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Continuing the saga of Joseph Hale: Orchilla helps: Los Altos’ Early Roots

As Los Altos celebrates its 60th anniversary of incorporation, it is worthwhile to recall the area and the events as they were when settled.

Below, in part 6 of the series, we learn more about Hale Ranch, now part of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, stretching from Adobe Creek west of the Foothill Expressway over to Permanente Creek in Loyola Corners. Joseph Hale purchased the 2,000 acres in 1869 and 1883.

It is impossible to continue Joseph Hale’s story without delving into orchilla, a plant that Hale harvested, bringing him a vast fortune. Orchilla is a lichen found in only a few places in the world, including Baja California. The weed, found on rocks and the lower parts of trees, was processed into a purplish-blue dye cherished for coloring English woolens.

Hale, an Irishman, spent much time in Baja, traveling back and forth to San Francisco. He spoke Spanish, rode a horse and knew how to dig a shallow well to obtain water. He carried a gun and knew when and how to use it. In short, he adapted well to life in Baja.

In 1857, at the age of 21, Hale married Catarina de Castro, an upper-middle-class Castilian with several centuries of roots in Mexico. They had two daughters and initially lived primarily in San Jose del Cabo. Hale maintained his San Francisco businesses, which provided supplies to him in Baja.

Hale had access to officials in the Mexican and Baja governments, using his political acumen, money and lawyers to garner influence. He would pay people when he owed money, or when it was expedient to solve a problem, but often his steadfast stubbornness and honesty prevailed.

Mexico experienced great upheaval at the time, leaving Baja in relative peace, somewhat isolated, and with independence from Mexico City. It proved a difficult environment for Hale as a foreigner. Sometimes groups of other nationalities ganged up to suppress his enterprises. The Baja government favored the idea of colonizing the empty land and often provided incentives to investors like Hale to develop the expanses.

The growth of orchilla

In 1862, Hale learned that orchilla grew rampant in lower Baja along the Pacific Coast, thus launching an enterprise of international importance. He hired workers and dispersed them throughout the coastal area. Contracts with the Baja government were won, lost and fought for the right to harvest the lichen. Hale developed an infrastructure of supply, shipping and marketing that eventually overcame his competitors.

He centered the operation at Magdalena Bay and built a comfortable village with schools and churches for his more than 1,000 workers. Hale’s small ships would transport the crop to Magdalena, where it was pressed and baled for shipment to San Francisco. His brother, James Hale, served as government customs officer. From San Francisco, the orchilla was carried by railroad to New York for shipment to Liverpool.

When troublemakers invaded Hale’s Magdalena settlement, he purchased and demolished their shacklike houses, forcing them to move on. Once, when the competition became too strong, he temporarily reduced his sales and hoarded his crop. Then after a year, he halved the price and dumped his baled stockpile on the market. Competitors could not sell their crop and subsequently failed to pay their debts. Hale took over their businesses.

Hale negotiated a 10-year contract with the government under a company called Flores-Hale, headquartered in Mexico City. (No one knows if Flores was real.) His land franchise covered an 18-mile-wide strip extending from the bottom of Baja to halfway up the coast, a total of 4.5 million acres. His obligation to the government was to survey, colonize and prosper.

At his peak, each month he shipped 10-50 tons of baled orchilla from San Francisco to Liverpool. The orchilla market crashed in the 1880s when chemical dyes were invented that created a similar blue hue.

Hale gave up his base on Magdalena Bay and returned to San Francisco, spending summers on his ranch in the hills west of Mountain View.

What does Hale’s story have to do with Los Altos? It’s how Magadalena Avenue got its name.

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