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Friday, January 18, 2013

Alma Station

Survey Map of Alma and Lexington
(Courtesy Duncan Nanney)
While a ghost town is generally an abandoned town or village, like many of those found in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the creation of Lexington Reservoir in 1952 completely drowned two small towns, the largest of which was Alma.

The earliest origins of Alma are not entirely known. Even the name is shrouded with mystery, with one story stating the town was named after a road that led to the New Almaden mine, while another states the town was named after a local prostitute. In either case, the word is Spanish for "soul." When the village was first founded in 1862, it was a part of nearby Lexington and went by the name of Forest House. The name was a reference to a small hotel found beside the north-south road that led over the mountains and eventually became Highway 17 (but was also known as the Glenwood Highway).
Original 1859 Lexington School in Alma
In 1873, the post office relocated and the town was formally named Alma. A schoolhouse was in the town since 1859, though it continued to be named Lexington School until the reservoir consumed the second schoolhouse. A third iteration of the school now sits on a bluff overlooking the reservoir. A small Jesuit college also was located nearby and bore the Alma name until it eventually moved to Stanford and became part of the university.
The second Forest House, c. 1870
(From John V. Young, Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains)
Original downtown general store beside the railroad tracks, c. 1890s.
Unlike many of the places found along the Mountain Route, Alma already existed when the South Pacific Coast cruised into town in 1878. With the South Pacific Coast line dead-ended at Wrights in 1878 while the two one-mile tunnels were bored, passengers debarked at Alma for a stagecoach ride over the mountains. Alma developed into a small bustling town seated at the bottom of the Los Gatos Creek Valley. In addition to the school, the town had a hotel, general store, blacksmith shop, and two saloons, among other amenities.

Downtown Alma with the general store, 1915.
Picnickers posing beside a fence, c. 1900s.
The saloons helped support the developing tourist industry that brought thousands of tourists to the region from San Francisco on excursion trains. Eventually, up to twelve saloons lined the roadway between Alma and Lexington and popularly became known as the "mile of saloons."
Ellis Ranch, just south of town, was one of the largest properties in Alma. The train runs right through it in the center.
A pair of excursion trains parked outside Alma Station, c. 1900s
Second Lexington School at Alma, 1913.
In 1880, Alma appeared on the earliest known South Pacific Coast Railroad timetable, being located 58.3 mile south of San Francisco via Alameda Point. Unlike so many other stations and stops noted on the timetables, Alma remained on every single listing, sometimes bracketed by Los Gatos and Wright, other times by Lexington (Lyndon) and Aldercroft. It was still being serviced when the line went into disrepair in 1940.

Oddly, Alma was also closed that year even though the route from Los Gatos was not significantly damaged by the winter storm. Likewise, Alma appears on virtually all railroad maps, showing the significance of the station.

Alma Station in the 1930s before the line was closed. A parked flat car waits to be picked up.
Alma Station in 1950, probably converted into a small local business.
The tracks have been removed and the reservoir is likely being built.
The 1899 Station Book includes that the station at Alma had a telegraph office, functioned as a freight and passenger station, had a Class A freight capacity (meaning it had multiple sidings, a water tower, and machinery to load and unload goods), and had a platform on the right side of the tracks from the north. A relatively unknown neighbor, Oil City, flanked it two miles to the south, while Los Gatos was three miles to the north.

While many trains continued on over the mountains or stopped at formal picnic stops, some chose Alma itself as its destination. The town had a swimming hole, orchards, fields, redwoods one mile north, and meadows. The latter three of these also brought freight trains to Alma periodically so as to help transport goods back into the Santa Clara Valley. Even at its height, there were not many people living in Alma. At most, a dozen families made a living in the region, with another half dozen available from nearby Lexington. Life in the valley was not harsh, but the available land for cultivation and use was limited, with rocky hillsides closing the valley in.

A bridge from 1923 buried under the reservoir, 2008.
(Courtesy Brian Liddicoat)
Rail service to Alma continued until the closure of the line in the winter of 1940. The stationhouse, meanwhile, remained until the end. The unincorporated village of Alma, alongside its post office, stationhouse, and memories, finally disappeared under the rising waters of Lexington Reservoir in 1953. Every so-often, due to draughts and periodic maintenance, the reservoir is drained, allowing people to see once more all that was lost under the waters.

The site of Alma in 2008 when the reservoir was drained for maintenance.

  • Mildred Brooke Hoover, Historic Spots in California (Sanford UP, 2002).
  • "Lexington School," Los Gatos Public Library (2012).
  • Southern Pacific System: List of Officers, Agencies and Stations, 1899.
  • John V. Young, Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains (Great West Books, 2002).


  1. Just got cited for going here
    Don't enter unless you apply for a permit

    1. Alma should be under water by now so I'm guessing you went much further down Aldercroft Heights Road than you should have. They definitely do ticket up there and they have signs posted saying as much. That being said, Alma was located near the upper end of Lexington Reservoir, so unless the waters still haven't risen that high yet, you won't be able to visit it. Unfortunately, nothing appears to be left at the town cite anyway. Not even foundations...