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The Real History Behind The Myths and Mystery of Stanford’s Searsville Lake

Rohnert Park resident David Mattea remembers fondly when he was a boy in the 1970s, how his family would drive half an hour south to escape foggy Daly City. They would head to a place called Searsville Lake for some fun in the sun. When the weather was good, the man-made playground would regularly draw thousands of people from all over the Bay Area for water sports, summer camps, picnics and more.

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“Whatever became of Searsville Lake on the Peninsula?” Mattea wants to know.

The Great Water Grab of the 19th Century

In the years following the Gold Rush, San Francisco’s growing population was thirsty for drinking water. The Spring Valley Water Company bought up a lot of the farmland on the Peninsula south of the city to take advantage of all the creek water pouring off the Santa Cruz Mountains. They built dams to collect the water in reservoirs like Crystal Springs and directed it to San Francisco.

Now, around this time, the railroad baron Leland Stanford was building a brand new university. He bought a small reservoir from the Spring Valley Water Company for use on his sprawling, 8,200-acre campus.

The dam was built in 1892 by the Spring Valley Water Company, but the reservoir never proved to be a reliable source of palatable drinking water and was acquired by Stanford University in 1919. (Courtesy of Stanford University Archives)

A handful of creeks feed the little reservoir on the campus, according to Tom Zigterman, director of water resources and civil infrastructure at Stanford.

“There’s four or five, depends on where you’re doing the counting, but it’s a number of creeks that merge right there at that canyon,” he says.

However, this reservoir proved to be a major disappointment as a drinking water source because one of the creeks that fed into it, Corte Madera Creek, also carried tons of silt and sediment down from the mountains.

“The water smelled awful,” says Julie Cain, a historian for Stanford Heritage Services, which is responsible for the campus archaeology program. Cain is co-writing a book with another local historian, Nancy Lund, about Searsville Dam. “The water tasted awful. All of the porcelain sinks and bathtubs had yellow or brownish stains that could not be removed.”

Cain says Stanford’s early campus manager “figured out relatively quickly that this water was really going to only be good for irrigation and fire protection.”

Even though the reservoir couldn’t deliver potable water, it was still a pretty sweet place to hang out.

“There were about 200 families living in the area, roughly, and the lake became an immediate unofficial recreational spot with people that lived nearby,” Cain says.

Searsville Dam may be man-made, but it’s still pretty to many and fascinating to natural scientists. The dam is surrounded by grasslands, chaparral, oak woodland, mixed evergreen forest, and even freshwater wetlands. (Courtesy of Dan Quinn)

In 1922, a Stanford couple leased the property so they could teach water sports and run a summer camp. Ernst and Greta Brandsten were both Swedish immigrants and Olympic divers. They called it Camp Searsville.

“Greta was the first woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal for high diving in 1912!” Cain notes.

Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts camped on the property. Tons of sand was brought in to create a man-made beach. 1,500 people might show up on a Sunday, 2,500 people on a holiday weekend. It was a scene, “for not just the local community, but really anybody within the Bay Area. I have photos of, I think Memorial Day, and it looks like Coney Island,” Cain says.

Debunking Urban Myths

Near the lake, there was a tiny town called Searsville that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a myth, however, that the town was flooded by the construction of the reservoir. That was a rumor started by Ernst Brandsten, who loved to scare his diving students by telling them they could hit their heads on an old Searsville rooftop if they weren’t careful.

Also untrue: a legendary concert in 1968 that baby boomers who spent summer days at Searsville Lake as children and teenagers recall. They remember hearing about it, but nobody could have attended it, because as historian Julie Cain explains, the university got wind of it while it was being organized and shut the concert down.

Searsville Dam is a concrete gravity structure made of interlocking concrete blocks. (Courtesy of Philippe Cohen)

“They would have had great people, though,” Cain says. “Country Joe and the Fish, Joan Baez, everybody and their dog that was anybody in San Francisco was on that list.”

What happened to the Coney Island of Stanford University, Then?

As decades passed, the university’s biology department grew tired of having to share its 1,200-acre biological preserve with the swimming, boating, picnicking party animals of the Bay Area.

Stanford researchers use the land to study everything from Bay checkerspot butterflies to climate change and invasive plants. A lot of this didn’t mean much to Searsville Lake visitors, who unwittingly trampled on a lot of science projects.

“Which really, has continued to this day with local kids who got nothing better to do,” Cain says.

In 1976, the university bought out the camp’s lease and closed the beloved swimming spot down. You can still take docent-led tours of what’s now called the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, but mostly, the party is over.

After more decades passed, the dam caught the eye of a different group of locals for very different reasons. In 2013, two environmental groups brought a lawsuit against Stanford, arguing Searsville Dam, particularly its diversion of water from the San Francisquito Creek Watershed, damaged the habitat and threatened local fauna.

The Searsville Dam is located within the San Francisquito Creek Watershed, which encompasses about 50 square miles and more than 20 creeks. Over thousands of years, the creek has carried sediment downstream from the Santa Cruz Mountains to create the alluvial fan upon which Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Stanford were developed. (Courtesy Oakland Museum)

Fish biologist Matt Stoecker grew up in Portola Valley, one of several Peninsula cities that popped up near Stanford. His parents swam in Searsville Lake. He remembers playing in the creeks that fed the reservoir when he was a boy.

“There was a steelhead run that used to run from the Bay all the way up to Windy Hill and Portola Valley, where I lived,” Stoecker says.

He remembers one brave little steelhead trout in particular.

“This was actually a steelhead that had come from the ocean and may have swum from as far away as, you know, off the coast of Japan, all the way back to the stream it was born in and this useless dam that’s not serving a function anymore is preventing it from swimming back to its home,” Stoecker says.

As a grown-up, Stoecker started a group called Beyond Searsville Dam, which has spent 20 years trying to get Stanford to restore the local watershed to something like its original glory.

The university did budge, kind of. It’s come up with a plan — not to get rid of Searsville Dam altogether, which is what Stoecker wants — but to open a hole in the bottom of the dam.

Two environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit against Stanford University, claiming Searsville Dam harms threatened steelhead trout. (Courtesy of Philippe Cohen)

That would let the steelhead trout returning from the bay go upstream, and it would let the water go downstream.

Even so, you can anticipate Stanford will engage in a lot of meetings in the years to come with the public and various agencies before anything finally happens on the ground.

“So it’s not a total success story, but it’s a partial success story,” writes plaintiff’s attorney Chris Sproul, who notes the lawsuit has been resolved. “The environment organizations I represent are happy with the progress so far and hopeful that the big prize will be attained (steelhead being able to freely utilize the entire Corte Madera Creek watershed — there is some absolutely beautiful habitat up above Searsville) in the not-too-distant future.”

“We’ve been meeting with the resource agencies at the state and federal level: (Army) Corps of Engineers, National Marine Fisheries (Service), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, (San Francisco Bay) Regional Water Quality Control Board. They’re all involved,” says Zigterman, director of water resources and civil infrastructure for Stanford.

So, I gotta give the last word to historian Julie Cain.

“I’m probably going to put words in somebody’s mouth,” she says, “but I’m sure somebody at Stanford is shaking his or her head, going, ‘What in the hell did we buy that place for?'”


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