Category Archives: Local History

Bike Date Friday: Riding South to Old Town Campbell

Choosing a different place every week for our bike dates is easier than you might think. Here on the San Francisco Peninsula, there are small cities every few miles with historic downtowns offering plenty of dining options. Within five miles of our home there are hundreds of restaurants in Mountain View, Palo Alto, Los Altos and Sunnyvale. By hopping on Caltrain we’ve gone north to Burlingame, San Mateo and San Carlos.

Going south is trickier. While San Jose has great spots downtown and new bike lanes that make bicycling pleasant, as you go further south, the valley widens and becomes more suburban. The restaurants are more likely to be in strip malls than walking districts, the roads are designed to move cars fast, and neighborhood streets are labyrinths to keep cars from cutting through. Not a recipe for a fun bike date.

But there’s a sneaky way out of downtown San Jose to the trail along Los Gatos Creek, I discovered. So last Friday, we rode south five miles through Willow Glen to the old railroad and orchard town of Campbell. (map)

Los Gatos Creek Trail San Jose

When the railroad came to Santa Clara Valley, the crops shifted from easy-to-transport grains like wheat to perishable orchard fruits like apricots, peaches, pears and plums. The process for canning fruit was developed in the Dawson family’s woodshed along the Alameda at Taylor Street in San Jose in 1871. Orchards filled the Valley of Heart’s Delight and fruit drying yards and canneries were built along the rail lines.

The orchards and canneries have been largely replaced by office parks and suburban housing, but we could see signs here and there on our ride down to Campbell: old Del Monte canneries converted to townhouses and lofts in San Jose, and turn-of-the century buildings and the 1928 water tower in Campbell.

Campbell Water Tower

When we rolled across the Los Gatos Creek bridge and into Campbell, downtown was hopping. A band was playing on the corner, classic cars were cruising the streets and everyone was out for First Fridays. I was glad we had dinner reservations. It would have been tough finding a table, even though it wasn’t 7 o’clock yet.

Lowrider Caddy

After dinner we strolled the avenue checking out the bands, the still-open shops and classic cars before riding back up to San Jose. Next month’s First Fridays theme is “Cyclemania.” We may have to come back then and bring a few bike friends. I even scoped out a couple of restaurants just in case.

When you ride from home, do you favor one direction over another? What makes you turn south vs north or east vs west?

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About Bike Date Friday: Since September 2010, my husband and I have had a standing date every Friday night. We eat at a different place every week and arrive by bike. There’s no better way to end the work week.


Posted by on August 4, 2013 in Bike Date, Local History


Faber’s Cyclery: A Bike Shop Burns in San Jose

I was busy writing on my blog last Thursday night when I noticed something odd. The story I wrote about Faber’s Cyclery in San Jose last September suddenly popped toward the top of my “Today’s Top Posts” list. The answer came shortly on the nightly news: the historic Faber’s Cyclery building, built in 1884, was burning.

A few murky details have trickled in. No one was injured in the fire, although some people may have been living upstairs. Could they have accidentally started the fire? Shop owner Alex LaRiviere had moved his inventory his out a few weeks ago. The landlord trying to sell the property had little to say. The property is on the edge of the Martha Gardens historic district, making redevelopment more difficult. Could that have been a factor?

Fabers After Fire 1

All we’re left with is a smoldering Victorian-era building, listing to the side and at the verge of collapse. It will most likely be razed for a non-descript who-knows-what development. It’s right against a noisy freeway on the wrong side of downtown, hardly a place for luxury apartments or Class A office space.

A campaign to save the building is underway, but I’m not hopeful. A little bit of San Jose bike history left when Faber’s moved out, and a little bit of San Jose architecture history is now gone with the burning of the building.

What are the unsung buildings in your city that tell its history? Which ones have you lost? Do you miss them?


Posted by on April 28, 2013 in Local History


Free, Untrammeled Womanhood in San Francisco

Did you know that Susan B. Anthony, a fearless leader in the American suffrage movement, believed in the power of bicycles, especially for women? Her famous bicycle quote begins: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” That’s a strong endorsement from someone who fought for 40 years to earn women the fundamental citizen’s right to vote.

To honor women like Susan B. Anthony during Women’s History Month, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition hosted a Women’s History Bike Ride around the city. Margaret, the new volunteer coordinator at SFBC, was our enthusiastic host. Her passion for the women who broke tradition to give us the rights we take for granted today shone through at every stop in our leisurely two hour tour.

Stop #2

At our first stop Margaret told us how Susan B Anthony bullied poll officials and dropped her ballot in the election box in 1872 (nearly 50 years before it was legal) and how she successfully fought her case in court. Despite being denied the chance to testify and being convicted of voter fraud, she never paid a dime of her fine.

The second stop focused on fashion and how the need for less constrictive clothing in general dovetailed with the need for sportier bicycling clothing, an effort spearheaded by Amelia Bloomer. Every woman who wears pants today should tip their hats to Amelia for paving the way to split-legged efficiency and comfort.

Next was a stop at a corner in Japantown where suffrage supporters held a victory party after women were finally granted the right to vote in 1920. All it took was a mother’s letter to her Senator son imploring him to be a good boy and vote for ratification. Sadly, Susan B. Anthony died before she could legally cast a vote.

At our final stop Margaret told the story of Annie Londonderry, a petite young woman from Boston who left her three children with her husband and rode her bike around the world. Why? Who knows Annie’s true motivation, but I’d like to think that she’s not that different than we women today who challenge ourselves with daring rides. Then again, how many of us have the chance to win $10,000 in prize money?

We ended the tour with cupcakes, but not before Margaret read us the rest of Susan B. Anthony’s bicycle quote, which rings true over 100 years later: “[Bicycling] gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

What does bicycling do for you? Are bikes freedom, self-reliance or something other than that?

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Posted by on March 29, 2013 in Around Town, Local History, Women & Bikes


Faber’s Cyclery: A Bike Shop Survives in San Jose

In most American cities, where 20th century development meant bulldozing 19th century neighborhoods and leaving others to neglect and blight, there are stubborn survivors who refuse to pack up and move to the shiny new edges of the city. In San Jose, in the shadow of a ten-lane freeway, Faber’s Cyclery is a rare survivor.

In 1912, Jake Faber opened a small bicycle shop on the south side of downtown San Jose. In less than 10 years, he expanded his business and relocated to a former saloon on 1st Street shut down by prohibition. In the back were plumbing and blacksmith shops, built when the saloon anchored the stagecoach line to the mines at New Almaden. Given that the first bike makers were blacksmiths, it must have seemed like a sensible move.

In the 1950s, neighboring homes and businesses one block over were cleared for the I-280 freeway, and the block across 1st street became a cloverleaf ramp. But Faber’s Cyclery survived. In 1978, Alex LaRiviere, a bike shop owner from Santa Cruz, took over the Faber’s business and kept it going.

In 2007, it was nearly shut down due to building code violations and a dispute with his landlord, the granddaughter of Jake Faber. But Faber’s Cyclery survives and remains in operation, albeit only one day a week, Saturdays from 11am-5pm.

What’s the secret of its survival? From what I’ve read it’s Alex LaRiviere’s passion for bicycles and their history. LaRiviere doesn’t give up on old bicycles, mending them from his stockpile of parts. He doesn’t tire of educating others of the bicycle’s impact on society. Most importantly, he won’t give up on preserving an important piece of San Jose’s bike heritage, the bike shop he claims is the oldest in continuous operation in the US.

Last week, Faber’s hosted the State of Bicycle Planning in the South Bay, a meeting for urban planning, transit and bike geeks. A crowd of 50 or so listened to key stakeholders and discussed our vision of San Jose’s future, while we sat in the backyard of a Victorian-era shop surrounded by vintage bicycles and parts.

At times it was hard to hear the speakers over the loud rumble of the freeway, punctuated by the roar of airplanes on their landing approach for SJC. But it reinforced to me why we were there to talk about how much better a city could be, and how much better it will be once the projects discussed at the Faber’s are completed.

What do you know about your city’s past? Are there shops, houses or whole neighborhoods with stories to tell? What vision do you see for your city’s future?

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Posted by on September 13, 2012 in Issues & Infrastructure, Local History


Bike Date: Time Stands Still at Vahl’s in Alviso

Rolling up to it, the flickering old neon sign looked like it came straight out of 1952. Walking in, I felt like I was in a Scorsese film. Seriously. It was like time capsule where you have a big dining area, some old décor and well, pretty much a mixture of old charm ambiance and glossy-pink and baby-blue cake frosting painted walls.

I think the bar is the only reason why this place is still open. There are always a handful of locals in here, which accounts for about 75% of the Alviso population. If you read all the reviews, you’ll find they all say the exact same thing. But depending on the kind of person you are, it will either be a 1-star or a 5-star. For me, a 5-star.

Truthfully, the reviews on Yelp are where I stole everything I wrote above (including the title) from five different reviewers. Call me a plagiarist. The reviews and the retro building have intrigued me for so long that Vahl’s has been on our Bike Date Friday bucket list since I worked in Palo Alto, about 12 miles north on the Bay Trail.

After I moved to my new job just six mile south on the Guadalupe River Trail, it moved up on the list. But it took an upcoming 10 month closure to pave the trail to get us down there last Friday. It was well worth the sketchy gravel ride on our touring bikes with overfilled tires. Why did we fill them to 90+ psi?

Along the way to Alviso we crossed the river to see the James Lick Mill and Mansion. Built in 1855, when there were few settlers in the area, it’s now surrounded by suburbia, smack dab in the middle of an apartment complex. I correct myself, a luxury gated apartment community. Since we arrived just past the official 9am-6pm visiting hours, a helpful resident let us through the gate to see the mansion and the mill.

The story of James Lick has the makings of a Gabriel García Márquez novel: an unplanned pregnancy, a father refusing his daughter’s hand to a man of no means, the young man escaping to Argentina, Peru and then San Francisco to make his fortune in a lifelong battle to win his bride. Monetary success, romantic failure, and a legacy that lives today. I can’t do the story justice here. I encourage you to read about his amazing life.

Fast forward a few miles and a century later and we’re at Vahl’s in Alviso drinking Manhattans and eating what was considered upscale Italian in the 1950s in a dining room of mixed vintage–none of it currently in fashion. Meanwhile, the real soul of Vahl’s is carrying on in the bar, where a packed house of 80-somethings were belting out the hits of another generation, karaoke style, and shuffling along cheek to cheek.

“Anything that’s older than my parents has longevity for a reason,” one of the Yelp reviewers wrote. How true. Another wrote: “The fact that a place like Vahl’s still exists and is not overrun with people under the age of 30 is empirical evidence that Hipsters do not exist in the South Bay.” I don’t think that’s true, they just haven’t followed the Guadalupe River down to Alviso yet. I’m hoping the hipsters don’t find Vahl’s before we make it back there.

Is there a place near you that’s stuck in a time warp? Would you be sad if it went away–or worse, remodeled?

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About Bike Date Friday: Since September 2010, my husband and I have had a standing date every Friday night. We eat at a different place every week and arrive by bike. There’s no better way to end the work week.


Posted by on June 19, 2012 in Bike Date, Local History


Peak of the Month Club: The Devil in Mt Diablo

During his 1923 fund-raising tour, George Leigh Mallory was frequently asked what drove him to climb Mt Everest. His standard answer: “Because it’s there.”

The allure of climbing to new heights is not restricted to mountaineers, as I learned during one of our post-ride feasts. “I’ve never climbed Mt Diablo.” “I’ve never climbed Mt Tam.” “I’ve never climbed Mt Hamilton.” “I’ve never climbed any of them.” So marked the birth of the “Peak of the Month Club.” The goal: ascend all the major peaks in the Bay Area and a bit beyond. First on the list for April: Mt Diablo.

Rising over 3800 feet from its base smack dab in the middle of Contra Costa County, Mt Diablo is visible from almost everywhere in the Bay Area. That’s why in 1852 the US Coast and Geodetic Survey chose Mt Diablo as the base point for the north/south and east/west meridians used to establish land boundaries in most of Northern California and all of Nevada. Mt Diablo may not be the center of California, but it is of our maps.

Today it’s Diablo’s never-ending vistas that draws most people to drive up the narrow winding road to its peak. But for cyclists, it’s the hard work of climbing up 3200 feet in 11 miles with a brutal 16% grade for the last 150-yards that draws intrepid riders. For me, the view at the top is just a mid-ride treat. The long winding descent with expansive views the whole way down is my sweetest reward.

Why do we climb challenging peaks? Is it simply because they’re there? I think Mallory gave a better answer later: “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”

What adventures bring you sheer joy? What do you live for?

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Posted by on May 6, 2012 in Backroads, Local History


A Craving to Traverse Mountains

Of the two old-fashioned ways to get a horse up a hill–the carrot and the stick–I prefer the carrot, especially when the carrot is a big sweet flaky pastry. For this week’s Solvang training, Rachel suggested riding over the hills to the beach town of Capitola. I jumped at the chance since Capitola is home to Gayle’s Bakery, the mother of all bakeries with an expansive case filled with every pastry imaginable, even King Cake for Mardi Gras.

But first we had to earn it. Katie and I started near her home in Los Gatos, climbing the hard-packed dirt on the Los Gatos Creek Trail (we cleaned the steep part!) to the Lexington Reservoir where we met the rest of the crew. From there it was a mild climb up Old Santa Cruz Highway, a roll along the ridge on Summit Road, and a fast descent down Soquel-San Jose Road to the bakery. Gayle’s Bakery delivered the sweet decadence as promised, then we took a slow cruise along the coast so our stomachs could recover before the long climb back.

What’s deceiving about a ride across the Santa Cruz Mountains is the expectation that you’ve done half the work when you reach the coast. In truth, the climb back is longer, often steeper and you’re doing it on tired legs. Our route back was Mountain Charlie Road, an old toll road built in the 1850s by Irish immigrant Charles McKiernan to connect San Jose to Santa Cruz. As a stage coach road, the grade is painfully steep in sections (13-18%), but flattens out between to let the horses rest. Or in our case, to let our legs rest.

Where some backroads are merely quiet and scenic, Mountain Charlie is a remote, well-shaded route that opens up to expansive views. If you look past the asphalt and mailboxes, it’s easy to imagine you’re back in the 1850s when Mountain Charlie built his redwood log cabin, cut the road to ship deer meat to the bustling port of Alviso, and was attacked by a grizzly protecting her cubs. He survived and lived to a ripe old age with a metal plate covering his damaged face. We don’t face such dangers today since the grizzly was killed off in this area. Now it’s just cars and I only remember passing one during the five mile climb.

Mountain Charlie wasn’t the only tough-guy Charlie in these mountains. One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst was a scrappy stage coach driver who traversed the San Jose-Santa Cruz route, plus many more in the California gold country. When shoeing a horse in Redwood City on his San Francisco-San Jose route, the horse kicked him in the face, costing him an eye. He eventually retired in Aptos and developed mouth cancer from a heavy chewing tobacco habit. It was only after he died that the truth was discovered–Charley was a woman.

What drives you to cross mountains? The reward at the end of the journey? Or the challenge of conquering the less-traveled path?

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Posted by on February 19, 2012 in Backroads, 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

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