Historical Footnotes of the Santa Clara Valley

By Jack Douglas

Alviso: A Window on The Past

Awakened periodically as a passing train roars through, the little village of Alviso slumbers on. It was, not long ago, a center for weekend boat builders and yachtsmen, but now its marina is completely silted in. Activity here came to a standstill when the southern end of the Bay became a U.S. wildlife refuge.

Alviso has many problems, not the least of which is the gradual sinking of the shoreline due to the reduction of the water table. This has required higher levees to keep the Bay from engulfing the town as it did during the flood of 1983. asbestos in the soil and proximity to the San Jose Sewage Disposal Plant are also impediments to development.

The once bustling waterfront is now a crumbling ghost town and the spirits of early settlers haunt its empty streets, wondering, perhaps, why their dreams for Alviso were never fulfilled.

Settled at the south end of San Francisco Bay in the 1700s, this little town was the junction for the transportion of goods and people going north and south. First were the cowhides and tallow from the Missions and ranchos, then the quicksilver from New Almaden and redwood lumber from Los Gatos, and finally there was grain and produce from the Santa Clara Valley.

Lieutenant E.G. Buffum, who came west with Captain Henry M. Naglee in Stevenson's regiment in 1847, wrote in his journal:

    The want of a great commercial town at the head of the Bay of San Francisco has been supplied by the location of Alviso. It is situated at the head of the bay. The Guadalupe River, a stream running directly through the centre of town is navigable at all seasons of the year to vessels drawing 12 feet of water. The depot is business headquarters of the 2 finest valleys in California...the town of Alviso must inevitably grow to importance.

The trickle of Americans to California prior to the Mexican War became a flood with the discovery of gold in 1848. Several men who were prominent in the establishment of California statehood, including the first governor, Peter Burnett, were major Alviso businessmen and landholders. It is not surprising that Alviso was one of the first cities incorporated after California became a state.

In the summer of 1849, Chester Layman, the surveyor of San Jose, laid out the streets for the City of Alviso. A toll road was built to carry produce and passengers between San Jose and the port. Charges were as follows: $1 for a 2-horse, mule or oxen wagon; 37 cents for a buggy; and 25 cents for a lone rider. Soon, hotels, taverns, stores and homes sprang up around the busy wharves. A steam powered mill was erected which provided flour for hungry mouths as far away as China.

Steamboats Arrive

The first passenger steamboat, the Sacramento, arrived in December 1849. It was soon joined by the Firefly, the Salodina and the Jenny Lind. The latter came to a tragic end when on April 11, 1853, her boiler exploded, blowing out a bulkhead and scalding passengers while they were at dinner. At least 40 passengers died from the burns. Three prominent local men were lost: Charles White, businessman and former mayor of San Jose; Bernard Murphy of the prominent Murphy clan; and Jacob D. Hoppe, member of the California Constitutional Convention and one of Alviso's greatest boosters.

In spite of this accident and the coming of the railroad, steamers continued to carry people and produce to San Francisco well into this century. In the 1890s, the steamer Alviso made the daily run from Alviso, leaving at 7:30 in the evening and returning the following morining at 10:00. Produce moved a $1 per ton while passenger fares were 50 cents.


In the span of only 6 years, California's mode of transportation evolved from sail to steam and then to railroads. The railroad was a faster, safer, cheaper and more direct way to San Francisco, so the opening of the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad in 1864 sent bayside boomtown of Alviso into almost immediate obscurity. The seaport and other investments languished. Peter Burnett dismantled his house in Alviso and had it rebuilt in San Jose.

The coming of the Alameda to Santa Cruz South Pacific coast narrow-gauge railroad in 1876 revived Alviso's hopes of becoming a shipping center again. A number of San Jose businessmen had nourished the hope that the Alviso slough could be dredged and turned inot a deep water port for oceangoing transports. In 1912, they convinced the city council to enact San Jose's first annexation, a strip 100 feet wide to Alviso. This land was to be used for a San Jose Alviso Railroad which, like the port, was never built.

New Chicago

There were only about 900 people living in Alviso in 1890 when the creative promoter P.H. Wheeler decided that he could move a bankrupt watch manufacturing company from San Diego to Alviso and finance it with the sale of lots in what he optimistically dubbed "New Chicago." Enlisting the aid of San Jose real estate men and politicians A.C. Darby, J.C. Roberts, Paul Austin, John W. Rea (state railway commisioner), John Richards and George A. Penniman, a large part of Alviso was subdivided into 4,000 lots with streets named after those on "old" Chicago -- Dearborn, Michigan, Wabash, LaSalle, etc.

Touting New Chicago and the Port of Alviso as the new great manufacturing center, the group was successful in selling lots priced from $5 to $200 each. By the summer of 1890, over 3,500 lots and 17,000 shares of the dredging company had been sold. The watch factory had been built, the machinery moved in and the employees hired when the bubble burst. Investors began to get nervous when the promised dredging of Alviso Slough failed to begin. When the watch company ws too short of funds to make the payroll, panic set in. In an act of desperation, Wheeler sold the watchmaking equipment to a Japanese firm which continued, ironically, under his supervision to make Japanese watches stamped "San Jose Watch Company." The housing lots of New Chicago would not be occupied until the 1960s when houses uprooted by redevelopment were moved onto some of them.

Chinese Period

It fell to the Chinese, in particular on Thomas Foon Chew, to establish Alviso's most successful industry. Chew rebuilt and tool over his father's Precita Canning Comapny after the 1906 earthquake, renamed it the Bayside Canning Company and transformed it into one of California's largest canning operations.

Perhaps sympathizing with the plight of another businessman with a foreign background, A.P. Giannini befriended Thomas Chew and supported the cannery's expansion. Thomas Chew revolutionized canning practices and perfected a method of local asparagus which kept it firm and fresh tasting. The company employed hundreds of Chinese workers, many of whom lived in company-owned housing near the factory. The death of Chew in 1931, combined with the depression, brought an end to this productive era. Crumbling ruins are all that is left of what was once the third largest cannery in California.

Depression Years

During the late '20s and early '30s, Alviso had the reputation of a wide open town. Saloons and gambling operations operated under the very nose of the Sherrif's Department until finally coming to the attention of the Grand Jury, which directed a return to law and order.

The little town slumbered through World War II and the post-war years. It became the last pearl on the string of San Jose Manager Dutch Hammon's annexations to San Jose in January 1968. The minority of Alviso residents who voted against annexation worried that the town would lose its character and identity. But thirty years have passed and little has changed.

The Alviso shoreline is a wonderful place to walk. One can enjoy the natural setting and ponder the vicissitudes of history.