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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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- Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz, by Richard A. Beal. The Pacific Group, 1991.
- Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains, by John V. Young. Paper Vision Press. 1979.
- Ghost town remnants resurface as Lexington Reservoir level falls, by Paul Rogers. San Jose Mercury News. December 6, 2008.
- The Valley of Heart’s Delight: Beautiful Alma, 1896, Santa Clara County, California. Santa Clara Research website.