The Backwoods Blackstone
In the early 1900s Edward E. Cothran, a prominent San Jose attorney,
bought 500 acres high in the Santa Cruz Mountains from Mercedes
Mercedes’ late husband, Rafael, had been a Spanish sea captain who
owned seven sailing ships. Rafael made his fortune transporting
Chinese workers from Hong Kong and Shanghai to San Francisco in the
On top of a ridge overlooking the Demoro property stood a large
white cross. When Cothran acquired the land, one of the deed
requirements was that the new owner preserve the wooden cross. It
was an agreement kept by two generations of Cothrans.
Cothran and his sons, Shelley and Ralph, operated a small sawmill at
the ranch. They bought their supplies and picked up their mail at
Wrights, a nearby settlement that had grown up with the coming of
the South Pacific Coast Railroad.
After World War I, Wrights slowly declined. Neighboring San Jose,
down in the valley, was beginning to experience minor growing pains.
Still largely agricultural, San Jose had begun attracting more
industry and the population was growing. Water consumption increased
and deeper wells had to be drilled. Sites for dams and reservoirs
were explored in order to impound the new sources of water needed in
San Jose Water Works (SJWW), the water supplier since 1866, began
quietly acquiring land in the Santa Cruz Mountains. By the early
1930s the Cothran property was surrounded by SJWW land, and the
The Cothran-SJWW feud started in 1933 when Ed Cothran cut a couple
of redwoods on his property. The water company claimed that he had
muddied Los Gatos Creek. They sued him for $10,000.
As an experienced attorney, Cothran fought the suit in court. He
argued that the trees were on his property and the water company was
trying to prevent him from doing anything profitable with his land.
Shelley and Ralph carried on their father’s legal battle after his
death. Although Shelley’s formal education had ended with the fourth
grade, he was undeterred by the fact that he never went to law
school or took the bar exam. He studied his father’s law books and
read Shakespeare until his command of the English language was
“awesome,” according to a newspaper account.
In 1936 SJWW bought Wrights, “lock, stock and barrel.” A brochure, A
Wealth of Good Water, published by the water company at the time
gives an idea of the company’s attitude:
“The town [Wrights] consisted of 125 acres of land. All that
remained of the village itself were fourteen buildings—two or three
homes in good condition, and several moldy old structures that were
falling to ruin. The company purchased outright both the land and
the buildings. It tore down all the buildings except the houses and
the structure that once served as a hotel, restaurant, and Post
Office building. In one end of this ancient building the U.S.
Government still maintains a Post Office for residents of the
surrounding area.” The Wrights Post Office was officially closed
November 16, 1937.
At this time, SJWW employed men on foot and on horseback—“riders”—to
give “special protection against contamination of the creek at this
point.” The special protection included armed deputy sheriffs who
patrolled the land on horseback along Los Gatos Creek “from Los
Gatos practically to the headwaters near Mt. Loma Prieta.”
Rights-of-way were granted to land-locked property owners to enable
them to reach their homes; but the roads, once public property and
paid for with public tax monies, were now on the water company’s
Early in December 1936, Shelley and Deputy Sheriff William Hughes, a
SJWW rider, met on a road near Wrights and got into a scuffle when
Hughes thought Cothran was going to reach for his gun leaning
against a nearby tree. Judge Bell found Hughes not guilty (even
though Hughes admitted he had struck Cothran “lightly” several
times). Judge Bell warned Hughes about using excessive force in
carrying out his duties.
Less than a year later, on May 13, 1937, Ralph went to collect the
mail at Wrights Post Office. He was challenged to a fight by another
rider, Deputy A. E. Waibel, “a water company employee who was
To even the odds, Ralph went home and got his own gun. He returned
to the Post Office and was promptly arrested. Deputy Waibel charged
that Cothran threatened him with a firearm and was “hallucinating.”
The Los-Gatos Times-Observer (June 25, 1939) reported on the trial:
“Cothran is suing both the water company and Waibel on grounds that
he was jailed maliciously on an affidavit of insanity—a charge on
which he was later acquitted by a jury. He claims that the company
had him imprisoned as a part of an attempt to get control of the
land owned by himself and his brother, adjoining Water Company
holdings at Wrights.”
After Cothran’s acquittal on the insanity charge, Waibel then
charged him with attempted murder. Ralph spent an additional five
months in county jail because he refused to post a $2,000 peace
By now, what had started with a charge of “muddying” Los Gatos Creek
had grown into charges of insanity and attempted murder. There was
no end in sight.
In January 1938, Shelley and Ralph were returning home when their
car skidded on a muddy road and stalled. They were cutting some
saplings beside the road to extricate the car when Deputy Hughes
came along. Hughes ordered them off water works property and
emphasized his order by firing a couple of shots. The Cothrans left
the car where it was and walked home. The next morning they swore
out a warrant for Hughes’ arrest. The $500 bail was promptly paid
and Hughes claimed “there wasn’t a shot fired.” Hughes added an
interesting complaint: after the Cothrans filed charges against him,
they later appeared at his place—after dark—and “were pulling up
ferns near his water tank.” (Malicious mischief? Hallucinations?)
Up to this point the battle had been about control of land, water,
and property access rights. Property owners felt that they literally
were living in an armed camp. They looked upon Shelley Cothran as
their spokesman against the water company’s lawyers, and he relished
Cantankerous, bombastic, and hard-drinking, Shelley provided
entertainment for the courts, copy for the newspapers, and hope for
his neighbors. The battle was about to expand.
In 1949 the San Jose Water Works closed Wrights Station Road.
Shelley took on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
With the end of rail service in March 1940 and the closure of
Wrights Station Road nine years later, area residents found their
only way out was by Summit Road. This added miles to their travel.
This was not only inconvenient, but posed a very real danger of
being trapped by forest fire. Difficult access by emergency vehicles
slowed response time. The Santa Clara County board of supervisors
had sold a portion of the road to a private company (San Jose Water
Works) which only added fuel to the fire.
In April 1962 Shelley headed a group of petitioners. They appeared
before the supervisors to demand that Wrights Station Road be
reopened “in the interest of fire protection and safety.”
A ten-day fire at Austrian Gulch in 1961 also made this a matter of
concern to residents. “If the road had been open during the Austrian
Gulch fire last year,” said Bruce Franks, chairman of the Alma Fire
District, “firefighters would have been able to reach the fire an
Other petitioners accused the supervisors of ignoring their pleas
for years. Shelley grimly forecast a fire of “destructive
proportions” if Wrights Station Road remained closed. The matter was
referred to attorneys for further study.
Seven months later, the supervisors came back with their decision:
The Public Works Department had their permission to build an
emergency fire trail. It would be secured at either end with chained
and padlocked gates since it passed through private (Water Works)
Cothran wasn’t at all satisfied by the outcome. He wanted the
original road reopened year-round, but the board voted 3-2 against
spending the $25,000 to reopen the mile-long stretch of road.
Supervisor Della Maggiore argued that the road was not the county’s
responsibility, despite residents’ claims that they had seen county
crews working on it. The supervisor conceded that county road crews
had worked on the road, but it did not mean the road belonged to the
county. Anyway, he added, the Water Works gates could always be
knocked down in case of an emergency.
Such a narrow defeat, after 28 years of struggle, would discourage
most people, but Shelley wasn’t most people. Shelley was “(A) man of
commanding voice and presence,” said one newspaper article. The
article described how Shelley would stop by the newspaper office
after a day in court to regale the staff with stories and explain
legal intricacies to them.
A friend recalled that “Mr. Cothran enjoyed a bit of brandy before
his court appearances.” When a judge once asked Shelley if he
smelled liquor on his breath, Shelley turned the question to his
advantage: “… If the Court’s sense of honor is a keen as the Court’s
sense of smell, then you will see the folly of the Water Works’
Shelley was a consummate showman in court, acting as attorney,
litigant, witness, executor of his father’s estate, and heir. “He
was a cantankerous son of a gun,” said longtime friend Connie
She attended a number of his court appearances and described one:
“He would stand tall and dignified while firing questions at an
empty witness chair. Then he would sit in the witness chair and
answer those same questions in a meek and humble tone.”
Judges enjoyed the bombastic language and colorful presentations,
often coming up to shake hands with him before a case.
But the lawsuits dragged on year after year. Shelley decided to
bring matters to a head in March 1973.
On the day before spring, he and a few friends finished planting the
last of some Douglas fir seedlings; he was 83 and knew that he’d
never live to see them grow tall, but he remarked that others would
The next day Shelley made up his mind to file a $1.5 million suit in
Superior Court against the county supervisors, the Department of
Public Works, and the San Jose Water Works. He charged that they had
attempted to confiscate his land with a grading ordinance that
threatened him with six months jail and heavy fines for “maintaining
the family cemetery, firebreaks, dams, and existing roadways.”
On Monday, March 19, he left the courthouse at noon and stopped off
to visit friends near Holy City. At 3 o’clock he returned to his
cabin to find it in flames.
Shelley first attempted to put out the fire himself, filling buckets
of water from the sink. He soon realized that it was useless, so he
went outside to call for help. His closest neighbors, renters who
lived in a nearby cabin, were not at home. By then the fire had made
too much headway to be stopped. “There’s nothing but ashes now,” he
told the deputy fire marshal in an interview the next day.
Shelley knew that he had made a lot of enemies over the years and
believed that the fire had been deliberately set. Not only was his
home destroyed, but his law books, legal papers and mementoes
accumulated over an 80-year period were gone. He was left with only
the clothes on his back.
The county fire marshal investigated and concluded that there were
“very suspicious circumstances” surrounding the fire. Shelley’s dog,
locked in the cabin when he left, was found outside when he
returned. A gas can was found in the driveway. Specific threats
recently had been made in the presence of witnesses. The fire had
originated in two rather questionable locations: the bathroom and
the living room. The marshal concluded that there was lack of
evidence of arson.
The ashes had barely cooled before Shelley’s friends began
constructing his new cabin. It was built with logs from his own
property. Nine months later, a few months after this 84th birthday,
he held a “Great Fandango” to celebrate the completion of the new
home on the site of the original. The occasion was noted in the
newspapers with photographs and articles.
Shelley continued to make court appearances. He used his increasing
deafness as an excuse to ignore the judges’ admonitions. When he
broke his hip at age 90, it marked the end of his courtroom
career.The broken hip also forced Shelley to move in with friends,
where he stayed until his death four years later in May 1985.
Longtime friend Connie Kidwell remarked that his illness and
dependency “softened his demeanor,” but not entirely. He managed to
muddy Los Gatos Creek one final time. His ashes were scattered over
his property and eventually found their way into SJWW’s protected
Perhaps his best obituary appeared in a local newspaper, perhaps the
one he stopped by after appearances in court. It read: “He was never
“A Wealth of Good Water,” San Jose Water Works, Los Gatos
Shelley Cothran, autobiographical notes
Reprinted from the Mountain Network News, May/June 1995 and