If there are two things I am a sucker for when I travel, they are history and free activities. When you add Covid into the mix, outdoor, easily social distanced becomes a perk as well. So when I visited San Jose, I searched for a place that would accomplish all three. Lo and behold, such a utopia exists: History San Jose.
History San Jose is an outdoor museum located in east San Jose, inside Kelley Park – where Happy Hollow dominates the thoughts and dollars of locals. It is free – yay! – and celebrates the shockingly storied history of the city and region. The museum is a few “blocks” of original historic buildings representing many of the more famous aspects of San Jose’s past, painstakingly relocated to the park from all over San Jose and Santa Clara in order to preserve them.
San Jose was founded as Pueblo San Jose de Guadalupe in 1777, incorporated in 1850, and as of 2019 was the tenth largest city in the United States with a population of just over one million. In between, it has evolved from a farming community – in its heyday, one third of all canned fruit in the world came from San Jose and its surrounds – to a finance center, to the world’s leader in innovation as the capital of Silicon Valley. While San Francisco gets all the notoriety in the region, San Jose is older, bigger (currently), and arguably just as important over the past two centuries, although I acknowledge this might be a fairly unpopular opinion.
History San Jose celebrates all aspects of the history of the city, from the early days on, although the original buildings – the park also has replicas – really only date from the 1860s and on. Most of those are – were – private homes; some of these now house small museums or non-profit offices. History San Jose is where you’ll find tiny museums dedicated to some of the people who helped grow the city, like the Vietnamese Boat People and the city’s large Portuguese population, plus Greek and African-American museums.
A charming old house from the 1870s
In addition to original homes, the museum holds both originals and replicas of some of the city’s most famous businesses. Did you know that the Bank of Italy, which would become Bank of America, was started in San Jose? I didn’t either until I came here and saw a branch replica – closed, naturally, due to the pandemic, as is the next door Pacific Hotel, a replica of the 1880 establishment.
The Pacific Hotel
One of the highlights of History San Jose is a half-scale replica of the San Jose electric light tower. Built in 1881, the tower stood 237 feet tall, and boasted 24,000 candlepower. At the time, the tower was the world’s tallest free-standing iron structure – it would lose this title to the Eiffel Tower – and the light was visible from as far away as San Francisco. The San Jose Union Tribune reported that it was as bright as full moonlight, and even as a half moon up to a mile away. This is yet another amazing thing I never knew about San Jose, nor that it was said to be the first city west of the Rockies with electric light, that I learned by coming here!
The light tower is behind and to the right of an old fire station. It’s the structure that looks like a large electrical pole.
For the story of San Jose’s agriculture, make your way to the Stevens Ranch Fruit Barn, dating from 1890. This area was once home to the finest fruit orchards in the country. In addition to leading the world in canning, San Jose is also where Orchard Supply Hardware was founded in 1931 to provide equipment for this industry. An original Southern Pacific 1215 locomotive “pulls” an Orchard Supply boxcar in one of the park’s corners.
Everything is better with a train
History San Jose is a pleasant escape from what has become a noisy major city, a quiet place to walk, to immerse, and to learn where the city got its start. Every building has signage with information, including where the building used to stand (or where the original stood in the case of a replica), and nearly all have photographs of the original in its home. Some signage is faded, a result of being outdoors, but nearly everything is in good shape. Even the street lamps date from another period.
If you’re looking for a nice way to spend an hour or two, learning something in the process, give History San Jose in Kelley Park a visit.
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