Chambers were in the form of an entirely adequate little theater, a facility that has been in constant use for musical and dramatic productions.

Today, as a city of nearly 30,000, Saratoga yet bears many traces of its pioneer heritage. Chief among these is the Historical Park, with its Historical Museum and the McWilliams house. These structures were moved to their present location on city-owned land through the efforts of community residents, who banded together in the early 1970s to save them from demolition. The Historical Park was the result. Many older homes also have been preserved in attractive settings.

The list of projects goes on as new residents, attracted by the setting and quality of life, settle here. No summary of this length can give adequate mention to the individuals and institutions that have contributed to a community which many consider to be unique.

It is enough to say: They called it Saratoga.

This text has been adapted and edited by Willys Peck, with assistance by Chuck Schoppe, primarily from the book "Saratoga's First Hundred Years," written by the late Florence R. Cunningham and as edited by Francis L. Fox. Copyright for text and photographs as well as Miss Cunningham's book is held by the Saratoga Historical Foundation.

Saratoga Historical Foundation  ·  20450 Saratoga-Los Gatos Road, Saratoga, CA 95070-5935  ·  #408.867.4311