Downtown history shrouded in myth: Rotary Club presenter probes Los Altos' roots

Photo Courtesy Of Marlene Cowan In a recent presentation to the Rotary Club of Los Altos, Laura Bajuk, History Museum executive director, disputes Paul Shoup's place as founder of Los Altos.

Contrary to popular opinion, Paul Shoup was not the only founder of Los Altos, according to Laura Bajuk, executive director of the Los Altos History Museum.

Bajuk backed her assertion with a 1909 Los Altos Star newspaper clipping that featured developer D.W. Johnson as “the man with the money,” because his house was much more valuable than Shoup’s. Bajuk showed old photos and traced the history of the downtown triangle from 1907 to 1950 at a Rotary Club of Los Altos meeting last month.

The Los Altos area was developed in the original Fremont Township in the 1850s, Bajuk said, encompassing a large area that now includes incorporated cities such as Los Altos, Mountain View and Sunnyvale. In the 19th century, she said, approximately 100 families inhabited what had been the two large Spanish ranchos: Rancho San Antonio, owned by Juan Prado Mesa, whose offspring married the children of Juana Briones, owner of Rancho de la Purisima Concepcion.

Later, Bajuk said, Sarah Pardee Winchester and her sister, Isabelle Pardee Merriman, moved from Connecticut to San Jose, where Sarah built the now famous Winchester Mystery House. In 1886, Sarah purchased the Diel Ranch, located on what is now El Monte Road, for her sister’s family. In 1905, building proposals for a trolley line and a railroad line, planned to cut through her ranch, which was configured as a triangle. Sarah protested this incursion to her attorney. Meanwhile, Isabelle and her husband, Louis, went out at night to pull up the developers’ stakes. However, a savvy businesswoman, Sarah finally accepted the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad but forced them to purchase her entire 100-plus-acre ranch instead of just the 5 acres they wanted. Isabelle moved to thriving Palo Alto.

By this time, according to Bajuk, the interurban trolley tracks were laid parallel to the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks to connect downtown Palo Alto and Los Gatos through Los Altos. According to a Mr. Johnson from Sacramento, it was his ancestor, not Paul Shoup, who “founded” Los Altos, for D.W. Johnson was the promoter with money.

In 1908, Bajuk continued, developers advertised the Los Altos area as a “new university town” with scenic views and even sidewalks, situated between the newly founded Santa Clara College and Stanford University. However, California had a seedy reputation as a wild frontier and not yet enough women to civilize it. It still looked like untamed open space, Bajuk said.

The first store in Los Altos was Eschenbruecher Hardware, located where Footwear Etc. now stands on Main Street. It was only a 5-cent trolley ride to civilized Stanford University, Bajuk said.

In those days, she said, Los Altos was touted as the ideal country home for commuters when the new concept of traveling to work took hold in the early 1900s. Train commuting was predominant until cars became affordable after World War II. During this period, the railroad track divided Los Altos, with residences on one side and businesses on the other.

According to Bajuk, Los Altos’ clout was evident in the unique train depot built and funded by subscription, now occupied by Maria’s Antiques. The Shoup building, originally built in 1909 for retail and offices, is now the home of U.S. Bank on Main Street.

For more information, see the book “Early Los Altos and Los Altos Hills” (Arcadia Publishing, 2010), available at the Los Altos History Museum and Main Street Cafe & Books, 134 Main St.

Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos.

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