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This town, now part of the City of San Jose, is a National Register Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Historically, Alviso is one of the oldest towns in Santa Clara County. It once was expected to be a great city. Because of its location on San Francisco Bay, Alviso was the major commercial shipping point for the entire south county until the late 1800s. The town was almost totally deserted, however, after the railroads diverted travel in 1865. Incorporated in 1852, Alviso is the site of the Bayside Cannery and the South Bay Yacht Club (1896). Both structures are still in use today. Because of its atmosphere resembling a small delta town, and because many of the old early town structures are still in existence, the character of Alviso is unique.
South Bay Yacht Club: photo by Eric Carlson
Originally inhabited by Ohlone Indians attracted by the bounty of fish and shore birds, the area was given by land grant in 1838 to Ignacio Alviso, who came as an explorer with Captain Juan Bautista de Anza in 1776. As the primary junction between San Francisco and San Jose, Alviso became a prosperous port where hides, tallow, grains, redwood and quicksilver from the New Almaden mines were shipped around the world. Through the port, ships could travel up the Guadalupe River to the Embarcadero de Santa Clara and the tiny community of San Jose.
In 1849, the town of Alviso was laid out by surveyor Chester S. Lymon, and the first steamboat, the Sacramento, arrived. Soon, homes, taverns, stores and hotels sprang up around the busy wharves and Alviso was crowded with steamboats and stagecoaches. The town was incorporated in 1852.
In 1864, the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad – a cheaper and faster alternative to moving goods and people – was completed, bypassing the town and ending Alviso's role as a port of entry for the Santa Clara Valley. In 1876, the narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast Railroad was built and did stop in Alviso, but by then the port use had already declined.
In 1890, P.H. Wheeler began promoting “New Chicago” as a great new manufacturing center. He financed his vision by subdividing a large tract on the northeast side of town into 4,000 lots, selling them from $5 to $200 each. In 1891 he built the San Jose Watch Factory and hired employees, but the company could not cover the first payroll and the dream evaporated instantly. Many of the lots sold were actually on wetlands, unbuildable, and eventually given to the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge and renamed the New Chicago Marsh.
In 1896, The South Bay Yachting Association, formed 1888, was reformed and became the South Bay Yacht Club (SBYC). In 1903 the Clubhouse was built, and meetings were moved from 10 S. First Street in San Jose (now the Bank of America Building) to Alviso.
In 1906, Thomas Foon Chew took over his father’s Precita Canning Company, renaming it The Bayside Canning Company, and turning it into the third largest cannery in the world. Using a technique to can asparagus while retaining crispness and freshness, Chen became known as the Asparagus King. This was Alviso’s most successful operation, employing hundreds of workers who could live in company owned housing nearby. After Chew’s death in 1931 and the Great Depression, the cannery slowed production and finally closed in 1936.
In the 1920's and 30's, Alviso gained the reputation as a rough place, with gambling and prostitution conducted under the nose of the Sheriff’s Department until a Grand Jury investigation ended the lawlessness. In 1929, The Alviso Salt Company spent five million dollars dredging the tideland to make salt evaporation ponds, but like many others during the Great Depression, went broke after its first harvest.
In 1968 The City of Alviso became part of San Jose. Currently a sleepy, overlooked location, Alviso has a unique and colorful past and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
~ From Historical Footnotes of the Santa Clara Valley by Jack Douglas
Lieutenant E.G. Buffum, who came west with Captain Henry M. Naglee in 1847, wrote in his journal:
The want of a great commercial town at the head of the Bay of San Francisco has been supplied by the location of Alviso. It is situated at the head of the bay. The Guadalupe River, a stream running directly through the centre of town is navigable at all seasons of the year to vessels drawing 12 feet of water. The depot is business headquarters of the 2 finest valleys in California...the town of Alviso must inevitably grow to importance.
Bayside Cannery: photo by Dawn Escorcio