A Spiritual Road Trip

Palo Alto, CA
Palo Alto, CA

In the late 19th century, if a European wanted to start a new life, they sailed to America. If Americans wanted one, they headed West. In the Golden State, the sun shone consistently, the Spanish heritage romanced, and “every month in the year ripens a crop of some kind in the open air,” to quote the words from one promotional brochure. Those words lured a 45-year-old New Haven resident. Sarah L. Pardee Winchester boarded a train westward bound and disembarked three-and-a-half days later in Northern California. In the ensuing three-plus decades she spent out West, Sarah blazed a trail, one we’re about to follow … mostly. We may take you off the road for a few interesting historical bits.

Know that for this trip down memory lane—the San Francisco Bay Area in the Victorian age—you can take a train to stops 1, 3 and 4. For stops 2 and 5, a car is more convenient.

 

Stop 1: Market Street

The sidewalk activity of the West Coast office of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. (once at 408-410 Market Street) would have been similar to what’s captured in the 1905 footage “A Trip Down Market Street.” The historic clip is a fascinating peek at street life on what was dubbed “The Path of Gold.” You can still wander the massive hallways of San Francisco Ferry Building, built in 1898, a mere 12 years after Winchester’s arrival. The elegant Palace Hotel, which opened in1875 at the corner of Market and Montgomery streets, was the venue for a family celebration. Sarah’s favorite niece, Marion Isabel “Daisy” Merriman, wed Frederick Marriott III here in 1903. Though that edifice was destroyed by the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1909. Today, you can eat in the Garden Court, or drink at the Pied Piper Bar, named for a famous century-old painting by Maxfield Parrish that still hangs there. To sink further into the city’s past, join San Francisco City Guides for a walk along “Historic Market Street: Path Of Gold.”

 

Stop 2: Colma

You’ll need a car to reach fog-shrouded Colma, 21 miles south of San Francisco, and Cypress Lawn Cemetery (1370 El Camino Real, Colma). But if you time it on the second Saturday, you can park and board a trolley with docents on board.

 

Courtesy Cypress Lawn Cemetery

 

These monthly tours introduce people to the treasure chest of architectural and California history around the grounds. Daisy was cremated here, as was her aunt Estelle, but where she is interred is a mystery.

That said, plenty of historical figures are interred at Cypress Lawn to make the trip interesting, including Andrew Hallidie, the inventor of the cable car; Arthur Page Brown, the architect of the ferry building; and Phineas Gage, the railroad foreman who became famous after an iron rod pierced his skull (he’s here sans head).

 

Stop 3: Burlingame

Caltrain departs from San Francisco, arriving at Burlingame Station, opened in 1894. Within the depot is the Burlingame Hillsborough History Museum. Walk a half mile east to where “Winchester Ark” once docked, roughly at the intersection of Winchester Drive and Park Avenue. In 1904, Sarah purchased approximately 100 acres skimming the marshy bay in Burlingame and commissioned the construction of a houseboat. She called it “the Pasture.” After the 1906 earthquake, Sarah and her sister Belle and Belle’s family took residence here. Ten blocks from the ark was a Tudor-style cottage, purchased by Sarah, also in 1904, for $35,000.

 

Stop 4: Palo Alto

From Burlingame, the southbound Caltrain calls at Palo Alto, a once quiet hamlet where Sarah purchased at least two homes, one on Waverley Street for Daisy and her family and another on Melville Street—the latter one for a mere $5,000 in 1907.

 

Courtesy San Jose Library

 

Today, a two-bedroom house in PA commands close to $2 million. Stanford University had newly opened in 1891 and was becoming a pillar in the community. It was on an October day in 1912 that Belle hosted a dinner for Abdu’l-Bahá, the “Persian prophet” who was speaking at the university.

 

Stanford University

Courtesy San Jose Library

 

Likely, Sarah saw Stanford campus, and you can, too. Tours are led by students and can be conquered on foot or by golf cart. The heart is the Quad, designed by famous landscape-architect Frederick Law Olmsted (also responsible for New York’s Central Park) and the site of the 12 original classrooms. Plan ahead but start at the Visitor Center.

Also in Palo Alto is Alta Mesa Memorial Park, the cemetery where Sarah’s funeral services were held in 1922. Both she and Belle were interred here for a time until they were moved back to the family plot in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery. Within these 72 acres are the gravestone of computer entrepreneur David Packard and the unmarked burial spot of Steve Jobs.

Farther south, Sarah also bought property in Atherton.

 

>>If you’re on the train, we recommend heading back to San Francisco. If you’re driving, head south to San Jose’s Winchester Blvd.

 

Stop 5: San Jose

When Sarah first saw the acreage and eight-room farmhouse off the unpaved Santa Clara-Los Gatos Road (now Winchester Blvd.), she was reminded of the Basque region and a valley called Llanada Alavesa, in English “Alava Plains.” Thus, she dubbed her new homestead Llanada Villa, today Winchester Mystery House.

 

Courtesy San Jose Library

 

The Basque may not be what comes to mind when you exit your car. The population has expanded noticeably into that pioneering scene circa 1888, the one Sarah likely experienced as she idled in her horse-drawn carriage. The fruit of this fertile valley is no longer prunes or peaches but circuitry, dongles and motherboards. Further, not a chance you’d score acreage let alone a humble farmhouse for $12,570, the price Winchester paid. Yet, when you walk into Sarah’s house, we invite you to shut out modern day and imagine another world.