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April 21, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 21, 2004

For more than 50 years, Searsville Lake was the place to be For more than 50 years, Searsville Lake was the place to be (April 21, 2004)


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the 11th part of the story of the people who have lived on the banks of the San Francisquito Creek and its tributaries through the centuries.

By Nancy Lund

During the early years of the century, the lands of the middle and upper San Francisquito watershed continued to be quiet. Second-growth trees grew on hillsides that had been clear-cut. Wealthy folks from the city who came to their country places and small farmers occupied the banks of the creeks and the lands beyond.

A few developments of small summer cottages for less wealthy city dwellers popped up. A picnic park on the banks of Los Trancos Creek, now the site of Alpine Hills Swim and Tennis Club, hosted hundreds of people on weekends. They came to enjoy the country life and dance on the big outdoor dance floor.

From 1922 until 1975, when Stanford formally created Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, more big crowds came to play at Searsville Lake. When the park opened, the lake that had held 450 million gallons of water in 1891 had silted up so much that its capacity was reduced to 200 million gallons.

Ernie Brandsten and later Austin Clapp leased the lake and surrounding lands for Searsville Lake Park. Here too, hundreds and even thousands, from as far away as Oakland, enjoyed swimming, boating, and basking on the trucked-in sand beach. They rode horses and hiked on the bridle paths, biked in the "velodrome," played baseball, basketball and volleyball and danced at an outdoor pavilion.

It was enormously popular. Stanford hosted various social events there. Fraternities held their parties at the park. A highlight came in 1923 when the national high-diving championships and trials for the U. S. Olympic Swim Team brought hordes of spectators. Brandsten, the Stanford and U.S. Olympic Swim Team coach, had built a three-tier diving tower, and observers thrilled to watch the divers plunge into the water.

Downstream, little Palo Alto on the south bank of the creek was a quiet college town of around 15,000, and Menlo Park on the north bank had fewer than 3,000 residents. It was just a stop on the train route. The tiny communities of Runnymede and East Palo Alto at the mouth of the creek consisted of chicken ranchers and tomato farmers.

In 1929, the Allied Arts Guild began to rise on the north bank of the creek, at the end of Cambridge Avenue. Mr. And Mrs. Garfield Merner created a series of buildings blending the architecture of California's Spanish heritage with American folk arts. Paths lined with stones from the creek bed wove through gardens patterned after those in southern Spain. Weavers, potters, iron and leather workers, and photographer Ansel Adams, among others, set to work in the adobe buildings with red-tiled roofs.

It wasn't long before local women began to see the possibility of using the charm of Allied Arts to help the children of the convalescent hospital across the creek. They began serving lunch at the Guild, contributing the proceeds to the hospital. It was the beginning of a long and expanding relationship that continues to this day. The Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary took over the complex in 1951. Allied Arts, today undergoing a badly needed renovation, should soon reopen and continue to be a tranquil spot along the creek that raises funds for the children's hospital and reminds visitors of an earlier day.

The Depression brought still another new group to the creek. People made homeless by the economics of the time were then called "hobos." The train brought many of these vagabonds to this area. As a precursor to the homeless times of today, a "hobo jungle" developed in the creek bed. Newspapers of the time reported that police would enter the area only in the event of a death.

Residents rallied and a homeless shelter, named "Hotel de Zink" after the chief of police, served 50,000 homeless between 1931 and 1934. Requirements were three hours of work every day and a maximum three-day stay.

In this same decade another activity began that was destined to change the future of the area and the world. William Hewlett and David Packard and Russell and Sigurd Varian began experimenting with electronics. These residents, living not far from the creek, began the technological revolution that brought the sweeping changes we consider commonplace today.

And still people talked of another dam on the creek. Plans surfaced to build a 95-foot dam at the place where the Manzanita Water Company had planned one back in the 1870s, near the intersection of Alpine Road and Interstate 280. It would have backed up water to the Searsville Dam. The proposed cost was $400,000. Once again, nothing came of it.

Next: After World War II

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