Ghost Towns of Lexington Reservoir: Alma

This bridge was built in 1926 and connected the towns of Lexington and Alma. It was revealed in December, 2008 when the reservoir was almost entirely drained for construction. Photo by Calbookaddict.
This bridge was built in 1926 to connect the towns of Lexington and Alma. It was revealed in December 2008 when the reservoir was almost entirely drained for construction. Photo: Calbookaddict

The heart of Alma, a ghost town of California’s past, lies submerged and mostly forgotten in the basin of the Lexington Reservoir along Highway 17, near Silicon Valley. The outskirts of the town are now filled in with forest and bisected by the highway, but this town once boasted a grand hotel that served grizzly bear meat, an estate with trout lakes, botanical gardens with rare plants, and, arguably, the world’s largest madrone tree.

Established in 1871, the bustling town of 200 was a welcome rest stop for stage coach drivers and a lovely getaway for San Franciscans in search of an adventurous weekend of hunting the elusive grizzly or fishing for trout in Los Gatos Creek. It was the mellow counterpart to its infamous neighbor, Lexington. For a time, it flourished.

Parts of the Old Santa Cruz Highway are clearly visible due to the low water level in October, 2014.
Parts of the Old Santa Cruz Highway are clearly visible due to the low water level when this photo was taken in October 2014.

A Taste of Grizzly at the Forest House

Although Lexington was best-known for a brutal murder, Alma was known and once named for a large hotel and stage station called the Forest House. Inside was everything a weary traveler needed: beds, a dining room filled with tasty homemade fare, and of course a saloon for those in need of a strong drink before braving the treacherous road that then wound through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Those with adventurous culinary tastes could even pay a pretty penny for a bite of exotic grizzly bear meat. The locals knew better, however, and never ate the tough, stringy meat with a flavor that was best described as “rancid fish.”

Forest House was rebuilt in the 1930s and became the largest hostelry between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz. It later became the town post office and remained in operation until flooded by the Lexington Reservoir in 1952.

Alma was also known for the grandiose Tevis Estate, located just outside of town. Starting at 49 acres, it began as a failed attempt at a commercial trout farm and ended as a 2500-acre estate, complete with a 40-room house and several other buildings, an experimental farm, massive gardens filled with a staggering number of rare flowers, and a private water system large enough for a small city. The last owner of the estate, Dr. Tevis, was a retired San Francisco physician with a generous heart. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed most of the city, he transformed his estate into an earthquake refugee camp for the entire San Francisco grand opera company until they could return home.

Lexington Reservoir modified to show the locations of the two submerged ghost towns, Lexington and Alma. Photo by Ernest McGray, Jr.
Lexington Reservoir modified to show the locations of the two submerged ghost towns, Lexington and Alma. Photo by Ernest McGray, Jr.

The estate also claimed to have the largest madrone tree in the world growing on its acreage, visible from Bear Creek Road. It probably stood for a couple of hundred years before it fell in the 1950s. Its canopy reached 100 feet across (about half the length of the Lincoln Memorial), and its trunk circumference was an astounding 32 feet 10 inches. Today, Highway 17 runs through the old location of the estate. Its gardens were reclaimed by the forest years ago.

When the Fate of a Town Hinged on Railroads

Alma owed its prosperity almost entirely to the railroad that once ran through town and brought welcome visitors and economic growth. The original route, however, would have spelled Alma’s demise and decreased the popularity of Santa Cruz as well.

The railroad’s first plans went from Saratoga up to the present day junction of Big Basin Road and Highway 9, following the San Lorenzo River through Boulder Creek to Felton. If that had remained the route, Los Gatos, Santa Cruz, and certainly the small town of Alma, would have been too far off the beaten tracks to bother visiting, and few would have known of their existence.

Photo by Richard Massoner via Flickr.
Photo: Richard Masoner via Flickr

That original plan changed, though. In 1876 (just five years after the establishment of the town of Alma), railroad tracks were laid from Santa Clara to Los Gatos and Alma, and then on to several other towns close to Highway 17 before reaching Santa Cruz and finally Felton. The train remained the most popular mode of travel in the area until the tracks were badly damaged by winter storms in 1940. This gave automobiles the final push needed to replace the train, and soon most folks chose to drive over Highway 17 instead. Cars drove right past Alma, and the town quietly faded before being snuffed completely by the Lexington Reservoir’s rising waters.

The Ruins of Alma

Pieces of Alma remain but are rarely visible. Back in 2008 during renovation on the dam, the Lexington Reservoir was drained to just 5% of its capacity, revealing the old Alma bridge. Built in 1926, the bridge once spanned the Los Gatos Creek between Alma and Lexington and is almost always submerged. Even if this bridge can’t be seen, a different bridge and other parts of Alma’s past come into view when water levels are low. Foundations, eroding stairs, a stretch of the old Santa Cruz Highway (known as Glenwood Highway when first built in the early 1900s), and sections of the old railroad are again exposed to the light of day.

There are two bridges that were flooded with the filling of the reservoir. This bridge can be seen right now.(November 1, 2014). It is near the south end of the reservoir. Park near the present day intersection of the Old Santa Cruz Highway and Wrights Drive and carefully make your way to the reservoir. You can't miss it.
There are two bridges that were flooded with the filling of the reservoir. One bridge can be seen in this photo from November 1, 2014. It is at the south end of the reservoir near the present-day intersection of the Old Santa Cruz Highway and Wrights Drive.
Old stairs in the vicinity of Alma, July, 2014. Photo by Pauly Kieze.
Old stairs in the vicinity of Alma, July 2014. Photo: Pauly Kiezel

During long spells of drought, the waters are currently plenty low to see many of these relics, beckoning history buffs, and the curious to explore this piece of California’s past. Eventually though, the reservoir will refill and the ghost town of Alma will again disappear beneath the water.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the Highway 17 Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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17 Comments

  1. Kurt Mitchell

    Sure would be nice to here more about the trains that followed the back of Lexington Reservoir ,to the town of Write Station where the train would disappear into one of the many train tunnels in the Santa Cruz Mountains,Does anyone have or no of any photo’s of the town Write Station I believe as they called it.

    Reply
  2. Tonya

    What a great article (again)-I always learn from your informative and interesting content. I grew up on (and my parents still reside) on Bear Creek Road, I live in So. Cal now but we visit often and my kids just learned about madrones last time we visited-neat stuff!

    Reply
        1. Ranger Lautamo

          Carol, there are some pictures online of Alma and Lexington and I would encourage you to check out the book: Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John V. Young. We plan to write a piece on Holy City as well. (Check out the book called Holy City: Rikers Roadside Attraction in the Santa Cruz Mountains by Betty Lewis for full history and photos.)Sometimes it can be a lengthy process to obtain the rights to historic photos otherwise we would post more. Glad you’re so interested in the history of this area!

          Reply
  3. Anthony

    I travel from San Jose to Santa Cruz quite often, and I’ll notice the reservoir as I pass by. Now it seems a bit cool to know that a town used to be there, I’d love to go check it out .

    Reply
      1. Ranger Lautamo

        Derek, the other town of Lexington is mentioned in this piece but it actually has its own separate piece (thus the plural “towns” in the title). Sorry if that isn’t very clear. I wasn’t aware of the Aldercroft community; it didn’t come up in my research. Is it mentioned in the book Ghost Towns of Santa Cruz Mountains or in Richard Beal’s Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz?

        Reply
  4. Chris

    I used to live in Brookdale, spent so much time between SC and SJ, I moved away in 2010 to Illinois so I missed my chance to check out the drained Lexington.
    Thanks for the great posts and pictures!

    Reply
  5. Jim Felich

    Thank you, Ranger Lautamo, for a most entertaining read about the bottom of Lexington reservoir. It prompted my recall of the time my Dad took me for a drive on that stretch of road and told me how it was to be covered with water and disappear. I found it hard to comprehend then, and I still miss it and him.

    Reply
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  7. Craig S. Osmer

    I am Craig Stewart Osmer as a kid I heard many stories from my dad and great grand pop. Alma was first owned by my Great Great Grand father Stewart. When he passed his daughter and son in law George inherited the town. he was my Great Great Grand Father George Osmer. His son my Grand Father George andhis son were raised on this land. I would love to talk with you if there”s a chance. I currently live in Grizzley Flat Ca just South East of Placerville.And I am listed. craigsosmer@gmail.com

    Reply

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