Los Gatos Mountains History  

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John Steinbeck once wrote in a letter to a friend that his Los Gatos Mountain ranch was “so beautiful that often I am embarrassed to be living here.” Many Los Gatos Mountain residents feel that way even today, as this Santa Clara County location remains beautiful and is one of the area’s most prestigious addresses with many lovely homes—from majestic estates to quiet hideaways.
Pride and spirit prevail in our mountain folk
By Robert Aldrich

The mountain folk who live at and near the summit of the Santa Cruz mountains high above Los Gatos might have an argument with Lao-tzu. "The valley," said the Chinese sage, "is greater than the mountains, because in time all must descend to the valley."

To the mountain dwellers, there is no place like (a mountain) home.

The summit area, along the dividing line between Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties, has been the site of some of the most colorful northern California history.

Pioneers like "Mountain Charley" McKiernan, Lyman Burrell, John Schultheis, Volney Averill and James Wright left their imprint upon the land, echoed in place names.

Today's "settlers" may speed swiftly to jobs in Silicon Valley, Los Gatos or Santa Cruz, instead of riding horse-drawn wagons or stagecoaches. Mountain youngsters study space-ships and computers, instead of drawing on slates. But a spirit of independence and neighborly cooperation still is felt. Part of Los Gatos, with its mailing address, the mountain community does things its own way.

They Draw Together
No longer living in the isolation of pioneer days, residents draw together through their schools, churches, social gatherings and mutual interest in community needs like water, sewage and fire protection. (Mountain folk are sensitive to fire danger after the Lexington fire of 1985.)

The Mountain Network's system of communication for information and emergencies, published The Mountain Network News, a volunteer periodical, keeping residents abreast of problems and events. A mountain history study group meets monthly to hear speakers like historian Bill Wulf, who gave a recent talk on the railroad and Wright's tunnel.

On May 23, the Mountain Network sponsored a community meeting to prepare mountain residents for the summer fire danger. Local plant expert "Peat" Taylor showed easy-to-grow native plants; Capt. John Hack of the volunteer fire department discussed 911 services; and information was exchanged on emergency services.

The March 1989, issue of the News bore the front-page headline "It's our fault," a pun on the current plight of Loma Prieta School. Since 1949 the school has taught youngsters the three R's, and more, through flood, fire and freeze; but an "active" (recent in geological time) earthquake fault beneath the three wings of the school on Summit Road has forced the building to be closed.

That doesn't mean ending the school. Temporary classrooms will be set up on an acceptable site. Says Kenneth Simpkins, Loma Prieta district superintendent, "We were told take the (about 400 K-5) children out and perhaps bus them somewhere. But we really had no other place to go." The school trustees voted to continue classroom use until temporary housing could be erected.

Site Search On
"We are in the process of locating a site where portable classrooms can be placed," Simpkins said. The property, expected to be nearby, will be used for construction of a new school building.

When fifth-graders finish Loma Prieta, they haven't far to go to continue schooling. Across Summit Road-in Santa Cruz county but part of the same school district-is C.T. English Middle School for grades 6-8. The middle school is named for the late Clarence T. English, district superintendent.

"No one likes this," says Mary Hancock, Loma Prieta board president," but all are pulling together." And Loma Prieta principal Carole Carpenter reports "the kids are doing just fine." The school's wing 3 had to be abandoned in January; third graders went to a portable building and some kindergartners were moved. "We're taking a day at a time," a teacher said.

Trenching in February showed that five faults underlie all three wings. At a March 25 meeting, trustees voted to keep the school open until emergency housing could be readied. A sum of $5 million has been allocated by the state for a new building, including access roads, water and septic systems. "We are confident we will build a wonderful new school, where mountain traditions and community spirit can be carried forward," said Simpkins.

The same resourcefulness is reflected in the fine new $1.7-million Loma Prieta Community center. A fund drive began in 1976, when a citizens planning group formed and grant applications were drawn up. A community fund raised $50,000. A special tax measure raised $750,000. Santa Clara County came up with $120,000. Bids went to architects in 1985, and the center was finished last October, including a gymnasium, computer room and a main meeting hall. Mary Hancock, Karen Eller (former school district superintendent) and Charles Norman were among those leading the drive for funds.

6 Districts Merge
Once there were six school districts on the mountain. First, in the 1870s, was Summit School, near Schultheis lagoon-"a favorite spot for paddling on half-submerged logs," one student recalled-was half a mile down Santa Cruz Highway, toward the pioneer settlement of Patchen. Second on the mountain was Burrell School, on the county boundary. When a fire destroyed Burrell, it was rebuilt in 1890-first to have a school bell. Then came old Highland School. Classes were held in an old ranch cabin; then Judge George Miller donated land. Highland was damaged in the 1906 earthquake and a new school built next to it lasted until it burned in 1971.

In the 1906 earthquake year, residents in the lower part of the Highland district voted a new school and opened Hester Creek School. Now lost to memory is Wright's School, at Wright's Station, which served from the 1880s to 1929.

At Laurel, Miss Rose Merrill held classes in 1882 behind the Laurel depot. Laurel continued until 1947. In 1884, teachers were paid $55 and average yearly expenditure by a school district was $450. Keeping teachers longer than one year was a problem. In 1949, the old Summit, Burrell, Highland and Hester Creek school districts were merged to form the present Loma Prieta School district.

The Mountain Network is latest in a series of small mountain periodicals. A staff of nine volunteers (Connie Brewer, Pamela Cole, Gay Fairweather-Krager, Gina Foster, Sandy Parker, Marlene Takle, Ann Wahlenmier, and Marlene and Neil Wiley) edits the monthly.

The Mountain Echoes (1881-82), edited by Mary B. Smith, offered national and state news. An issue of concern then was "the Chinese question" and the Echoes bitterly opposed Oriental immigration. When Echoes died, mountain folk got news from the Santa Cruz Sentinel or the Los Gatos Mail-News.

In 1902, Joseph Bamber began a monthly, the Skyland Mountain Realty. Bamber, who claimed to have been a friend of Abe Lincoln, moved to Los Gatos in 1922; his paper was printed by Hy Baggerly's Mail-News. The last issue of the Realty came out in 1927, published by A.L. Barnes. The Laurel Bulletin, begun in 1914, lasted only a year.

Though folklore has it that Charles Henry McKiernan was the first to settle in the summit area, he came after Daniel Post, a hunter and trapper, who arrived about 1850. Post never laid legal claim to his land, as "Mountain Charley" did.

Charley, the most colorful of the early settlers, was born in Connaught, County Leitrium, Ireland, March 22, 1830. He shipped to Australia to escape an Irish famine. There he heard of the California gold rush and signed on the sailing vessel El Dorado bound for San Francisco.

Charley's ventures in the gold fields failed, though he prospered briefly selling goods to the miners-before Indians robbed him of his merchandise and mules. With a partner, he headed for the Santa Cruz mountains and in 1851 claimed his own land near Dan Post's cabin. Charley lived in a redwood tree for seven months while building his log home. A bear and deer hunter, he tried raising sheep, a venture that failed when mountain lions killed the flock.

Mountain Charley Legend
Some time in the 1850s, Charley had two encounters with grizzly bears-and went into legend. A grizzly tore a piece of his scalp; a frontier doctor covered the wound with pounded Mexican silver dollars, until a plate could replace it. Visitors to Forbes Mill Museum in Los Gatos can see a painting (artist unknown) of Mountain Charley, his hat brim low over his forehead.

Mountain Charley's summit home became a stage station when stagecoaches ran on rough roads between Santa Cruz and Los Gatos. He sold lumber, a source of income for many mountain folk. Charley married Barbara Berricke in the early 1860s; they had seven children. He expanded his lumber business to include several sawmills on his 3,000 acres, which included orchards and vineyards.

Eventually Charley moved to San Jose where his children could attend school. His San Jose business enterprise included shares in the first light-and-water companies. Mountain Charley died Jan. 16, 1892, but his name lives on.

Other settlers followed Mountain Charley, John Martin Schultheis, born 1826 in Bavaria, was an Ohio cabinetmaker. With his wife, Susan, he helped drive an ox team wagon train to California, withstanding several Indian attacks. He found the Santa Clara Valley land taken up, and opted for higher ground. (His trip to the summit took three days, using ox teams to break through the brush.) Taking land near a lagoon, he built a cabin and improved the land, cutting trees and planting orchards and vineyard. The couple had four children and Susan Schultheis became a nurse and midwife to the region.

One Schultheis daughter, Alice, married Volney Averill, a ranch hand, and they eventually had seven children. Averill, a Civil War veteran from Illinois (born in Vermont) journeyed to California from Iowa in 1869. The Averills farmed and planted an orchard; later they bought 60 more acres, planting 35 acres in French prunes.

Other Settlers Followed
Other settlers followed a similar pattern. Lyman Burrell, born in Sheffield, Mass., and imbued with the thrift habits of New England, taught school and worked various jobs in Ohio. With his second wife, he responded to the lure of the gold fields in 1849; after earning $2,000, he went back to Ohio. With his wife, Clarissa, and their four children he again headed west, sailing by clipper around the Horn.

In the mountains, Burrell raised stock, including longhorn cattle, and planted fruit. Neighbors warned there would be no market for his fruit, but he wrote, "I have never seen that time yet."

Burrell sold 100 acres of his land to his brother-in-law, Rev. James Wright in 1869. Wright was a Congregational minister from Ohio. The Wrights had 10 children. In failing health, Wright felt the mountains would be good for him.

He built a home and summer resort across from the Burrells, on the corner of Summit and Loma Prieta Avenue. Wright's Station on the South Pacific Coast Line, site of the long Wright's Tunnel, bore his name.

A number of early mountain families intermarried. Burrell's daughter, Clara, married Herman Morrell, a 49er from Maine, who owned a sawmill in Aldercroft Canyon. Settlers of the 1880s included Ernst Emil Meyer, a native of Denmark who had served in the German Navy; he started a German colony. One resident was Dr. Edmund Goldman, a graduate of Heidelberg, who had practiced in Mexico. Besides delivering babies, he had a mountain convalescent home until his death in 1910.

Mountain churches have played a role in the lives of summit folk. Long since gone is the Temple Grove Baptist Church begun in 1876. The Wright Presbyterian Church was built in 1893. Both were on Loma Prieta Avenue. Skyland Presbyterian Church was opened in 1887. (Not to be confused with the Skyland Community Church.)

Presently flourishing are the Skyland Church on Skyland Road; the Roman Catholic Christ Child Chapel on Summit Road; also on Summit, the Alma Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Mountain Bible Church. Diane Kennedy heads Bible Studies Groups.

Building of the rails through the mountains in the 1870s changed the complexion of mountain life. In addition to access to trade in lumber, fruit grapes and wine, the trains brought excursionists by the hundreds on weekends.

In the 1890s, they piled out of trains at Wright's Station to spend the day at Sunset Park, returning by train in the evening. Gen. John C. Fremont, who had camped near the summit in March 1846 on a mapping expedition to the West, returned with his wife to ride the rails to Santa Cruz in 1888. Lao-tzu could be wrong; the mountains may be mightier after all.

Sources for this article include A Howling Wilderness by Stephen Payne and Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John V. Young. This article appeared in the Los Gatos Weekly-Times in May 31, 1989. 

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