How Jasper Ridge Became Jasper Ridge

8 mins read

Every winter, M-A’s AP Environmental Science (APES) classes take an annual field trip to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. There, guided by docents, the students take a tour to see the beautiful grounds and learn about the research conducted in the preserve. 

As they walk, docents might point out more than just the setup of experiments. Some show old road signs pointing towards places where buildings of a long-gone town once stood. Some may point out a metal frame attached to the preserve’s dam that once held a diving platform for world-class divers. 

The area now known as Jasper Ridge took a long time to become what it is today, from the dam that shaped the lakes there today to the town some believe is under those lakes, and its long history as a recreational spot.


Searsville was founded in the 1850’s, as the first settlement in San Mateo County. Charles Brown of San Francisco purchased a portion of the Canada del Raimundo grant of John Coppinger, calling his newly acquired property the Mountain Home Ranch, now the Hooper Property. In 1853, August Eikerenkotter opened a store and a hotel for lumbermen working in the surrounding forest, and a year later John H. Sears, for whom the town was named because of his postal contract, arrived. There, he opened a blacksmith shop that’s now open as Apple Jacks Bar. 

Eikerenkotter’s store and hotel (via wikimedia commons)

The town soon became a popular destination for people traveling along the Peninsula and the mill workers who worked nearby. “Dashing riders pulled up at the hotel on the western shore of what is now the lake to wash the dust out of their throats or make reservations,” reads a 1948 article on the town from the Peninsula Life Magazine, written by Theron G. Cady. “Sunday afternoons several hundred mill hands from the nearby mills would gather in the town and indulge in their favorite pastimes of fighting, wrestling, horse racing, and, of course, poker.  Thousands of dollars changed hands on the turn of a card.  Life in Searsville was vivid and daring.”  

In 1887 the Spring Valley Water Company was building the Crystal Springs Dam to form the Spring Valley Lakes. The original plan was to draw water from the San Francisquito Creek through a five-mile long tunnel to the lake, but that was abandoned in favor of a dam at Searsville. The dam could then provide a daily 5 million gallons to flow to the Belmont pumping station. The dam was built in 1891, but the connection to Belmont was never built. 

A lake at Searsville continued to form despite the dam not completing its original purpose. Spring Valley Water Company had bought all the property involved in the project, including Searsville. They didn’t require people in town to vacate, and none of the residents originally took the threat of growing lakes seriously. But eventually, residents started to notice how fast the water was climbing and realized the town would be flooded shortly.

Snippet of Easton’s 1868 Official San Mateo County Map. Modified to also show Bear Creek, San Francisquito Creek and Martin Creek. (via wikimedia commons)

A reporter from the San Mateo County Times-Gazette, Mr. James J. Swift, visited Searsville in the fall of 1891. He reported that Searsville “looked as if the water would come up inside of twenty-four hours from the way that houses and barns were being torn down and fences removed.” 

A few months before the dam opened, in November of 1891, the Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote, “With the closing of the work on the Spring Valley dam at Searsville last Wednesday, the death knell of that historic village was rung. The damn is now sixty feet high, and by the time the coming winter has passed, the water will have backed up and entirely covered the ground where the town stood.” 

And that’s exactly what happened. The Searsville dam formed Searsville Lake, as well as a series of other lakes. “The core of the former town is actually under Middle Lake, an offshoot just southwest of the main body. After accruing plenty of silt through the years, much of the area is marshland covered in cattails and willows,” reads the East Bay Times. But the resulting watershed didn’t immediately become Stanford’s Biological Preserve, Stanford had only just been open for a couple of years when the dam was built. Instead, the new lake entered the next phase of its history, as a popular swimming spot for people up and down the Peninsula. 

Swimming Spot

With Stanford just opening, Leland Stanford knew that he would need water for the 8,200-acre campus. To provide the water, he bought Searsville Lake to use as the reservoir for the campus. Unfortunately, the reservoir only had disappointing results. Many creeks feed into the reservoir, and one, Corte Madera Creek, happened to carry not just water, but tons of sediment and silt from the mountains, polluting the water in the reservoir. 

“The water smelled awful,” said Julie Cain, a historian for Stanford Heritage Services, in an interview with KQED. “The water tasted awful. All of the porcelain sinks and bathtubs had yellow or brownish stains that could not be removed.” It was quickly realized that the water couldn’t be used to drink, and would only work for landscaping and fire protection.

But just because it wasn’t being used anymore didn’t mean the lake went away. “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 said in her interview.

By the time it had become such a popular swimming spot, the lake that in 1891 had held 450 million gallons of water, had become so full of silt that it only held 200 million gallons. It was made nicer by the addition of a man-made beach created by bringing tons of sand to the lake. On a nice Sunday, you could expect to see 1,500 people lounging around the beach, and if it was a holiday, that number could get up to 2,500.

The lake was popular for Girl Scout and Boy Scout camping trips, and In 1922, Stanford couple Ernst and Greta Brandsten leased the land so they could teach water sports and run a summer camp, Camp Searsville. They were both Swedish immigrants and Olympic divers, and are both now in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Greta was the first woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal for high diving in 1912.  

Through leasing the lake, the land became known as Searsville Lake Park. People from as far away as Oakland flocked to the park, where there was horse riding and hiking on the bridle paths that surrounded the lake. They could also enjoy swimming, boating, and basking on the beach, as well as basketball, volleyball, and dancing at an outdoor pavilion. Even Stanford fraternities were known to host their parties at the lake.

One of the most famous events to happen at the lake was in 1923 when the national high-diving championships and trials for the U. S. Olympic Swim Team was held there. Ernst Brandsten, who was both the Stanford and U.S. Olympic Swim Team coach, had built a three-tier diving tower for the event. 

A metal frame on the dam that once held a diving platform (via wikimedia commons)

Many legends formed around both the park and the lake. Ask someone who was around the summer of 1968, and they might recall a legendary concert held at the lake. But, ask further and you’ll realize people only remember hearing about it, as no one could’ve possibly attended it as Stanford got wind of the concert while it was still being organized and shut it down. 

Another legend is that the town of Searsville was drowned under the lake. This isn’t completely true, as the more creepy parts of the legend were started by Ernst Brandsten, who would scare his swimming students by telling them that they could hit their heads on the rooftops of the old Searsville buildings if they weren’t careful. The truth to the legend is that Searsville was where the lake stood now, but residents had time to evacuate and tear down buildings, and the only thing left, the stone foundations of buildings, would’ve been long buried under all of the silt buildup. 

But with all these legends, parties, and concerts, the Stanford biology department grew frustrated with having to share its biological preserve—the land around the lake—with the thousands of people flocking to Searsville Lake Park. So while it was a favorite swimming spot for countless people for over 50 years, Searsville Lake Park met its end in 1975.

Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve

As conflicts between the residents using Searsville Lake Park and the Stanford researchers using the area grew, the Stanford Board of Trustees gave more and more protection to the biological preserve. Eventually, in 1973 the Stanford Board of Trustees formally designated Searsville Lake Park as a biological preserve. However, it took two years for recreational activities at Searsville Lake to cease in 1975.

Now, the area is the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (JRBP). Their mission is “to contribute to the understanding of the Earth’s natural systems through research, education, and protection of the preserve’s resources.”

The preserve boasts a stunning field station, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve’s 9,800 square foot Leslie Shao-ming Sun Field Station research and education facility. The building houses two classrooms, a reference library, a research laboratory, a herbarium, and staff offices. The field station is award-winning, with an annual energy budget of net zero carbon emissions.

Looking south across Searsville Reservoir from the dam on Corte Madera Creek and on to Russian Ridge (via wikimedia commons

At Jasper Ridge, countless research is conducted. They’ve been researching vegetation stress with remote sensing, and have worked on landscape-level approaches to conservation biology, so they can study fragmented landscapes from urbanization.

Because of all of the research being conducted on the grounds of the preserve, it’s difficult to get an in-person tour of the facilities, they do offer many virtual tours. They offer two-story maps, both from the Bio 105/Esvs 105 class at Stanford. One is by Katherine Nolan, which offers a history of the preserve, and the other is by Larisa Fong, which offers a virtual tour of the preserve by taking readers to key points around the grounds. 

But M-A’s APES classes don’t have to settle for a virtual tour. Every year, they can walk around the grounds with a docent to see the research themselves, and even perform a small turbidity experiment of their own.

Columbia Tiger Lilies (Lilium columbianum) in San Francisquito Creek valley below Searsville Dam. (via wikimedia commons)

“Every time I go I experience something a little bit different. What you learn depends on which direction you go in or which docents you have,” said Lance Powell, one of M-A’s APES teachers who’s been going to Jasper Ridge for over 10 years. 

Erica Woll, another APES teacher, said “I think it’s really fun to interact with someone so knowledgeable, it’s great to be able to form a bond with them because they’re so helpful. We couldn’t do the field trip without the docents, they’ve all been so sweet.”

“I think my favorite part about the Jasper Ridge field trip is when students who wouldn’t normally hike find that there was something really enjoyable or just beautiful about the field trip. I think people come back appreciating that we live in such a special place,” Woll continued. 

“Jasper Ridge is just such a special place,” said Powell. “The San Andreas Fault goes through it, bringing all the different soil types that lead to different plant communities. There’s very few places in the world where you’ve got like 17 distinct ecosystems happening in one concentrated area, so the fact that it’s happening so close to where we live is pretty incredible.”

Logan is a senior at M-A. This is their first year in journalism, and he hopes to write about art and music, as well as a variety of other topics, in the school and surrounding community. In his free time, they enjoy playing drums, art, and reading.

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