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Issue date: May 31, 2000

A look at Searsville's past A look at Searsville's past (May 31, 2000)

By Marion Softy

Almanac Staff Writer

Residents living on the Peninsula before 1975 probably remember Searsville Lake as having a much friendlier beach than the ocean.

You could swim, paddle, sail, fish and sun yourself on the imported sand beach -- just like back East. And neighbors complained about big, noisy parties on summer weekends and holidays.

In fact, the lake, tucked into the Peninsula foothills along Portola Road, was so popular that 103,000 people paid for admission to the grounds in 1975, according to "The History of Jasper Ridge: From Searsville Pioneers to Stanford Scientists," by the late Dorothy Regnery of Portola Valley.

Searsville was a prosperous small town with store, post office, school and Eikerenkotter's Hotel when an assortment of water companies squabbled over rights to dam San Francisquito Creek to provide water for various purposes, not least for the booming city of San Francisco.

Finally, the Spring Valley Water Works prevailed over several others, including the Manzanita Water Company, controlled by Leland and Jane Stanford. It began work on Searsville Dam in 1888. It used the same technique of interlocking concrete blocks that William Bourn used in building the Crystal Springs Dam. Searsville Dam, completed in October 1891, created a lake of some 300 acres.

While much of the old town of Searsville moved over to Portola -- near the present Valley Presbyterian Church -- the old town was never inundated, Mrs. Regnery emphasized. A careful observer can still see signs of the streets near the southwest end of the lake.

When the dam was overflowing during winter, Mrs. Regnery reported, the caretaker speared salmon with a pitchfork at the base of the dam "to supplement the family's diet."

After the dam was built, it turned out there was not enough water for San Francisco, and it was undrinkable anyway. When water first flowed to Stanford for irrigation, it turned out to be yellow, muddy and smelly.

Even before World War I, newspaper reports complained about silting of the lake. In 1919 Stanford took over the lake and dam from the Spring Valley Water Company and raised the dam 3-1/2 feet.

Major recreational use of the lake started in 1922, when Stanford leased it to Ernst "Ernie" Brandsten, a popular swimming instructor, who ran it for recreation for the next 32 years. Because Mr. Brandsten had married a Swedish Olympic swimmer, he built a three-tier diving platform on the dam.

Searsville Lake's greatest moment may have come in 1923, when Mr. Brandsten sponsored the national high diving contest and trials for the U.S. Olympic team.

Searsville remained a recreational magnet on the Peninsula for the next 56 years, with the lease being taken over by Austin Clapp in 1956, and Add Janes and Don Beeson in 1973.

In the same year, Stanford trustees designated 737 acres adjacent to Searsville Lake as the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. In 1976 an anonymous donor made it possible to buy out the concession and include Searsville in what has become one of the world's great preserves for the study of natural processes.

Now, Searsville Lake, relentlessly filling up, and Searsville Dam are awaiting their next chapter.


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