Walking Through History
History Park
Neil Wiley

Perhaps some day we will see mountain history artifacts in our own Loma Prieta Museum or in a permanent exhibit at NUMU in Los Gatos. In the meantime, here’s a way to walk through Santa Clara County history.

The History Park in San Jose devotes 14 acres to 32 historic and replica buildings. On any weekend you can ride a trolley, see a working print shop, and experience many activities and exhibits.

As you walk down the main street, you see on the left a replica of San Jose’s electric light tower, once the centerpiece of downtown San Jose. You also see a print shop (1884) where a live printer demonstrates an old letterpress, and displays the keyboard of a linotype machine once used by the Wall Street Journal.

On the right, you pass an old-fashioned bandstand. (If you are lucky, you may hear a band playing.)

A few more steps take you by a Port Huron steam tractor, an old Associated Oil service station (1927), complete with a silent manikin mechanic, and a blacksmith shop. The pièce de résistance is a trolley barn filled with locomotives, horse-drawn equipment, and a working trolley that takes you for a short ride back in time. (The trolley brought back memories of riding a noisy Chicago streetcar to 79th Street, home of the local library, an upscale Capital Theatre showing the latest movies, and the Cosmo, home to Saturdays of cowboy serials, Milk Duds, and greasy bags of popcorn.)

Back at the History Park, you can view the rotating exhibits of the Arbuckle and McKay galleries.

Hungry? Stop by O’Brien’s Ice Cream Parlor and Candy Shop. Food trucks visit the park when large audiences attend special events. During the March of Dimes’ March for Babies in April, about a thousand people showed up, along with three food trucks and a rock-and-roll band.

Off the main street is a village, consisting of old historic houses and larger museum buildings. On the far side of the park is a complete but non-operating train with a steam locomotive, boxcar, and caboose.

Many of the houses are home to museums, some open every weekend, others only on special occasions. A few examples include the Greenawait House used by two Vietnamese organizations, the Gordon House that partners with the Rotary Club, and the Markham House, home of the Poetry Center. The Printers’ Guild works in the Print Shop. The Chinese-American Historical Museum is served by the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project.

Look for the Hill House. It has a special connection with the mountains. It was home to Andrew P. Hill, a well-known local photographer who worked with mountain resident Josephine McCrackin to form the Sempervirens Club, save Big Basin, and campaign for Highway 9.

Some of the museums are quite large. For example, the Portuguese Historical Museum has over 3200 square feet of exhibit space devoted to Portuguese culture in Santa Clara Valley. On June 8, a Portuguese festival will celebrate the poet Luis Camoes. The festival features food booths, vendor booths, wine garden, children’s carnival, parade, and entertainment throughout the day. The museum will be open with several new exhibits.

On June 14 and 28, see films outdoors by director Wes Anderson at the Fire House Green. General admission is $5.

The History Park is just one element within Kelley Park. You can walk north through the Japanese Friendship Garden and large forested park areas suitable for weddings, picnics, and long walks. (Most of the koi ponds are empty, but the park is shady.)

At the north end of the park is Happy Hollow. It includes a little zoo, amusement park, outdoor theater, fast-food restaurant, and a beautiful suspension bridge. On nice weekends, more than a thousand happy and very loud children enjoy chaos.

Not everything is easy to find in this park. Looking through the official website (historysanjose.org) helps, especially the virtual tour and calendar, but with so many different organizations participating, your experience is like looking through a kaleidoscope. Every trip reveals something different, but the diversity is wonderful.

For a map showing locations of park structures, look up History Park San Jose at Wikipedia.org. Touring History Park is a bit frustrating, but with research and a willingness to explore, you may find it a good alternative to television or the internet.

Directions. Take Highway 17 north, turn right on I-280 south, take the exit to 10th/11th Street, turn right on South 10th, left on Keyes, right on Senter, right on Phelan, and left into the History Park parking lot. The GPS address is History Park, 635 Phelan Avenue, San Jose, CA 95112. Parking at the History Park costs $6 per day, $10 on holidays.