The Port of Alviso

The earliest use of Alviso Slough as a shipping port was recorded by John Henry Dana in his book “Two years before the Mast.” Mission Santa Clara shipped cowhides and wheat during the 1830’s from what was then known as the “Embarcadero” (“landing place”).  In 1846, during the Mexican War, 30 armed American troops under the command of Lt. Robert Pinkney disembarked by the Embarcadero to get bread from Mission Santa Clara and to participate in the one engagement in Northern California against Mexican troops, “The Battle of Santa Clara.”

For a time, the slough connecting Alviso to the Bay was known as “Steamboat Slough,” as the water was so low at low tide. It was dredged in 1858 to make it more accessible and today the water passage is known as Alviso Slough.

The 1850’s were Alviso’s heyday as a port when numerous passenger steamboats arrived there. On April 11, 1853, a terrible steamboat disaster occurred when the “Jenny Lind” exploded four miles out of Alviso.  Although accounts vary, 21 people were immediately killed, including many prominent San Joseans. Later deaths brought the total to nearly 50, most caused by injuries from escaping steam.  One passenger stated: “On starting it was natural to bid adieu to cleanliness and comfort for the time being, and having so fortified myself, I was better able to withstand the intolerable filth of the “Jenny Lind.”  She has since blown up, which is about the only thing that could have purified her.”

The South Bay Yacht Club was chartered more than one hundred years ago and Alviso had many happy days as a yachting capital. In the spring of each year, the yachting season opened with a parade of pennant-flying boats sailing out of the harbor for a cruise of the bay.  This was an elaborate social event, with San Jose’s elite leading the parade.  Guests at the two-story, 1903 clubhouse, could gaze directly from the veranda across the harbor to see the brightly-flagged boats. 

Unfortunately, mankind has not been kind to this little port.  Our valley sits on an underground aquifer from which vast amounts of water have been pumped for agriculture and human consumption, causing the ground to subside by as much as fourteen feet. Dykes were built to keep the bay from flooding, but when winter storms coincided with a high tide and a north wind, Alviso repeatedly flooded.  The worst was in 1983 when six feet of water covered the floor of the clubhouse and the rest of Alviso.

In 1985, the first meeting of the South Bay Yacht Club in the restored clubhouse was held, and the club is still active today, albeit with difficult sailing conditions.


  1. Speaking of History; Knight Ridder leaves San Jose, leaving McClatchy to run the one newspaper town.

    Does the Mercury now become the San Jose Bee? 

    Of course, it could have been far worse.  McClatchy is, at least, a reputable journalistic organization—unlike most of the other Corporate Tabloids.

  2. McClatchy said they will sell Mercury per TV news
    since newspapers in declining / unprofitable markets do not fit their expansion goals

    Can we get a local group including journalists to buy Mercury ?

  3. How is the Port of Alviso relevant at all, given the sale of the Mercury News?

    It’s like talking about the weather after a terrorist attack.  It may be pleasant, but it is not very interesting.

  4. Mr. Robinson, your attitude is precisely what has allowed the small community of Alviso to survive in such anonymity for so long – apathy.  Yes, to you there are more important current events, so feel free to concentrate your time on them.  To those of us interested in history, Alviso is a goldmine, and Mr. McKay has graciously committed himself to mining it for us.

  5. Re Relevance: The Port of Alviso will be relevant long after the Mercury News is sold six more times, eventually to Dubai or China who will control all editorial comment.

  6. In order to be a well-informed citizen of our City one should be aware of the history as well as what is happening today and the future plans.  In order for us to learn of the past we have teachers such as Leonard and others who have dedicated their lives to our history.  The relevence of the Mercury-News/Knight Ridder sale is only worth noting in passing as these publishers have changed corporate parents many times over the years.

  7. Dan’s Question – What does the corporate sale of Knight Ridder/The Mercury-News have to do with the port of Alviso history?

    McClatchy newspapers has sapparently announced ( TV news ) their intent to sell Mercury so I asked if we could get a local group including local journalists to buy Mercury?

    Locally owned newspapers unlike regional or national corporate newspapers can perform a valuable community service by advocating to preserve local historical landmarks and focusing on important local community and political issues since many complain about Mercury’s corporate focus and not enought local coverage

  8. Why does the discussion have to be limited to a single topic? The Great Minds who populate SJI can keep up with multiple threads.

    A) I find it interesting that news accounts of Tivo usually list the company as being based in Alviso, not San Jose. In so many ways Alviso was never REALLY a part of San Jose, despite annexation.

    B) A union consortium is planning to make an offer on the 12 Knight Ridder newspapers, including the Mercury, that McClatchy intends to sell.

  9. As someone who critcizes the Merc on occasion, I agree with Ed on this one.  A San Jose Merc owned and operated in San Jose has more impact on local issues than a Merc whose editorial and corporate decisions are made in McLean, Virginia or New York City.

    A good model to follow for the Merc would be KLIV 1590am.  It’s headquartered at 750 Story Road (near the 101/280 interchange) in San Jose.  (VTA’s #25 bus stops right next to the offices and studios.)  All decisions get made in San Jose by President and CEO Robert Kieve – the kind of accessible executive rarely found in the media business nowadays. 

    I could not imagine a good, San Jose news station like KLIV in the hands of a random media executive whose only tie to San Jose is a vinyl copy of Dionne Warwick’s classic song about knowing your way to here…

  10. Sorry Ed and others, I’m still wondering where the Alviso history lesson went.  Alviso was here and thriving a long time before the Mercury News or Knight Ridder. 
    I’m willing to bet that we’ll continue to have a daily and Sunday newspaper no matter who owns it and we’ll continue to gripe about the contents as we do now. 
    Now…..about Alviso I’ll bet there’s no mention of the plaque dedication by the ECV because the Mercury News doesn’t like them.
    Dredge out the marina and make it a lively recreation port.

  11. A couple of things. 

    I have always liked Alviso.  It has the best weather in all of greater San Jose and up until recently was quite affordable.  Relatively speaking, it probably still is.  If it had been developed into a serious (but not Oakland serious) port, San Jose would have been on the national and global radar a long time ago.  It seems to me that SJ annexed Alviso with its eye on the waterfront, yet never did anything with it.  I agree with Mal that even though it was annexed, Alviso has maintained most of its autonomy and probably would have still been considered a distinctive part of SJ even if its waterfront had seen significant commercial development.  Once the “new” Dumbarton bridge was constructed, it’s low clearance over the bay waters insured that Alviso would never become a huge industrial port, so it remains with many portions that have gone untouched for years.  Not many neighborhoods in SJ that you can say that about. 

    As for the Mercury, if the union consortium doesn’t manage to purchase it then the fears of out-of-town ownership are well founded.  I work for a company that used to be based in SF.  Now it’s based in Texas.  It has not been a pretty picture when it comes to understanding the California lifestyle and way of doing business.  You can count on the Mercury’s culture getting beaten down by the out-of-town owners as soon as the ink is dry on any deal.

  12. Chalk up another lose for RonCon!

    The lose of the Mercury News.

    no baseball

    no bart to sj

    no earthquakes

    San Jose Sucks

  13. Perhaps one can list where the clubhouse of the South Bay Yacht Club is located.  I do know that the 58 bus is the only VTA service of any kind serving Alviso.  I would not mind going to Alviso just to see the Yacht Club headquarters.

    Also, wasn’t there a Union Pacific train station serving Alviso up until the mid 20th Century?

  14. Dan,

    It is a challenge for a small community like Alviso which has a lot of potential to be preserved and improved as a lively recreation port / historic neighborhood while retaining it’s local historical character and enabling local residents to remain as the price of land and development pressures increase. 

    Many of us would be supportative of their local efforts but it has to come from local residents and local businesses organized and being active

    They should either work with Berryessa Citizens Advisory Council which is the neighborhood association in their area or if BCAC is unwilling to focus on their local issues then work with BCAC and United Neighborhoods to form their own neighborhood association as many local residnets have done to address many local issues and many of us would be willing to assist them  

    Do they have a neighborhood business association ?  If not organize and contact other neighborhood business associations for support on common issues and training

    They should also contact Preservation Action Council – San Jose on historical preservation issues

    All self help local organization projects but others will help if they get organized and training is available for those thay are organized and reach out

    Has the local chapter of E Clampus Vitas sent event announcements to Mercury, Comcast Community, local community newspapers, KLIV 1590 Am, Channel 11 etc or other media announcing their event ? 

    Organizations should not depend on any 1 media / newspaper to do their announcements but by sending anouncements to many the word will get out

  15. Obviously, the Alviso Times will supplant the Mercury News because of the vast general interest in the history of that area.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-Alviso anymore than I’m anti-Berryessa or anti-Almaden.  I’m certainly not anti-HIstory.

    If the 1853 explosion had happened yesterday, I don’t think a single person would not be discussing the incompetence of Mayor Gonzalez for lax handling of the maritime port in our area.  We would have the extra bonus of speculating that Alviso was such an important Port it was targeted by the terrorists.

    But, alas, there was no explosion, there is no steamship in Alviso and quite frankly there is no harbor.  Which brings me to my basic premise. . .what’s the point?

  16. #13: From what I understand, San Jose annexed Alviso for the land and the sewage treatment plant.  Many attribute San Jose’s growth and the existence of Silicon Vallley as we know it to the sewage treatment plants built in Alviso.

    #15: Take a look at this map for the location of the SBYC

  17. Another great history lesson from Leonard.  There is a bronze plaque in a small city park at Lincoln St. and the El Camino Real in Santa Clara dedicated to the memory of the Battle of Santa Clara.
    At 12:00 noon on Saturday, March 25th, the local chapter of E Clampus Vitas is dedicating at bronze plaque commemorating the port of Alviso at the Alviso Marina.
    Thanks Leonard.

  18. A left leaning news media outlet has hit hard times – Dog bites man.  The bottom line?  There’ll be 1 less source for fake but accurate news.

    The smaller newspapers will step in and fill the local news void.  Probably do a better job too.

  19. Just a point of clarification…Alviso was consolidated, not annexed. Annexation is what San Jose has done to much of unincorporated Santa Clara County. Consolidation is when two cities merge. Alviso was one of California’s first cities.

    The City of San Jose conducted an extensive master planning effort for Alviso in the late 1990s, and adopted a Specific Plan in December 1998 (available at the Planning Division). The planning process directly involved the local community in developing a long-range plan. This effort was done under Mayor Hammer’s term.

    Unfortunately, the subsequent administration (including the District 4 councilmember) has done little follow-through on the recommendations, other than helping facilitate development nearby, paving some streets, and reparing the parking lot at the Marina.

    By the way, visit the Marina and take in the bay – it is a breathtaking experience.

  20. Just wanted to point out that most of us on this site wouldn’t have known about the ECV event on 3/25 unless Eric had dedicated one of his blogs to it.  I haven’t seen or heard anything in the print or electronic media about this, but I get the feeling that the Clampers probably prefer it that way.  Last thing they want is policital correctness forced on them as a result of public scrutiny, or at least that’s my guess, and more power to the Clampers on that!

    And on the topic of print media, any speculation on how things will play out for the SVCN papers?

    And Rich, what is your problem with Alviso and history?  Sure beats discussing sports hands down as relevant to this blog.  Maybe you’d prefer the situation in Vegas where nothing exists for more than a few years and historical significance never gets in the way of any development.

  21. Leonard… Glad to see you are still writing and working with the community.  Do you remember the hanging that took place in the downtown park… way back when?  Something to do with kidnapping of some kids, and how a mob of folks went to the jail and demanded and got the killer and hung him on the nearest tree.  Can you go into details?  Pictures?
    Thanks for the many great years of trust and friendship together by the way. Your friend always.  Larry Levine

  22. Forty-four years ago I had the distinct pleasure of being employed by the City of Alviso.  The weather is better in Alviso as noted above.  All of the citizens with whom I had contact were vitally interested in their community.  I will be at the plaque dedication at the Alviso Marina on Saturday, March 25th.

  23. Thanks Leonard,
      You great wealth of history takes me bach to when as a young man , I would go see Frank Schillings at Shillings and Sons Sporting Goods, on Post st. and he would spin yarns of the Market duck hunters of Alviso. The whore houses of Draw Bridge during probition. My years of hunting ducks in that South Bay mud are forever in my mind. a place filled with wild life. Every remnent of humanity that floated out the rivers and streams that emtied into the southbay, would end up at the tide line on the south bank of the bay. I miss Frank and people like him. He cared very much for our down town and our surronding bay lands. Times have changed, haven’t they?
      This week I will be casting a bas relief bronze plaque honoring Adolf Phister our two time Mayor of the late 1800’s. This man not only started our first free library, but he also crafted what is now Alum Rock Park. He used his own money to do this.  Times have changed haven’t they.
      You are the heart of this valley. At times I sence we have none, then you take us back to simpler times, and I feel safe once again.
      Thanks Leonard!!!!!!!!!!!
            The Village Black Smith

  24. Another echo of “three cheers for Leonard McKay!”  As long as there are people like him, the past still lives. 
    Larry (No. 27), you speak of the Brooke Hart kidnaping and lynching.  The best source to be found on the subject is the late Harry Farrell’s book, “Swift Justice.”  It’s a fantastic read, and a part of my own family history, as it would happen.  (My great grandfather was the Harts’ neighbor on The Alameda and a criminal lawyer investigating the case, and my great uncle was a good friend of Brooke’s, a fellow Bell.)
    I know there was a film released in the forties that was loosely based on the lynching, and another one that was projected to come out this year – anyone else have any information on those?


  26. Gentlemen,  I happened upon your comments while researching Alviso for a PowerPoint presention I will soon be giving on The Valley of Heart’s Delight…And Beyond.
      Postcards of the time (1889-1930) are accurate accounts of History,noteably Real Photo Postcards.  Alviso was a very important town with a railroad station, a distinguished hotel, a heavily-used harbor and other businesses.  Early in it’s history, the slough was used to ferry passengers each way from SF to Alviso, for $25 while stagecoach fare was $30 one way.
        Darlene Thorne