History and Mystery in San Jose

A steampunk tour of San Jose, home to Winchester Mystery House and other attractions

Sunday, August 12, 2018

San Jose may be the hub of Silicon Valley, but it also has its share of Victorian-era history with some eccentric twists, most notably the architectural oddities of the Winchester Mystery House. But that’s not all: You can also explore the 19th century structures of History Park and the ancient mysteries of the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, which will soon be joined by a new facility dedicated to the medieval art of alchemy. Just south of the city lies New Almaden, which was America’s largest producer of mercury during the Gold Rush.

This is Part One of a series about steampunk-related attractions in Silicon Valley. Part Two will take a closer look at the Egyptian Museum and the forthcoming Alchemy Museum. Part Three will explore locations in Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto.

Winchester House

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose’s best-known tourist attraction, is a Victorian mansion originally built in 1884 by Sarah Winchester. She was the widow of William Wirt Winchester, whose family owned the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After his death, she inherited more than $20 million, plus 50 percent ownership of the company. She used her fortune to fund the mansion’s ongoing construction, which continued through 1922. It’s known for architectural quirks such as stairs that lead to the ceiling and doors that open to walls. It’s also reputed to be haunted.

The house was the subject of “Winchester,” a 2018 horror film starring Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester. It’s also a setting in Vanishing Point, a science fiction novel by Michaela Roessner, and Earthquake Weather, a fantasy novel by Tim Powers.

A guided one-hour mansion tour costs $39 for adults and $20 for kids. For an extra $10, you can add the “Explore More tour” featuring rooms previously closed to the public. You can explore the grounds for free. The property also includes ancillary buildings, a gift shop, and a small museum showcasing Winchester rifles and other historic firearms.

The mansion is located at 525 S Winchester Blvd., San Jose, CA 95128.

Empire

History Park, on the south end of San Jose’s Kelley Park, features a collection of historic buildings relocated from their original locations, as well as replicas of notable structures from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They are arranged to resemble a small town of that period. Some of the buildings house small museums or gallery spaces.

Highlights include:

• A replica of the Pacific Hotel, which operated in downtown San Jose from 1880 to 1907. The first floor contains an ice cream parlor and exhibit gallery. The hotel also houses the offices of History San Jose, the non-profit that owns and manages History Park and other historic locations in the city.

• The Trolley Barn, which houses a collection of historic vehicles and a shop used to restore and maintain them. It’s operated in partnership with the California Trolley & Railroad Corporation.

• Dr. Warburton’s office, a physician’s office built in the 1870s and later relocated to History Park. It contains exhibits of historic medical equipment.

• A print shop with working equipment maintained by the San Jose Printers’ Guild. Members of the guild demonstrate the equipment on some weekends and during special events.

• A 115-foot replica of the Electric Light Tower, which lit up downtown San Jose between 1881 and 1915. It’s about half the height of the original.

Trolley Barn

The park also contains the Chinese American Historical Museum, Portuguese Historical Museum, Viet Museum, and an African American heritage center. On weekends, visitors can get free rides on a trolley that runs the length of Kelley Park.

History Park is open seven days a week, but the buildings are typically open only on weekends, and some only on selected weekends. Admission is free except for special events. Parking costs $5. The entrance is at 635 Phelan Avenue, off Senter Road in San Jose.

History San Jose also operates the Peralta Adobe & Fallon House Historic Site near the San Pedro Market in downtown San Jose. Built in 1797, Peralta Adobe is the city’s oldest standing building. The Fallon House, across the street from the adobe, was the home of Thomas Fallon, the tenth mayor of San Jose. Built in 1855, it now contains 15 rooms with Victorian period furnishings.

The sites are not open to walk-in visitors, but History San Jose hosts scheduled tours, and the website includes links to virtual tours. The address is 175 West Saint John Street in San Jose.

Bank of Italy

A few blocks east of the Peralta Adobe, you can walk the San Jose Downtown Historic District, a two-block area containing notable structures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These include the Knox-Goodrich Building (1889), Oddfellows Building (1883) and Bank of Italy building (1926), which was San Jose’s first skyscraper. These buildings blend into a highly developed commercial area, so they’re easy to overlook. The district is bounded by East Santa Clara and San Fernando streets on the north and south, and First and Third streets on the west and east.

Rosicrucian Park, about two miles west of downtown San Jose, is home to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, which claims to have the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts on display in the western U.S. The museum also houses a large gallery of objects related to alchemy, including a recreation of an alchemist’s workshop. The gallery is a precursor to an Alchemy Museum that will occupy a separate building on the grounds. In addition to the museum, the park includes a planetarium built in 1936, as well as a Peace Garden, labyrinth, research library and administrative offices of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC). It serves as the headquarters of the AMORC’s English Grand Lodge for the Americas.

The park is located at 1660 Park Ave, San Jose, CA 95191. For more information and a photo gallery, see "Ancient Mysteries of Rosicrucian Park."

The New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum, just south of San Jose, has exhibits and artifacts related to the area’s mercury mines. The mines flourished during the 19th century Gold Rush because mercury was essential in gold refining. (The San Jose Mercury, one of the city’s major newspapers at the time, was named for the mines as well as the Roman god Mercury. It later merged with the San Jose News to become the San Jose Mercury News.)

Mercury

The museum is housed within Casa Grande, a Victorian-era mansion that served as the home for the mine manager. In addition to the museum, several rooms in the mansion have been restored with period furnishings. The building also includes a gift shop.

The facility is operated by the Santa Clara County Parks Department, which suggests a $2 donation for admission. It’s open daily except Wednesdays and Thursdays. The address is 21350 Almaden Road, San Jose, CA 95120.

Nearby is Almaden Quicksilver County Park, where some of the original mines and related structures are located. Entrances to the mines are closed, and visitors are warned not to eat fish caught in local lakes and reservoirs due to mercury contamination. Though it’s close to the San Jose city limits, New Almaden is in a rural unincorporated area with poor to non-existent cell phone reception.

SteamyTech, a vendor often seen at Bay Area steampunk events, makes its home in Santa Clara, just outside San Jose. It’s not open to walk-in traffic, but will accept visitors by appointment. The facility includes a laser cutter used to make fidget spinners, gears, games, and wearables. It’s located at 394 Martin Ave, Santa Clara, CA 95050, phone (408) 800-7104.

See the gallery below for more photos of these places.


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