Post Updated on April 13, 2016
Thanks to the plentiful El Niño rains, in early April, Lexington Reservoir was at 69% capacity. That’s compared to 23% in February of this year. At current levels, the entire ghost town of Lexington is submerged beneath the reservoir’s surface. Nonetheless, the rich history has stayed afloat.
Original Post October 31, 2014
As you drive over Highway 17 past the Lexington Reservoir, the water level reminds you whether it’s been a particularly wet or dry year but probably not of the two towns that disappeared with the rising waters. In the third year of a statewide drought, the water is currently low enough to reveal the flooded remains of the ghost towns of Lexington and Alma. An old bridge. The stone foundations of family homes. The cement ribbon of the old Santa Cruz Highway. Today’s reservoir was named after one of these towns, which was a stage coach stop en route to Santa Cruz. The town of Lexington burned bright for a short while, profiting from the logging industry and achieving infamy from a brutal murder.
Home to the first sawmill in Santa Clara County, the town of Lexington (first called Jones’ Mill) was established in 1857. By the year 1867, Lexington was the main commerce center between San Jose and Santa Cruz. Los Gatos, then called Forbes Mill, was just a small crossroads in its large shadow. Lexington profited from heavy logging of the virgin redwood forests that grew thickly throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains and from high-quality leather and tan bark that was in high demand at the tanneries in Santa Cruz County. Pack mules delivered the tan bark through the mountains to Santa Cruz, and, although less than 25 miles, the trip in those days was a far cry from today’s 30-minute drive.
Before the 1850s, there were no roads between Santa Clara and Santa Cruz County. It took three long, grueling days to travel between what is now Los Gatos and the summit (less than 15 miles), bushwhacking through thick brush on steep terrain either by foot or on horseback. By Lexington’s heyday in 1867, a group of Santa Cruz County residents had constructed the Santa Cruz Turnpike. This was a huge improvement to the first dirt road that was so steep and narrow that wagons had to lighten their loads and take several trips, and the cattle, horses, and oxen were always in danger of a fatal slip off the road’s edge.
The Santa Cruz Turnpike was eight feet wide, built largely by hand, and a much easier passage for horses and wagons. Still, many accidents occurred and it was not an easy road. Through one section, the highway crossed Soquel Creek 25 times without any bridges. The first toll house was located in Lexington. The toll for a wagon and two horses or oxen to pass was 50 cents.
Saloons as Prevalent as Starbucks
The Lexington House Hotel and saloons were busy with tourists, commuters, bandits, and gamblers before the roads were rerouted to bypass the town. In the 1890s, when alcohol was illegal in Los Gatos, 12 saloons lined the road between Lexington and its neighboring town, Alma.
A Murderous Past
It was a tumultuous period for Santa Clara County. Besides the ghosts of bandits and gamblers, the victims of a brutal murder and their killers haunt the reservoir’s waters.
In 1883, saloon-keeper Lloyd L Majors of Los Gatos sent rancher John Showers and painter Joseph Jewell with a pistol and a pair of pliers to the mountain cabin of the well-liked William Renowden. Rumored to have $20,000 in gold stashed throughout his cabin, Renowden and his partner Archibald McIntyre met an unlucky fate that day. The pliers were brought as a torture device to pull off Renowden’s fingernails one by one until he revealed where he hid his gold. Whether or not the pliers were used is unclear, but either way, two good men lost their lives for the sake of greed.
Showers and Jewell shot Renowden and McIntyre, lit a match, and set fire to the house before fleeing with the gold. Both bodies were found in the smoldering remains of the cabin. The story ends with the violent deaths of all three murderers: Jewell was executed by hanging at San Quentin, Showers was stabbed to death in a prison fight, and the plotting Majors died in a prison break at Folsom Prison.
The murder trial received national coverage and made Lexington infamous for a while, but infamy lasts only so long.
After Lexington lumber mills had clear-cut all the virgin redwoods in the area, the mills moved to Los Gatos, which depleted the town’s economy. The post office was then moved to the neighboring town of Alma in 1873, partly due to complaints from church-goers that women and children had to pass through the rowdy Lexington saloon to reach the post office located in the back. Then in 1880, the new railroad bypassed Lexington completely, favoring Alma instead. Most of Lexington’s families moved to Alma soon after, and the town dwindled and quieted to a mere whisper of what it once was.
The town hung on, with fewer than a dozen families still residing there, until the construction of the dam in 1952. Even then, an old woman refused to leave her home, preferring to hold her ground even as her house was lifted from its foundation and carted away.
Today, when the water level of Lexington Reservoir dips low enough, you can walk the same ground as the ghosts of Lexington, searching for remnants of a time gone by.
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.
- Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz, by Richard A. Beal. The Pacific Group, 1990.
- 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.
- Lyndon “Lexington” Flag-Stop, by Derek Whaley. Santa Cruz Trains website.
I’ve lived in san jose 51 years drove past Lexington hundreds of times, I did not know this. I love this kind of histor I am going exploring this weekend.
Thanks Shawne. So glad you like it!
You should get really weird guys that have that show about metal detectors out there forgot the name and the network lol
You must mean the two guys on the National Geographic’s Diggers: “King George” Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor. Great idea!
Thanks !. Very informative. I was aware of some. I lived and taught school at Fisher for 28 years. Lexington was was of my favorite fishing places in the early 60’s and 70’s .
Thanks for reading the piece, Isidro. Glad you learned something new!
Thank you how about Holy City my Grandfather took my Sister & I there when we were young I remember walking the wooden sidewalks please post pictures, if any out there.
Thank you Carol. We are planning on writing up several stories about spots along Highway 17 and Holy City is definitely one of them. Stay Tuned!
I just want to say that I really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments here about Lexington and the surrounding areas… I was raised in Redwood Estates so some of this I knew and some I did not. I am familiar with Holy City as my dad use to meet his friends at the Holy City bar in the 1960’s. He was a volunteer at the Redwood Estates fire department for several years.
I am so glad Teresa. I bet the Holy City bar was a crazy place in the 1960s!
I live right above Holy city in Redwood Estates. My grandfather built a small home there in the 1930’s. I remember a lot of the buildings before the big fires of 1959. In fact i remember that night. We thought our backyard was on fire and then our house would go up in flames.. Very scary night..
Thank you Denise. I lived through a fire near where I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 2008 (the Martin Fire). We were lucky not to lose our home as it was only a mile from where the fire started. So I agree, fires are terrifying when close to your home. That said, they are also a natural part of forest ecology, and important to maintain ecosystem health and species diversity. Often a tricky conundrum. On a different note, have you seen our blog post on Holy City? http://mobileranger.wpengine.com/losgatos/holy-city-father-rikers-cult-in-the-santa-cruz-mountains/
Can the public go exploring there?
Yes. There are a few places you can park. One good spot is the Lexington Reservoir County Park. For info check out their website. http://www.sccgov.org/sites/parks/parkfinder/Pages/Lexington-Reservoir.aspx
The 2nd picture is actually Highway 17. ( it ran lower in the canyon between 1940 and 1950) It had to be rerouted to get above the new lake. ( when it was full). The old Santa Cruz hwy ( Glenwood) was a very twisty road, graded without heavy equipment,. It was hard to move dirt with draft animals , so road builders had to follow the natural contours of the mountains.
Thank you Bill. I am pretty sure you are correct in this. I am just double checking with local train historian Derek Whaley before I update the post. Really appreciate you pointing this out.
I agree with Bill (see email). Also, the railroad passed through Alma in late 1878. It was the last official passenger stop while the Summit Tunnel was constructed. The route gained full access to Santa Cruz in May 1880. The South Pacific Coast Railroad constructed the track and the Southern Pacific took over in 1887. The route was abandoned unofficially in March 1940 and officially in November 1940. A short-lived station was built across Los Gatos Creek from Lexington twice, once in the 1910s and again in the 1920s, to collect freight cars full of quarried limestone from Limekiln Canyon. It went by the name Lyndon, after Lyndon Creek.
Thanks so much Derek! I will update the figure caption. Thanks again to Bill for noticing the error and bringing it to my attention. To all readers: I am grateful for Derek’s input as he is a very well respected train historian and has a blog all about Santa Cruz area train history. He also wrote a great book about this subject “Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains” that you can buy by clicking on the book title.
Well, I found this page and great information while looking for something else that maybe you all remember. When I was younger, I went to school in the valley (we lived in Boulder Creek) so we would drive 17 every day and pass the reservoir. I remember seeing an old aqueduct system that was constructed on the side of the hills to the north of the reservoir (towards Los Gatos) on the East side of 17. Over the years, it attracted graffiti and I was always told stories of people walking in it and falling to their deaths when it would collapse in areas. Eventually, it appears that the entire thing was removed but I can’t find any info on what it was or when it was from. Do you have any info on that?
Thanks Robert for that story. The Santa Clara Valley Water District has this site on the history of water. It is pretty detailed after 1950. Not exactly what you want but it certainly talks about Lexington Reservoir. A good starting place. http://www.valleywater.org/Programs/TeachersStudents/TeacherMaterials/WaterHistoryTeachersGuide/SantaClaraCountyWaterHistory.aspx
No wonder the fishing is terrible, not an ounce of structure on the bottom of this lake, nothing natural, concrete and ugly. The wildlife is almost nonexistant, bay areans don’t care as long as they have a cell phone and a frapucinno, so entitled.