Friday, September 4, 2020

Curiosities: Austrian Gulch

The settlement of Wright's Station was one of the most remote in Santa Clara County, but more distant still was a tiny hamlet at the confluence of Austrian Gulch into Los Gatos Creek colloquially named Germantown. This little village of German and Austrian refugees from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 never throve and barely survived for almost seventy years.

A band of German musicians outside a home in Austrian Gulch, 1896.
 [History Los Gatos – Colorized using DeOldify]
War has an interesting effect on societies. While some people benefit greatly, others suffer unduly, even if their side wins. Such was the case of the immigrants who fled the war-torn regions of Austria and Germany for California in the early 1870s. John Utschig lead the group of around a dozen families—no more than 100 people total—to the Santa Clara Valley where they accepted homesteads in the region around the headwaters of Los Gatos Creek below the Sierra Azul range. The families soon planted grapes on the hills, as well as other fruits, and erected a large community winery in the center of the community upon a 1,000-acre tract of undeveloped land. The early potential, if not success, of the hamlet attracted many more immigrants including Italians and Swiss, who all established homesteads on the hills of Mt. Thayer and Loma Prieta.

Sharkey the dog in Austrian Gulch, 1896.  [History Los Gatos – Colorized using DeOldify]
Access to the settlement was tricky since the Los Gatos Creek basin was very narrow and the hills steep in the area north of Wright's Station. Nonetheless, a winding track was carved out beginning at the original Wrights settlement on the east bank of Los Gatos Creek heading south. No railroad tracks were ever built to Austrian Gulch, although a spur did continue for a short distance beside the road. Residents of the settlement had to take a horse or wagon the 1.25 miles to the north and catch a passing train at the station. Many of the early freight suppliers at Wrights came from Austrian Gulch, hauling their fruits and barrels of wine down to the station to be collected for shipment to the Santa Clara Valley markets. 

A family outside their home in Austrian Gulch, 1896.  [History Los Gatos – Colorized using DeOldify]
The failure of the settlement was due in large part to the inclement weather that far up in the mountains and to bad land management by the settlers. Whereas the Santa Cruz Mountains generally block coastal rain from falling on the eastern side of the range, Austrian Gulch is far enough up to catch much of this moisture, especially during the winter months. Usually, the overgrown hillsides counter any land movements and slow any fires, but the extensive planting of vineyards and orchards on the hills stripped them of their native growth, exposing them to the elements. To make matters more troublesome for the settlers, the local wine industry also came into a state of flux in the mid-1880s when the Sacred Heart Novitiate in Los Gatos and other wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains began increasing their production due to the completion of the South Pacific Coast Railroad route through the mountains.

A violinist with his wife outside their home in Austrian Gulch, 1896. [History Los Gatos – Colorized using DeOldify]
In the winter of 1889, a raging storm burst through the mountains and destroyed the dreams of dozens of immigrant families. Sheets of water fell upon the exposed hillsides of Austrian Gulch, tearing the earth apart and draining it down to the torrent that was Los Gatos Creek. The storm took orchards, vineyards, and homes alike, and it is assumed that several died in the onslaught. The community winery was completely destroyed and thousands of gallons of wine that were being prepared for shipment at Wrights spilled from their vats. Rumor says that Los Gatos Creek ran red as far as Campbell.

A small home in Austrian Gulch, 1900. [History Los Gatos – Colorized using DeOldify]
The still young Germantown attempted to recover, but the struggle proved exceedingly difficult and the financial cost was great. Some of the more optimistic families replanted their orchards and vineyards in the spring, but many families moved away, either to other places in California or back to Europe, where the recession of the 1870s had given way to a robust economy in the 1880s. Utschig, the community patriarch, relocated to nearby Wrights and later to San Francisco. Attempts to turn part of the area into a camping and hunting destination under the name Camp Deuprey failed to attract clientele. Repeated forest and bush fires along Austrian Gulch and the headwaters of Los Gatos Creek in the 1890s through until 1923 convinced the remaining residents to seek greener—or at least safer—pastures. The last residents left shortly after the Great Depression hit in 1929, abandoning their dream of a German settlement in the shadows of Loma Prieta and Mt. Umunhum.

The land that had comprised Germantown was purchased by Edward E. Cothran shortly afterwards. At some point in the early 1900s, Cothran was a San José attorney and had purchased 500 acres of land from Mercedes Demoro in the area between Wrights and Germantown. There he operated a small sawmill with his sons, Shelley and Ralph. Shortly after the collapse of Germantown, Cothran purchased some of the land of the former settlement in order to harvest additional lumber. This prompted a series of lawsuits with the San José Water Company, which had purchased most of the Los Gatos Creek watershed over the previous decade, including the area around Austrian Gulch. In 1933, Cothram cut some of his newly-acquired redwoods and was promptly sued by the water district for polluting Los Gatos Creek. But Cothran was a lawyer and was stubborn.

Edward Cothran fought the lawsuit throughout the remainder of his life and his sons continued the fight. In 1936, Shelley was out for a ride on the former county road when he encountered a deputy sheriff sent out by the water company. The two men fought briefly and the exchange went to court, where the deputy was found not guilty but cautioned against using excessive force. The next year, Ralph was confronted by another deputy while going to Wrights to collect his mail at the post office. When he went to get his gun and returned, he was arrested. It once again went to trial and Ralph was acquitted. He was then charged with attempted murder of said deputy, which he was also acquitted for but forced to spend five months in jail for failing to post a peace bond. Shortly afterwards, Shelley and Ralph were both threatened by the same deputy, forcing them to seek a warrant for the deputy's arrest.

By this point, it was clear that the water district was doing everything in its ability to drive the Cothrans off their land and make use of the road to their property—which had been built as a public road using public funds—impossible. The Cothrans became the local spokespeople for residents upset about the water company's heavy-handedness. When the water company closed Wrights Station Road in 1949, Shelley took the matter up with the Board of Supervisors, but they demurred. The people protested that there was only one way out of the Austrian Gulch region—a roundabout route to Summit Road—and that even a minor forest fire could trap them all there.

Austrian Dam and Lake Elsman as viewed from overhead, 2016. [Wikipedia]

The inundation of Los Gatos Creek at the base of Austrian Gulch in 1950 made the matter even more pressing. Austrian Dam, an earthen embankment-style dam, was erected just to the north of the gulch and immediately flooded the valley below the Cothran family's properties. It is unclear if any homes had to be moved or vacated prior to the inundation, but the valley appears to have been largely empty at this time. The road to the Cothran house, however, did get shifted slightly up the eastern bank of the creek to wind around the dam. The reservoir, owned by the San José Water Company, holds 6,200 acre feet of water and is 140 feet deep in places. When at full capacity, it provides up to 12% of the water for the San José Water Company. The reservoir was given the name Lake Elsman after the water company's president, Ralph Elsman, who served in the office from 1937 until 1968 and also as the president of the California Water Service Company.

A large forest fire in 1961 underlined the imminent threat to the local residents caused by the lack of proper roads in the area. Nonetheless, the Supervisors declined to take any action, so in early March 1973, Shelley Cothran sued the Board of Supervisors, the Department of Public Works, and the San José Water Company for a combined total of $1.5 million, citing that the three organizations had sought to confiscate his land. On March 19, Cothran returned to his home to find it in flames and the fire marshal agreed that the origins of the fire were very suspicious. By the end of 1973, Shelley's neighbors had helped him rebuild his cabin with locally-sourced wood and he remained there until 1981. While he never won the case for his property, he also never lost it. And not long after his death, Wrights Station Road was, in fact, reopened for local use.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.1307N, 121.9262W

The site of Germantown is now largely submerged beneath Lake Elsman far up Los Gatos Creek, although several of the former homestead sites likely sat above the lake but their locations are lost. Almost nobody lives in the region and access is restricted exclusively to residents and San José Water Company staff. Cathermola Road, which for much of its length was the old Austrian Gulch access route, is not for public use and trespassers will be ticketed and their cars towed if caught. No evidence of the former settlement is known to have survived.

Citations & Credits:


  1. Excellent story! Many little ethnic hamlets like Germantown existed in these mountains in those days. Sveadal was founded in 1926 at the location of such a village. Thanks!

  2. Shelley Cothran...! The 1986 Fire revealed that he had "deeded" a not small number of 1 to 5 acre parcels within his preserve to others, as I recall a dozen off the grid, uninsured and non-permitted homes were destroyed...


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