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Tunnel Project Revisits Ghost Towns Sunken in Lexington Reservoir

November 3, 2007

By Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Nov. 3–Grizzly bears and stage coach drivers. Saloons. Buzzing redwood sawmills. And a sensational double murder over a pile of gold that grabbed national headlines.

The towns of Lexington and Alma once provided a colorful slice of Silicon Valley’s past. But 55 years ago they were lost forever, submerged under 130 feet of water when Lexington Reservoir was built in the hills south of Los Gatos.

Now the two forgotten communities will have their day in the sun again as construction crews embark next week on a dam-safety project that will drain 98 percent of the reservoir’s water by summer next year.

Starting Wednesday, crews working with dynamite and mining machines will begin cutting a 12-foot-high curved tunnel through the solid rock of St. Joseph’s Hill on the east side of the dam to the reservoir. Nearly half a mile long, the tunnel will be fitted with a 54-inch-high pipe.

Santa Clara Valley Water District, which owns the reservoir, is hoping the upgrades will allow it to more efficiently release water downstream into Los Gatos Creek, particularly during major storms.

“The dam is absolutely safe. The point of the project is to ensure it continues to be safe,” said Dave Chesterman, deputy operating officer for the water district.

The otherwise unexciting public-works job will bring new attention, however, to the long-lost towns.

Most of the homes, barns and shops in them were condemned and torn down in 1952 when the water district

built Lexington Reservoir along Highway 17. A few were moved to higher ground.

As the water falls to unusually low levels starting in June, foundations of old buildings, a former road, tree trunks and a concrete bridge that once ran over Los Gatos Creek in the town of Alma will reappear from the depths.

“This has only happened a few times since 1952 during droughts,” said historian Bill Wulf of Santa Clara. “To see where the ghost towns of Alma and Lexington were is really quite something.”

Wulf, 68, watched the dam, a 195-foot-tall earthen structure that holds back the third-largest reservoir in Santa Clara County, being constructed.

“I went with the boys who lived next door. We walked up to Lexington in about 1950 along the old railway,” Wulf said. “There were ranches there. The hotel that was built in 1858 was still there. There wasn’t much else. In Alma, the railroad station was there, and it was being used as a community center.”

The main reason for the construction project is to replace the old 48-inch outlet pipe that now runs through the base of the dam from the reservoir to Los Gatos Creek. That pipe has crumpled in sections at least three times since 1989.

After several emergency repairs failed, the California Division of Safety of Dams ordered the water district to release no more than one-seventh the volume of water that the pipe was designed to hold.

That meant the water might not drain from the reservoir quickly enough during emergencies such as after a major earthquake that could cause cracks in the dam, or during a series of heavy winter storms that posed flooding risks to Los Gatos and Campbell.

The district’s answer: a $65 million fix that includes the tunnel, the pipe, valves, outlet structures and a control building.

Work is expected to continue into fall 2009.

When full, Lexington Reservoir holds 19,044 acre-feet of water — enough for about 100,000 people for a year. Friday, it was 20 percent full, a level where it usually is around the end of the summer when its water has been released to recharge groundwater basins around Santa Clara County.

Starting in June, the water district will drain it to at least 8 percent full — and possibly as low as 2 percent — to allow construction. Leaving some water will keep the bass, bluegill and other fish in the lake alive.

When the project was first proposed several years ago, residents in the Santa Cruz Mountains around Los Gatos raised concerns about fire risk because helicopters scoop water from the reservoir to fight fires.

Water district officials have reassured them that even at 2 percent full, there will be as much water in Lexington as is in Vasona Lake — roughly 130 million gallons.

“There’s more than enough water to provide firefighting. You’d never use all that in any imaginable fire,” Chesterman said. “There’ll be plenty left.”

If the work, led by Benicia contractor Flatiron Construction, stays on schedule, the reservoir will be allowed to refill during the winter rains at the end of 2008, Chesterman said.

So far, public meetings and an outreach campaign have reduced the controversy.

“When Lexington Reservoir is full, it’s beautiful. It’s a lake in the mountains. We’ll have to suffer in the short term for the benefit in the long term,” said Kevin Flynn, a Chemeketa Park resident who lives near the reservoir and who led efforts this year to defeat a logging plan near it.

As for the towns of Alma and Lexington, their heyday occurred in the mid-1800s, when roughly 200 people lived in each. The towns had a post office, hotel, saloons, blacksmith shops and half a dozen redwood sawmills.

“In the 1860s, Lexington was an active center of commerce. It was more important than Los Gatos,” said Peggy Conaway, head librarian in Los Gatos.

“Lexington was the halfway stop for stagecoaches running between San Jose and Santa Cruz. They would switch there from a team of four horses to six horses to get over the mountains.”

Lexington gained national attention in 1883, when a Los Gatos saloon keeper, Lloyd Majors, hired two thugs to rob an elderly Lexington man who kept $20,000 in gold in his cabin. They burned him with turpentine-soaked rags and beat him with pistols, killing him and a friend, and then fled with the gold. Their sensational trial in San Jose drew national attention similar to that accorded to the Lizzie Borden ax murders nine years later.

Majors and one of the thugs were hanged. The other spent 15 years in prison.

Lexington declined in the 1880s, when the railroad bypassed it. Later, Highway 17, finished in 1940, bypassed Alma and it also withered. By 1950, only about 100 people lived in the two communities.

The dam that submerged the towns is now more than 50 years old, just like all 10 of the county’s reservoirs.

“A lot of our facilities — the reservoirs, the pipelines, the treatment plants — have reached that age where you have to do major maintenance,” said Chesterman. “Sometimes with a car, you need a new engine or transmission. Water infrastructure is like that, too.”

Contact Paul Rogers at progers@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5045.

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Copyright (c) 2007, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

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