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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

From a sawmill to a city: an abbreviated history of Saratoga 

Downtown Saratoga today
Saratoga Chamber of Commerce
Downtown Saratoga today

Note: Saratoga’s history is much more vast than what is covered in this article. Details on other influential figures and events can all be found in Florence Cunningham’s book “Saratoga’s First Hundred Years.” 

1848 was a major year for California; it became a territory of the U.S. and also attracted tens of thousands of frenzied prospectors upon the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill and turned into a destination for those looking to strike it rich. But looking beyond California’s major historical turning points, 1848 also marked the birth of what is now a thriving community with its own rich history of industry, education and suburban housing: Saratoga.

Settlements grow around a sawmill

Two centuries ago, the urbanized, bustling Bay Area of today looked unrecognizable. 

According to assistant principal and former history teacher Matthew Torrens, the South Bay landscape featured a mountain range that stretched 145 miles, with only four passes through it. One of those four valleys would develop into what is now Saratoga. Native American tribes, including the Ohlone, took these routes through the mountain range to trade in the coastal region. Several modern highways, such as Highway 17, Highway 92 and Highway 9, were built on these Native American trading routes. 

“The mountains were pioneered by Native American tribes,” Torrens said. “The Ohlone natives would grow things here and walk them to the coastal region to trade, like abalone shells and a variety of seafood. But Saratoga was limited and isolated, more associated with the valley than the ocean.” 

According to Saratoga historian Florence R. Cunningham, who wrote the book “Saratoga’s First Hundred Years,” published in 1967, European settlers — mostly Spanish explorers — arrived and established settlements in the area in 1776. One of the most prominent was Juan Bautista de Anza, who paved the trail from Mexico to Santa Clara Valley. 

With the incoming Europeans, drastic changes were forced on local Native American tribes. In her book, Cunningham described how they lost the freedom to hunt and fish and were sometimes forced to convert to Christianity, sometimes causing small rebellions. Overall, there was adaptation on both sides in the integration of the two communities. 

“Temporary and inadequate brush huts were exchanged for permanent and more comfortable living quarters,” Cunningham writes. “Scanty tule clothing was replaced by warmer apparel. Primitive food was exchanged for a more healthful diet.” 

Cunningham also noted that during the process of integration, Spanish settlers discriminated against the tribes, who were, “described by one [Spanish] authority as ‘dark, dirty, squalid and apathetic’ and ‘far from picturesque.’” 

The Native Americans were also sent to cut Redwood timber for the settlers. A key settler was William Campbell (1793-1885), who discovered that the Redwood trees in the mountains were sturdy enough to be used as building material. Using lumber from those trees, Campbell would go on to construct a sawmill on what is now the banks of Saratoga Creek, with the help of his two sons, David and Benjamin.

This sawmill would enable Saratoga’s establishment. 

Photo by Stacie Tamaki on Flickr 

The sawmill is a historic site today. 

The mill, powered by Saratoga Creek, opened in 1848. Closely following in 1854, a flour mill powered by the same creek was built in the modern Los Gatos area by Steve Forbes, another settler.

“They both started at the same time, so I like to say that’s when the rivalry started between Los Gatos and Saratoga,” Torrens joked.

The sawmill was a crucial stepping stone in Saratoga’s history, establishing the area as an industrial center by attracting job-seeking settlers to the area. There, they could find jobs cutting trees, working in the mill itself or transporting wood to missions. Because lumber was used throughout the whole valley, Saratoga’s production of it encouraged economic expansion and its growing influence as a small town. 

Maclay, the McCartys, and others develop the city 

Another key figure alongside Campbell was Martin McCarty, a Scotch Irishman who initially moved to Saratoga to work in the mines after serving in the Mexican-American War. He leased Campbell’s mill in 1850 and paved a road called Lumber Street — now known as Saratoga downtown’s Big Basin Way — that improved access to the mill. He named the developing town “McCartysville.” 

Courtesy of the City of Saratoga 

A photo of Lumber Street in 1890, now known as Big Basin Way. 

After McCarty died in 1864, his wife Hannah McCarty inherited his 128 acres, becoming a major landowner and real estate leader. The McCarty home was one of the first homes in Saratoga. She later chose to donate much of their land to the creation of a grammar school and a congregational church, according to the Saratoga Historical Foundation

Another significant leader was settler Charles Maclay, who moved to Santa Clara Valley from San Francisco. He bought an existing Redwood mill, which he named Bank Mills, and converted it into a grist mill and tannery. He also initiated the changing of the name of McCartysville to Bank Mills in 1853. 

Maclay suffered a large setback in 1863, when his mill burned down in one of the first major fires in the area — damages cost a total of $30,000 in value then. His response was to focus on rebuilding a better Bank Mills — Cunningham wrote — and by 1865 he was running a successful mill again. 

An enthusiastic vote secures Saratoga’s name. 

In the early 1860s, the discovery of a mineral spring similar to one in Saratoga Springs, New York, inspired the renaming of Bank Mills to Saratoga. A popular vote was held with a resounding agreement to the renaming, and the name stuck. 

Over time, Campbell’s sawmill became less profitable as it was overshadowed by other local sawmills. The destruction caused by a major fire in 1883 also lessened Saratoga’s hopes of growing as an industrial center. 

As a result, Saratoga shifted from an industrial center to an agricultural hub around the late 1880s, according to exhibits in the Saratoga Historical Foundation museum. Due to the town’s ideal growing climate, new settlers were able to plant fruit trees and rich vegetation. Dates and plums were popular crops at the time, and Mountain Winery, one of California’s first vineyards, was established in 1901. 

To this day, Saratoga still celebrates its agricultural lifestyle through its annual Blossom Festival, which was first celebrated in 1900 at the end of a drought. The city also holds annual fruit harvests, which are open to the community. 

Courtesy of the City of Saratoga Facebook

Saratoga’s annual community fruit harvest in 2022. 

“While the early 1850s were years of transition throughout much of the state, this community escaped the frenzied activity of the mining camps and makeshift boom towns,” Cunningham wrote. “Instead, it developed along the more orderly lines of a flourishing lumber industry, successful grist mill, a public school, Sunday school, an energetic fraternal organization and a community center club house.”

Immigrants heavily shift Saratoga’s demographics 

According to the Library of Congress, Saratoga became more populated with Chinese settlers during the 1840s when 25,000 Chinese immigrants came to California during the Gold Rush. Some helped tremendously in building projects like the Saratoga and Pescadero Turnpike road (now Congress Springs road), which gave the town more convenient access to lumber in the mountains and to the greater Santa Clara Valley. 

A century later, even more Asian immigrants flooded into Saratoga during the 1990s, as a result of Silicon Valley’s newly emerging tech industry. This influx of immigrants helped shape the city’s demographics into what it is today — with 39% of Saratoga residents being white and 55.5% being Asian

Saratoga’s community blooms throughout the decades

Saratoga was very community-centered, even in its early development — a single sawmill powered a growing ecosystem of jobs and infrastructure, attracting more settlers and giving the city the roots of its identity today. 

Even within Saratoga, various organizations were created that connected the different aspects of the town. In 1854, the Sons of Temperance organization was created, a fraternal group that focused on “meeting the temporal and spiritual needs of its members,” the Saratoga Historical Foundation stated. 

According to Cunningham, most of the social life of Saratogans during the 1850s and ‘60s revolved around the Sons of Temperance. In fact, Saratoga’s first official school was held in the Sons of Temperance Hall in 1854, which is now the location of Saratoga Elementary today. Before this, the only educational opportunity was a “subscription school” where students could pay around $120 monthly to live in a lodge and receive an education. 

Cunningham wrote: “For the mothers, it was an extremely happy day when they learned that their children would no longer be without local educational opportunities or have to rely on the uncertainties of a subscription school.” 

In 1916, the Saratoga Foothill Club was created. It began with a small study group of women, who researched archaeology and ancient history. The group expanded its efforts to focus on improving the welfare of Saratoga as a whole, such as raising the standards of education and building the Santa Clara Library System (which added the Saratoga Library as a branch in 1914). 

“From the beginning there were a number of well-traveled, talented women with artistic and literary ability who shared their experiences with members who were eager for further advancement,” Cunningham wrote. “[…] The club played an active part in raising the standards of education and general welfare of Saratoga.” 

According to Torrens, this group was also very involved in the first world war (WWI) war effort, as women made socks and conducted fundraisers and youth volunteers worked with the American Red Cross. 

Other Saratoga residents also served directly in combat; during WWI, six graduates of Saratoga Elementary died in 1920 serving the country. Their names are carved on the arch in Big Basin Way, Torrens said. Another WWI veteran was Lau Sing Kee, who was born in Saratoga and, according to the Hall of Valor Project, received the Distinguished Service Cross. However, his name was omitted from the arch and is missing from many Saratoga records because he later moved to San Jose. 

Saratoga also played a role in WWII, as Cunningham wrote in her book. One anecdote she recounts is after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when many weapons and ammunition were moved into Saratoga, placing it in a strategic position in case of an attack. A battalion took refuge in Saratoga for two months, training while living in local community buildings. 

“Their numerous sentries, frequent drills, and darting little Jeeps soon became so much a part of community life that when they departed after their two months’ stay, Saratoga for a few days seemed like a deserted village,” Cunningham wrote.

Cunningham also emphasized Saratoga’s role in the Red Cross, stating that the Saratoga branch raised $6,122.68 — worth more than $140,000 today — toward the WWII effort and produced 43,980 surgical dressings. 

Shaping up into today 

By the end of the war, Saratoga — with the many job opportunities and high demand for homes — became an attractive place for war veterans and those looking to start families, according to Torrens.

A suburban building boom followed.

“After agriculture, Saratoga became a bedroom community of managers, Intel, and other tech companies,” Torrens said. “People sold their homes down in San Jose, and when they were mid-career and wanting to start families, they moved out here.” 

Saratoga’s lasting legacy today

Gone are the miles of orchards, including the prune yard that once sat on what is now Saratoga High School. Today, the average house in Saratoga costs around $4 million, and its schools are viewed as among the best in the Bay Area and the state. Saratoga is far from the mill town and agricultural area it once was, but if you look down Big Basin Way or the Saratoga Creek, it’s possible to picture early residents carrying lumber for buildings or harvesting fruit, laying the groundwork for the thriving community the town is today.

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