An upcoming movie about the life of Sarah Winchester brought Academy Award winner Helen Mirren to San Jose recently to film at the Winchester Mystery House.
Another Winchester house in the Santa Clara Valley also played a role in the curious Winchester story, and this one led directly to the creation of Los Altos.
Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune, moved to California in 1886. There are myriad myths about her, many of them debunked by De Anza College professor Mary Jo Ignoffo in her book “Captive of the Labyrinth” (University of Missouri Press, 2010).
Winchester was not quite the elderly recluse of legend. She was just 46 years old when she moved to San Jose. And though she did live quietly in her quirky, always-under-construction mansion, she also purchased and lived in properties all over the Peninsula, including a houseboat in Burlingame, several estates in Atherton, more homes in Palo Alto and a lovely ranch in what is today Los Altos. Winchester bought the Los Altos property and 140 acres in 1888 for her sister and brother-in-law, Isabelle and Louis Merriman, who raised carriage horses there.
The original house dates back to the 1860s, and there is evidence of a structure as early as 1840. Winchester extensively remodeled it from four rooms to more than a dozen. She even added a Gothic window, which Ignoffo notes “looks remarkably similar to one that had been on the house that Sarah was remodeling for herself.” They called the home El Sueño, which the sisters translated as “The Daydream.”
The railroad arrives
Between 1904 and 1905, Winchester learned the Southern Pacific Railroad planned to bisect her Los Altos ranch with a new track, roughly along the route of today’s Foothill Expressway. She believed this would devalue her property, because it would make it difficult for the horses to get from their pasture – the site of today’s downtown Los Altos – to their watering hole at Adobe Creek.
While Winchester fought the plan, stories circulated that she and her sister went out every night and pulled up the railroad’s surveying stakes. But because she was not a regular resident of El Sueño and was by then suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, historians think it is unlikely Winchester was the perpetrator. The railroad, however, did file a restraining order against the Merrimans, and that “indicates the real culprits,” according to Ignoffo.
A town is born
In the end, Winchester lost. But she won a major point. She insisted that because the railroad was damaging her property, the company either buy the entire ranch or face further legal action. Southern Pacific gave in. It used the needed right-of-way for its line and turned the surplus over to executive Paul Shoup, who, with developer Walter Clark, subdivided the ranch for building sites, now conveniently located along a handy SP line.
“Mrs. Winchester often cooperated in real estate deals or issues of eminent domain,” author Ignoffo told me recently. “But she objected when she believed she was being bullied or swindled. She believed SP could have skirted her property and left a perfectly good horse ranch intact.”
Thus, Winchester’s determination not to be bullied led directly to her ranch being developed into the brand-new town of Los Altos.
She was never pleased to have made her point in quite this way, saying it was “one more distressing episode added to the list of harrowing experiences which I have met with since coming to California.” Of course, by then she also had been knocked about by the history-making 1906 earthquake.
What happened to El Sueño? That’s the best part of the story. Although it once served as a local school, the home has been lovingly restored to a single-family residence and is now the oldest occupied home in Los Altos. On its gatepost on Edgewood Lane, residents can spot its plaque, signifying its status as a Los Altos Historic Landmark. Its Queen Anne gables and acute angles evoke that other house down the road, where tiny, determined Sarah Winchester once walked the famous hallways.
Robin Chapman is a Los Altos native who covered Congress for the ABC-TV station in Washington, D.C. She is the author of “California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley” and is working on a new book, set for publication by History Press in 2018.