Neil Wiley

Although Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve is in our mountain neighborhood, it doesn’t give up its secrets easily. I have hiked this preserve for several years on docent-led tours, an unplanned adventure with Sister Toni, and alone on solo treks with a permit and a bad map. I have read archaeological reports, historical evaluations, and history articles. I got information at the open-space master-plan meetings. On a recent history tour with docents Jenny Whitman and Richard Gehrer, I learned even more. Yet the artifacts of history prove hard to find.

Little remains of the Flood and Tevis estates—a few roads, some brick walls, bridges in various states of disrepair, a few ponds that were components of an extensive water system, and a library built by Dr. Tevis in 1909 that later became the Jesuit chapel. The Jesuits built the remaining buildings.

Although the Tevis library was reported to be in good physical condition in 1997, it and the other buildings have deteriorated from neglect, vandalism, and the passage of time. Hopefully, the historical library could be restored to serve as a visitor’s center and small history museum. And, hopefully, the large pond could regain its fountain centerpiece that once produced a giant column of water. I didn’t see any waterfalls fall, but some of the seasonal streams and abandoned dams looked promising for winter viewing.

A picnicking area located near the preserve entrance was constructed for Dr. Tevis. It consists of a brick-and-masonry alcove, with an open area, a flight of three brick steps, a masonry rock wall, and an arched alcove and masonry pedestal. Although overgrown with weeds, a little work could add much to the natural beauty of the area.

Less likely for restoration is the Pratt deck truss bridge spanning Briggs Creek (also known as Reservoir Creek). Designed and constructed by John McMillan in 1923 for Dr. Tevis, the bridge is interesting but unusable. The roadbed decking is gone and so is the road that it served. Walking up the creek is somewhat difficult, but it is even harder to see the bridge. The superstructure is barely visible far above the creek and in the trees. It may be eligible, however, for the National Register of Historical Places as an engineering structure, because “it embodies distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, and it represents the work of a master.”

Other historical artifacts include Ohlone grinding stones (bedrock mortars). Although other grinding stones are nearby in Lexington Reservoir, these are larger, perhaps indicating a larger tribe or a temporary settlement.

The existing stable may not seem to be of historical value, but this property has been involved with horses since the 19th Century. When James Flood and his blonde burlesque-queen wife bought the property in 1894, they created “Alma Dale,” complete with a forty-room villa and a large barn remodeled into a stable to keep Flood’s fine horses, including draft horses to pull carriages. The Floods avoided the dusty Dougherty Road (now Bear Creek Road) by building Flood Road (now Alma College Road) to the town of Alma (now under Lexington Reservoir).
When Dr. Tevis, past president of the Wells Fargo Express Company, began his own extensive building program in 1901, he converted Flood’s horse stables to a library for his valuable books, but he loved horses, too, especially Tennessee Walking horses. Although the Jesuits were not horsemen, they leased the stables to a series of people who boarded horses.

In 1968, the Porters took over the stable. They boarded up to seventy horses, and held horse shows there until 1976. I attended several of their Tennessee Walker shows. Now managed by Glenda Smith, the Bear Creek Stables still boards seventy horses. Constructed by Harry Tevis between 1915 and 1920, this stable has been in use for almost one hundred years.

With all this history of horses and horsemen, it would seem logical to create a living history. Why not save more than land? Why not offer carriage and wagon rides down the historical Flood Road, horse shows, and horse care clinics? It would carry on a tradition and give more people, including disabled, elderly, and families with small children, access to the preserve.

Another proud tradition is horticulture. Dr. Tevis hired 43 gardeners to care for his experimental garden with rare flowers and trees from throughout the world. He grew prize-winning dahlias, lilies, roses, fuchsias, and nandina shrubs. His $200,000 water system stored 11 million gallons of water. All the owners engaged in extensive landscaping. The Jesuits, perhaps more practical than the millionaires, developed several large vineyards.

Although restoring these massive projects may be impossible, why not serve this tradition through community gardens? Neighboring Presentation Center has developed such gardens. So has Wilder Ranch. Master gardeners, 4-H families, unemployed workers, retirees, and others who want to grow plants (legal plants) could join together to create a sense of community and a bountiful harvest.

The secret history of Bear Creek needs telling. Docent-led hikes reach a few people, but interpretive signage along a history trail could tell so much more to many more visitors. A history museum and trail panels could enrich the open-space experience.

A special thank you goes to Midpeninsula Regional Open Space staff and docents, especially docent Jenny Whitman and Open Space resource planner Julie Andersen. They made the hike more than a walk.