Monday, June 8, 2015

Calaveras, The Wall
In cycling terms, when you are climbing a big hill and it suddenly gets very steep at the top, that’s often called “the wall.” I believe there are a few segments called “the wall” in the Bay Area. For me, “the wall” is the final section on Calaveras Road going east from Milpitas. It’s difficult and made more so by the effort reaching it from Piedmont. Someone had spray-painted “the wall” on the pavement near the start. It’s about all you see since you mostly look down at that point; it’s not the type of hill where you casually look around.

The Wall takes all of your focus.

But what if you did look around? What would you see? What would you have missed, even if you tried to take it all in? Well, let’s start at the bottom of the hill. Let’s start way back when all there was was the hill …just a gap between valleys.

How do we know it's us without our past? – John Steinbeck
We shall approach the hill from a distance – the long view, if you will. How did the road get there? Who put it there? Why is it called what it’s called, as well as the side streets and nearby points of interest? Like any good road, this one probably started out as an animal trail along a creek and then became a trail for the Native Americans living there.


Before European explorers, the area around Milpitas was inhabited by the Tamyen Ohlone tribe. There is evidence of their camps and burial grounds under the Calvary Assembly of God Church on Piedmont, just to the south of the intersection of Calaveras Blvd and Evans (dating back 3,000 years). I’m sure there is just a little irony there. There’s more under what is now Elmwood Correctional Facility on Abel Street (sidebar #1). You’ll also find Ohlone grinding holes in the rocks near the golf course off Downing (sidebar #2), where they would grind up acorns and other food. The Ohlone covered a vast territory, much further than just from Ohlone Community College in Fremont to Sunol-Ohlone Regional Park in Sunol. There are more grinding holes in Mount Diablo State Park. Certainly, they were the first ones to climb “the wall” – just not on a bike.

The Ohlone were hunter-gatherer types. They were not farmers. But once the Europeans arrived, they were converted – in more ways than one.

Rancho Milpitas

The European influx came with Spanish explorers of the De Anza expedition (Juan Bautista de Anza). My understanding is that the De Anza expedition was partly to defend the territory against the Russians. To the best of my knowledge, the Russian fur trappers did not venture this far south – just San Francisco – it’s too hot down here. The Spanish claimed this area for centuries, the local base being Mission San José de Guadalupe in what is now Fremont a few miles north. The land grants for what is now Milpitas were Rancho Rincon de Los Esteros (Spanish for "corner of the wetlands") granted to Ygnacio Alviso (the area near Alviso, now); Rancho Milpitas (Spanish for "place where maize grows," "little cornfields/gardens" or possibly "land of a thousand flowers") granted to José María Alviso which comprised most of the flatland portion of today’s city; Rancho Los Tularcitos (Spanish for "little tule marshes") granted to José Higuera, adjacent to Rancho Milpitas on the north side including our favorite hill; and also Rancho Agua Calient to Fulgencio Higuera (the Warm Springs area of Fremont). José Maria Alviso was a child with the De Anza Expedition. They were likely to have climbed “the wall” too. I’ll just guess that the Ohlone held the KOM; I suspect they were in better shape than the Spanish.

I've ridden up “the wall” over 100 times, mostly commuting home from my job in Milpitas. We usually approach it straight up from Calaveras Boulevard. Calaveras Blvd seems to line up with “Calaveras Road” on most old maps and establishes the boundary between Rancho Milpitas to the south side and Rancho Los Tularcitos to the north.

I love this particular map, below, because of the aerial perspective. However, it is frustrating because of the cursive hand-writing and general ambiguity. Nonetheless, you can make out three squares in the upper left. These are the adobes of the land grants associated with Milpitas today. The large building in the center is the pueblo of San Jose on the Guadalupe River.

For a zoomable version of this map, click (zoomable image)

Inset showing three adobes
The leftmost adobe is “casa de José Higuera”, in the middle is “casa de José M. Alviso” if you use your imagination, on the right is “casa de Nicolay Berrellesa”. (Berrellesa descended from the Basque region of Spain – interesting spelling on this map – his name translates to Nicolás Tolantino Antonio Berreyesa and he also claimed rights to Rancho Milpitas, but lost the dispute with Alviso. Berreyessa went insane and died in 1863.) On the hills above, you can make out Tularcitos. The arroyo running up the hill just left of casa Alviso would be Arroyo de los Coches, or Los Coches Creek. That is the creek that runs along Calaveras Road up to “the wall” today.

I believe the creek to the left of casa Berrellesa is Berryessa Creek which begins in the Los Buellis Hills near Felter Road but it might be Piedmond Creek. The area above it says “plan de las Calaberas” (plain, not valley?). To the right of casa Berrellesa (the Berryessa area today) is Arroyo de aguaje (or Aguage or Aguague, meaning spring or watering place) which is Upper Penitencia Creek today and you’ll recognize the name for the road which would lead you towards Mount Hamilton Road today. Penitencia was the name of an adobe house of worship, i.e., a place to give penance. It was something of a half-way house between Mission San Jose and Mission Santa Clara.

The city was almost named Penitencia, in fact. But it was feared that it might be misinterpreted as Penitentiary and so Milpitas was selected instead. There wasn't a vote or any debate as far as I could tell. The Assistant Postmaster, Joseph Weller, simply wrote the name onto the form in 1856. We will notice Weller Road later as we tour up to “the wall.”

Before the town of Milpitas was established, it was a misaligned intersection. I’m grateful for the habit of naming roads based on their endpoints. Alviso-Milpitas Road is now the section of 237 west of I-880 from Alviso to Milpitas – obviously  but has more recently been realigned to avoid Alviso (!). It intersected with Milpitas Road heading south (Main Street, today) which became Oakland Road heading north. A block north of that intersection, Calaveras Road headed east over the hills to Calaveras Valley (where the reservoir is today, formed by Calaveras Creek). Milpitas and Berryessa Road is now Capital Expressway, and goes to Berryessa – obviously.

The Guided Tour

Now that Milpitas exists, let’s start the tour.

The road is called Calaveras in the directional sense – it goes to Calaveras Valley. Calaveras Valley is named after the creek that now feeds Calaveras Reservoir. Not to be confused with Calaveras County, which is believed to have been named for the skeletons found along the river by the Spanish – calavera for “skull”. I am confident that the gold country county predates the naming of this creek, so it’s unclear to me if the creek is named after the county or not. The Milpitas Historical Society suggests that there were native skulls along the creek – perhaps to scare off competing tribes. Nonetheless, we call it Calaveras. Its formal beginning resulted from a February, 1855, petition presented to the Santa Clara County supervisors asking for a county road out of the hills and across the valley to Alviso, noting “more than 60 families” living in Calaveras Valley. Prior to the railroads, Alviso was the most important port in the South Bay but that’s another story.

Often, I am joined by fellow commuters who get there from other roads. This is not them, on the right. I have no idea if anyone ever rode a standard (penny-farthing) bike up to the wall but it wouldn't surprise me.

Courtesy California Historical Society.
“San Francisco Bicycle Club on San Leandro Road between San Leandro and Milpitas; H.A. Greene, Captain.” Undated.

If the increase continues, the time is not very distant when not to own and ride a bicycle will be a confession that one is not able-bodied, is exceptionally awkward, or is hopelessly belated. – “The Bicycle Festival,” July 13, 1895 New York Times


The dividing line between the valley and the hills is Evans/Piedmont. Evans Road is named for Josiah Evans, who owned a ranch that bordered the road before it was named for him. Evans came to Milpitas in 1853 from Ohio after a few years mining for gold, during which time he founded the Butte County city of Evansville which no longer exists. He bought 800 acres of Rancho Tularcitos land in 1853. Generations of his family also stayed in Milpitas.

Piedmont means “foot of the mountain” in Italian. I’m guessing that the name was already common in the area; specifically, the city of Piedmont near Oakland which I believe was named by James Gamble, the president of Western Union Telegraph in 1877. Once you cross this intersection, the climb begins immediately.

Today, there are a few houses at the base of the climb on your right. As you pass the last one, you can see the side of the Alviso Adobe (sidebar #3). Although buried underground today, the valley section of Calaveras Road used to run alongside Arroyo de los Coches, or Los Coches Creek – it means “creek of the wild pigs.” Once you commence climbing, it is visible on your right. For half the year, the creek is pretty much dried up. You can see the little canyon as you climb up the first part of Calaveras road to “the wall.” I’m generally more focused on the curb and staying close to it since traffic flies by rather closely up that part. There’s a remnant of pavement redirection and a chain-link fence across from the gravel pit section. I’m generally focused downward during this climb. On the flatter sections that follow, I have more willingness to look around. I've never seen any wild pigs or boar.

Downing Road/Laguna Valley

Once you get up and over the first steep section, “the first wall” on Strava, the road flattens slightly. It may not feel that way the first few times you ride, but it does. You are now approaching Laguna Valley. Laguna translates roughly to small lake. Laguna is marked on many old maps. Way off to your left, out of sight, is the Spring Valley Golf Course. There are two lakes back there and many natural springs. Spring Valley is an adequate translation of Laguna Valley. At one time, there was a plan to build a reservoir up there, but it was defeated. The marshes were tamed and the golf course was built. There is a sign for the golf course at Downing Road (sidebar #2, again) which goes north from Calaveras in a tight bend in the road. Traffic can be a little tricky there, especially when you are descending. The road gets a bit steeper in that corner. There’s not much shoulder and there are a couple little breaks in the pavement that make you want to ride further into the street.

To your left, before you see the porta-potties, is a flagpole. You really need to look backwards to see it. A century ago, that was the site of Airpoint School (sidebar #4). That school burned down and a new one was built in the 1960s about half a mile up the road, on your left. Today, Airpoint School is used by the Milpitas School District for special education.

Ed Levin Park

As you straighten out after the bend, you come along Ed Levin Park. Traffic has a better sight-line, so passing is easier and the road is mercifully flatter – you can shift up a gear or two. The water fountain in the park entrance is questionable. In 1964, more than 500-acres of the so-called Airpoint reservoir property were purchased by Santa Clara County. The Airpoint Park was renamed Ed R. Levin County Park in honor of the deceased county supervisor who canvassed door to door to make the purchase happen and it was dedicated in 1969. Ed was a boxer at one time in his youth, so I imagine the door-to-door canvassing was effective. Levin himself raised hack ponies and the house just beyond the main park entrance Ranger Station was once his home. Most of the park is to the north, extending all the way to Monument Peak and the hang-gliding area. The area alongside Calaveras is just the southern end of the park. Further to the south is more of Laguna Valley and a gated community where my old boss lives.

The road starts to get steep for a little while as you round the corner after the park entrance and the newer Airpoint School. There’s a washboard affect to the pavement where I generally shift back down or get out of the saddle. In the mid-1910s, construction began on the Calaveras Dam. To get the steam shovel into Calaveras Valley, they actually laid railroad tracks on Calaveras Road up this very hill. The road was still dirt at the time; in fact, it was about this time that Oakland Road (Main Street in Milptas) was paved from San Jose to the county line. As late as the 1930s, ranchers were still driving herds of cattle down this road to the depot on Main Street.

Laguna Cemetery

Since the turn is rather tight, traffic is sometimes surprised by struggling cyclists in this section. When you’re not looking out for cars, glance off to your right while you are still in the shade of the trees. Set back from the road is a wrought iron gate and fence, obviously fairly modern. The little cemetery on the hillside is Laguna Cemetery, a little two-acre plot shaded by oaks and laurels and a row of poplars planted many years ago. The first burials were in the 1860s. The last burial was in 1914 and for many years afterwards Weller Curtner paid the taxes on the little graveyard to preserve the last resting places of friends and neighbors of his grandparents.

A faded map of the cemetery, laid out in alleys and avenues running between grave plots, indicates most of the plots had been sold by 1867. Names on the map included Josiah Evans, J. H. Miller, C. Valpey, David Campbell, J. Weller, Felter and Pomeroy. The headstones, now gone (some disappeared, the rest stored for safe-keeping), told the sad story of death in childbirth, infants who succumbed to illnesses, and of men and women not yet old in years.

Weller Road

Soon on your left is Weller Road, an interesting side road which goes up behind the east side of Mount Allison, the highest of the three peaks (Mission, Allison, and Monument). Consider it a private road with people who value their privacy. The road is on most of the older maps I've found and serves mostly farmland which in ancient times belonged to Tamyen Ohlone tribe, and it eventually turns to dirt. If you ride up the hill you may notice stone walls around the ridges which you’ll also see if you hike up from Sandy Wool Lake. I’m told some of these walls were built by Chinese who came here after working on the transcontinental railroad, some were built by Amish, and others are very ancient.

Weller Curtner (descendant of J.R. Weller and Henry Curtner) recalled, “At the corner of Weller Road and Calaveras Road there was an Amish family by the name of Mathews and he had a blacksmith shop in there. He did the blacksmith work for the local men up there and his wife helped him. He’d beat a tattoo on the anvil and his wife would come out and strike it for him. Swing a 14 pound sledge like a man.”

For me, Weller Road marks the last relaxation point in the climb. It’s the last time to shift up again or spin easily before making the left turn at Felter Road and attacking “the wall.”

Laguna School

As you check behind and then look up Felter for traffic, you slowly make the left turn and see the writing on the road: “the wall.” But on the corner is a little old barn. Over the door it says “Laguna Ranch” but it used to be a one-room schoolhouse (Sidebar #5) – the last one-room schoolhouse in the county. The school was closed during World War II and is owned by Mr. Hare who lives in the adjacent home and plans to restore the school. Bill Hare is a music producer with two Grammy Awards. Didn't see that coming, did ya!

The Wall

By now you are tired. Both from reading this, and from the vicarious climb to this point. The road curves deliberately left and right and slightly left again to follow the easiest grade up to the top of the hill without much man-made change to the contour. What little has been done only serves to guide the rain to the sides - nothing that benefits a cyclist. Other than pavement.

Like a bucket of water dumped on the ground, you start out with plenty of power, pushing over obstacles with ease, then relax into a nice easy flow until you start to avoid small pebbles and seek out the path of least inclination until there's no power left but that of your own will.

I've seen many people walk their bikes up the wall. The Tour of California race brings professional cyclists up this hill. There are rattlesnakes and jackrabbits. People with really long telephoto lenses come up here to watch eagles. Cars scream by on weeknights on a white-knuckle, E-ticket commute home from Silicon Valley, unsympathetic to a 4mph cyclist's need to wander back and forth to keep his bike upright. Sweat blurs your glasses and your Garmin's display, which would mock you anyway. Tongues hang out. Heart rate monitors go off. Not much is said, or can be. Then you crest the hill, pull over into the shade by the driveway on your left as cows stare at you.

If you are good, you look back and wait for the bobbing helmet of your buddy to rise over the horizon. His face is down. He may angle his head a bit sideways to see you, unable to lift his head entirely up. Or else it's you, finishing the climb as others wait - now fully rested as if it were no big deal. Some don't even stop, just pedal onward, but it is still an accomplishment. Even after 100 times, it's still "the wall."

Sidebar #1: Elmwood

I've lived in Pleasanton and worked in Milpitas since 1995. I remember driving 237 when it still had intersections with stoplights, and I remember when there were no apartments next to Elmwood Correctional Facility or across the street.

Driving down Abel, there used to be two rows of Siberian Elm trees between Main Street and Abel that lead to the gates of the jail. Originally, John O’Toole planted them along his driveway to his 20-room Victorian mansion. It was sold to James Boyd in 1883, who then sold it to the county in 1884 for use as an almshouse – a home for the poor and sick. Eventually, the city housed a few low-risk prisoners there. And in 1962, the last eight elderly men were evicted, the mansion was demolished and it became a permanent prison.

Incidentally, when Milpitas wanted to incorporate as a city, they needed a population of 500 but only had 400 residents. The soon-to-be city asked if the Elmwood population could be counted as part of their population. The county said yes, and in 1954, Milpitas officially became a city. Oh, and it was no coincidence that Ford Motor Company had just committed to build an assembly plant there – San Jose was not happy.

In 1993, an ancient Ohlone cemetery was unearthed in an excavation at Elmwood. More than 60 graves were discovered, along with abundant beads, mortars and pestles. Apparently, that mound that made it a great location for a mansion was man-made.

Sidebar #2: Downing Road

In 1881, William F. Downing came to Milpitas from Nevada with his family. They bought land next to Evans’ ranch from Henry Curtner who also has a road named after him. This land was originally part of Rancho Tularcitos and Rancho Agua Caliente. Joseph Silva was one of the first to rent land from Downing and his descendents still live in the hills above Milpitas.
William F. Downing’s son, George Lucas Downing (no apparent relation to George Lucas of Star Wars fame), continued the tradition of tenant farming. He rented much of the land to an influx of Portuguese farmers from the Azores Islands. I’m still trying to figure out if the 1900s-era professional cyclist from San Jose, Hardy K. Downing, is related. Hardy K. Downing became a well-known boxing promoter with fighters such as Jack Dempsey.

Sidebar #3: Alviso Adobe

Each of these land grant holders built at least one large adobe home. At the base of the climb, at the intersection of Calaveras Blvd and Piedmont Ave. – adjacent to the Church – is a little cul de sac called Alviso Adobe Court. There is a city park built around the Alviso Adobe building. Until it was acquired by the city in 1995, it was the oldest continuously occupied adobe house in California. Even if you don’t visit it from the court, you can see it off to the right as you begin the climb up “the first wall” segment of Calaveras Road. That is, if you lift your head and look around instead of navigating the narrow space between the inexplicable curb and the racing traffic.

Sidebar #4: Airpoint School

In 1903, Airpoint School was built at the corner of Downing Road and Calaveras Road, so that children of the Downing and other nearby ranches would have a school within reasonable walking distance of their homes. George Lucas Downing was a long-time trustee of Airpoint School. So far, I have no idea why it was named Airpoint – it sounds so out of place. The local historian believes it was in response to the nation’s fascination with the Wright Brothers and the first flight which was also in 1903.

Sidebar #5: Laguna School

Laguna School was built in 1865. It served the children who lived in the farms further up Felter on Los Buellis Hills (Spanish for bulls or cattle, basically grazing land). Reportedly, the school was built for $600. That seems like a lot for those days and an 1866 San Jose Mercury report on financial condition showed Laguna School $3.89 in the red. Laguna was only in session six month as year. I’ll spare you the list of teachers over the years but the trustees included Alfred Felter (of Felter Road) and Michael Hughes, who had built the first wood frame house along Penitencia Creek in the area that became downtown Milpitas. The school rests on a foundation of large stones containing shell fossils, reminding you that this area was under the ocean at one time. In 1943, enrollment fell below the five pupil requirement and the school was closed. The school building was auctioned off to Mildred Bean for $575 in 1949.
(video of former student, John Covo's tour of the old Laguna Schoolhouse, 37 minutes)


Details on the Alviso Adobe,

“Milpitas: A look back” 2/13/2007 (originally published on Aug. 27, 2006), Mercury News archives; "Sunshine, Fruit & Flowers," a Mercury News publication; "Milpitas: Five Dynamic Decades," by Mort Levine, Tom Gilsenan and Rob Devincenzi, Milpitas Historical Society; and "Images of America: Milpitas," by Robert Burrill, Milpitas Historical Society

“Milpitas’ Top Stories over a 60 Year Span” By Milpitas Post Staff, - compiled by Mort Levine, Robert J. Devincenzi, Ian Bauer, Aliyah Mohammed and Julian J. Ramos
“Santa Clara County – Early History”,%20Department%20of%20(DEP)%2Fattachments%2F644507Levin%20Brochure.pdf
"Images of America: Milpitas," by Robert Burrill, Milpitas Historical Society

“Milpitas : the century of "little cornfields," 1852-1952” by Patricia Loomis, California History Center, 1986


  1. In reference to the old Airpoint School, it did not burn down. The "new school" opened in 1966 and the old one closed. An effort was made to save the old building (it had withstood the 1906 quake), but it was torn down a couple of years later.

  2. Enjoyed reading this! Visiting from Podium Cafe.Like bikes and always interested in CA history as a 8th generation descendant of a De Anza member.