DSCN5661“The traveller in San Francisco, asking the question Englishmen invariably ask, What’s to be seen? would be thus answered. The Big Trees, Eusamity Valley, Napa and the Quicksilver Mines.”

—    Charles Dickens, All the Year Round, 424-28

Almaden Quicksilver Park is a county park, 16 miles south of San Jose in the Capitancillos Range of the Coastal Mountains. The 4,157 acre park includes hiking trails, remnants of the old mining camp, and Casa Grande, an 1854 Hacienda, now the Quicksilver mining museum.

Mercury (also called quicksilver) was “discovered” in the California Coastal Mountains in 1845. Andres Castillero, an observant Mexican soldier and mining engineer, noticed red paint on the bodies of the local Ohlone Indians and on the walls of the Santa Clara Mission. He inquired about the source of the paint and was guided to some cinnabar ore in a nearby cave. Cinnabar is a combination of mercury and sulfur in rock. Understanding the significance of this ore, Castillero made a claim on the property and began a small scale mining operation, the first in California.

The unique properties of mercury allow it to combine with most other metals to form an amalgam. The amalgamation process permits mercury to attract even small particles of metal and offers miners a way to collect metal efficiently. When the mercury is heated and vaporized, only the metal remains. Castillero had worked in the silver mines of Mexico where mercury was imported from the Almaden Mine in Spain, owned and controlled by a cartel of the Rothschild family

In 1847 Castillero, lacking capital to develop the mine and embroiled in title disputes, sold it to Barron & Forbes, a British trading company.

Barron & Forbes named the mine “Nuevo Almaden” (after its predecessor in Spain) and began the capital intensive work of hard rock mining. They hired skilled Mexican and Chilean miners (later English and Chinese as well). They developed the infrastructure to crush cinnabar, heat it, collect the mercury, store it in iron flasks, and ship it to San Francisco and beyond. In 1863 they sold the mine to Quicksilver Mining Corporation, an American Company.

From the 1850’s to the 1890’s the Nuevo Almaden Mine was a center of commerce and residential life. Over 1800 miners and their families lived in three camps on the site: English camp, Spanish camp, and Hacienda camp. The miners processed 300 tons of cinnabar ore per day, reduced it to mercury and placed the mercury in flasks for transport. Their product supplied more than half the mercury production in the world. Eventually the mine would transport over 1 million flasks of 76 pounds each, yielding $75 million for its beneficiaries.

By the late 19th century there were over 500 mercury mines from Oregon to Santa Barbara. The mercury mines of the California Coastal range supplied the mercury needed for the gold rush and the silver rush. Had it not been for the discovery of mercury in California, the story of the Gold rush might have been one of dependence on European interests.

In the 20th century the output from the New Almaden Mine declined as cinnabar became scarcer and more difficult to extract. New methods for processing metals included using cyanide instead of mercury. In 1975 the mine ceased operations. Between 1973-1976 Santa Clara County bought properties around the mine and established the Almaden Quicksilver Park in 1976.

If you visit:

  • Mining Museum and Casa Grande are free of charge

Hours of Operation:

  • Monday, Tuesday, Friday 12-4
  • Saturday, Sunday   10-4

Fun Facts about the Mine and its surroundings:

  • Henry Halleck was superintendent of the mine from 1850 to 1863
  • In 1863 Federal officials (with a writ from Abraham Lincoln) tried to seize the mine, prompting armed resistance from the miners and their allies. Lincoln and the military backed down when they realized the risk of California seceding from the Union was too great
  • Andres Castillero’s claim of 1845 was finally heard by the Supreme Court and denied in 1863
  • John McLaren did much of the landscaping for the camp
  • Wallace Stegner used Mary Foote’s account of life at New Almaden in his novel “Angle of Repose”
  • In 1867 F.S. Pioche leased 2.5 acres of the Hacienda property for 10 years to bottle the carbonated mineral water from Los Alamitos Creek. He sold it for $4 per bottle as Vichy water (the cure-all for every known affliction)
  • In 1893 the first Dry Ice (a by-product of the mine) was liquified, bottled, and marketed

A Sunday Afternoon Hike on the Los Trancos Earthquake Trail


Yesterday I hiked the 1 ½ mile San Andreas Earthquake Trail in the Los Trancos Open Space Preserve. To reach the Preserve from Highway 280, you must drive 7 miles up a long and winding road, a drive of about 30 minutes. The Preserve is located on Montebello Ridge 2,000 feet above Palo Alto in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Loma Prieta peak in the distance

At the summit, I enjoy the expansive view from Black Mountain, to Stevens Creek Canyon (the San Andreas Fault) to Loma Prieta Peak (3790 ft.). The Crystal Springs Reservoir is faintly visible in the East. Nearby a sign points to the beginning of the trail, and warns of mountain lions and other hazards.


The trail is marked with numbered posts, each one corresponding to a description in the accompanying brochure. The first post is just a short distance past the parking lot. I stand in a clearing marked by jumbled rocks and boulders. My brochure explains these rocks originated 2 million years ago near the Loma Prieta peak, on the North American Plate. Water has carried them over the San Andreas Fault to the Pacific Plate, and tectonic plate movement has carried them northward. Now they are 23 miles away from their origin.

conglomerate boulders

A depression in the land identifies a sag pond, a place where the earth has stretched. Eventually landslides and erosion will fill in the pond and blend it into the landscape. For now, this “sag” in the earth denotes a relatively recent earthquake (1906).

sag pond area  overed in scrub


The path descends into a wood of bay laurel, fir, and oaks. An abundance of willows implies fresh water. The brochure explains that spring water occurs along faults. Why? Because fine clay soil in a fault impedes the natural flow of the water and the water bubbles to the surface.

willows indicate waer


Poison oak flourishes in an area once subject to a landslide.

poison oak

These unusual shaped tree trunks tell an interesting story. They are shaped like a bent elbow, growing parallel to the ground and then vertically. An earthquake threw them to the ground without severing their root systems. A branch resumed growing towards the light, resulting in the unusual shape.

elbow shaped trees


The white topped posts signify a minor fault break.

posts indicate fault line

Hikers have been enjoying this trail since 1977.

Flora Hewlett bench


Moffett Field, Mountain View

Last week I visited Moffett Field and its Museum. Located in Mountain View beside the Bay, the airfield has served as a military presence in Silicon Valley since the 1930’s. DSCN4727 Moffett Field began as a Naval Air Station in 1931, became an army base (1935-42), the headquarters for early space research (NACA in 1939 and NASA in 1958), and a site for the National Guard. The base was decommissioned in 1991 but continues to serve as a federal airfield, a NASA research center, and even a testing ground for the Google driverless car. wamoffett-loc-photo-01Admiral Moffett, for whom this airfield was named, was a Naval officer who was an early director of Naval Aviation and the first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. He was killed in 1933 in the crash of the USS Akron, part of the early fleet of lighter- than-air dirigibles for the US Navy. Moffett Field is distinguished by the prominent structure known as Hanger One. This 8-acre storage facility was built in 1933 to shelter up to 3 large dirigibles for the Navy. DSCN4781 Of the early dirigibles, only the USS Macon was housed in Hanger One. The Macon, built in 1933, was a sister ship to the USS Akron. It was designed for scouting and for training, and could store up to 5 Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk fighters in its hold. It would deploy those fighters from an lowered trapeze, hooking the planes until ready to fly. DSCN4744The Macon’s logo was a cartoon-like image of 2 trapeze artists. The Macon visited Moffett Field only once in 1934. By 1935 it too had crashed, taking with it plans to build more dirigibles and bring them to Moffett Field. DSCN4728 In 1999 tests showed that the outer skin of Hanger One contained toxic PCBs and the Navy was charged with cleaning it up. Unsatisfied by attempts to coat the skin with impervious substances, the Navy decided to remove the toxic outer skin in 2011. Since then the structure has remained open and bare, a network of steel girders without an exterior. Recently Google signed a 60-year lease for Hanger One. Google plans to spend $200 million for re-skinning and improving the property. The Moffett Field Museum showcases the history of this airfield, displaying books, photographs, artifacts and aircraft from past decades.

The Museum features:

  • The story of the original 1,700 acre Mexican land grant (Rancho Posolmi), given to an Ohlone named Lupe Ynigo, in 1844, and the subsequent sale of the land grant to settlers
  • Efforts by San Francisco and other cities to encourage the Navy to build a Naval base along the South Bay. In 1931 the cities purchased 1000 acres for $476,000 and sold it to the Navy for only $1. Fortunately, this gamble paid off and the Navy chose to build an air base in Mountain View, investing $5 million in immediate improvements.
  • Scale models of Hanger One and the dirigibles inside
  • Aircraft of the 1930s-1960s
  • Information about WWII, the army base and its famous soldier Jimmy Stewart
  • An Electronic warfare exhibit

The museum is open 10-2 Thursday thru Saturday. Admission is $8.

Varian Associates and Non-Silicon Technologies of the Bay Area


Photo of Varian brothers by friend Ansel Adams

Sigurd and Russell Varian were born in Ireland near the turn of the century, and grew up in Northern California. Their father was a poet and a masseur, who lectured in a theosophist community and encouraged his boys’ creativity. Both boys were interested in electricity and its properties. Russell attended Stanford but struggled to find work after graduation. Sigurd briefly attended Cal Poly but dropped out to become a pilot and aviator. While Russell kept notebooks of theoretical problems and their solutions, Sigurd understood materials and built Russell’s inventions. They made a good team, but struggled to find financing. In 1937 they contracted with Stanford for $100 to work with the Physics Department and Dr. Bill Hansen to develop a microwave-based tube which might be useful for blind landing of planes and early radar detection. Their contract called for a sharing of the patent and proceeds of any design that was successful.

imageThis partnership resulted in the klystron tube. Russell’s breakthrough insight was the idea that electrons might be modulated and “bunched” while traveling in the same direction. This technology led to early radar in WW2 and was said to have been instrumental in winning the Battle of Britain for the Allies.

In 1948 Varian Associates was founded in San Carlos, California for commercial applications of the klystron tube. The company did not accept outside financing and offered its employees ownership through stock purchase plans.

Later the company developed devices for radiation therapy, nuclear magnetic resonance (including MRI), spectrometers, and electromagnets. In 1952 Varian Associates became the first tenant in the newly available Stanford Industrial Park in Palo Alto.

The Klystron Tube became the first of other variations leading to Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), a 2-mile long linear accelerator built on Stanford property in 1962.

imageToday you can see a model of the original Klystron Tube in  Stanford’s Nanotechnology Building in the Science and Engineering Quad. Varian Medical (one of the descendants of the original Varian Associates) is still located in the Stanford Industrial Park.


Blending Old and New at Ridge Winery

To get to Ridge Winery from Cupertino you must travel 4.5 miles uphill, along a narrow switchback road, past vineyards and open space, to an elevation of 2300 feet. Reaching the top and looking east, you have a grand view of expansive “Silicon Valley”.


The Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific Ocean lie to the west.

Far below is the great rift of the San Andreas Fault, marking the division of the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate.

At Ridge Winery, you are standing on the North American Plate. This small portion of the plate and the vineyard is known as Monte Bello or beautiful mountain. It is unique because of a very rare and desirable limestone subsoil. 100 million years ago this land was near Indonesia, traveling east on the Pacific Plate. Now it comprises the terroir for the cabernet and zinfandel grapes grown here.

DSCN3618To some, a visit to Ridge is a pilgrimage. Ridge Winery is one of the early Santa Cruz Vineyards and Wineries. It was first developed in 1885 by Italian immigrant and San Francisco physician, Dr. Osea Perrone. He terraced the land, planted vines, and produced red wine from his grapes by 1892.


Ridge Winery is also significant because its 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet was featured as one of 10 red wines in the 1976 blind tasting in Paris, now known as “the Judgment of Paris”. This was the event that catapulted California fine wine into global consciousness. When a California white wine (Chateau Montelena) and a California red wine (Stags Leap) took first place in that tasting, the French judges tried to dismiss the results by suggesting that the French wines would prove better with age. But when the same wines were subjected to a restaging of the competition for the 30th anniversary in 2006, Ridge took a decisive first place, proving that California wines were consistent and that Ridge’s wine improved with time.



Paul Draper was the wine maker for that 1971 cabernet and he is still the wine maker at Ridge today. Then, he was a young PhD from Stanford with a degree in philosophy and a short stint wine making in Chile. His manual for making wine was an 19th century treatise that could have been used by Dr. Perrone.   His approach was simple and traditional. He called it “pre-industrial”. Today Draper still uses that “non-interference” approach.

  • Let the grapes ripen, then hand-pick and hand-sort
  • No artificial yeasts
  • No chemicals
  • Minimal sulfer dioxide
  • Age the wine in American oak
  • The older the vine, the better the grapes
  • Let the taste of the terroir come through

DSCN3606It helps that the soil and climate of California, especially the limestone, is very similar to that of the Bordeaux region in France. Draper modestly insists that he had great raw material for his task. Yet Draper doesn’t lack for modern equipment. Ridge Winery may use a spectrophotometer, a liquid chromatograph, deep irrigation channels with carefully monitored water, or a gas chromatograph when necessary. These devices assist the winemaker but restrain his impulse to interfere with the slowly aging varietals.

Draper’s acreage today includes vineyards in Sonoma and Geyserville. His output includes an award winning zinfandel, a Santa Cruz estate bend, and even a chardonnay. But he remains meticulous and artful. He and his associates taste the varietals and create blends of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

But the Monte Bello remains Ridge’s signature blend, a wine that is known to taste better after a decade of aging.

Sir Norman Foster in the Bay area

Sir Norman Foster, acclaimed British architect, and his firm, Foster & Partners, are currently juggling multiple commissions in the Bay area. Foster’s success is due in part to his long-term advocacy for technologically advanced buildings that serve the client, while remaining environmentally sensitive.

Foster & Partners has proposed two skyscrapers for San Francisco’s Transbay Project at First and Mission. The proposal features a 910-foot mixed-use skyscraper rising from diagonal supports, with ½ acre of public open space below. A second 605-foot residential tower sits nearby. Together they represent 2 million square feet of new space.

Foster & Partners is responsible for the design of the recently-approved (March 2014) Apple store for San Francisco’s Union Square, a glass and steel design, 45% larger than the existing store on Stockton Street.

Foster & Partners is the genius behind Apple’s new office building, now under construction on 175 acres in Cupertino. The shape, a glass donut (or spaceship), will eventually house 13,000 employees. Yet, the (one mile in circumference) building will only take up 20% of the available land, the rest left to open space.

Foster has already completed two successful buildings in the Bay area, both at Stanford University and both appreciated for their innovative technology.

First is the Center for Clinical Science Research completed in 2000, a center that is environmentally sensitive and seismically sound. Consisting of two windowed 4-story buildings facing an interior corridor, the design allows maximum natural light to penetrate the space. A tubular aluminum overhang offers a reduction but not a blockage of sunlight; operable windows allow for natural ventilation. This building was designed to serve a diverse community of researchers, scientists, and clinical personal from multiple departments. Interior spaces–open labs and meeting rooms–encourage collaboration among persons and departments.

Foster’s second project at Stanford University was the James Clark Bio X Building, completed in 2003. Located next to the Stanford Hospital and adjacent to the science quadrangle, it is a metaphorical “hinge” between the academic and medical communities. The purpose of the building is to build collaboration among the science, medicine, physics, and engineering departments as well as other disciplines in the university. Foster created three glass wings off a centered open-air atrium, to allow for maximum natural light. The wings are encircled by red-toned catwalks that recall the color of the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the roof tiles of Stanford. By putting these catwalks on the exterior, Foster creates more workspace inside.

The Bio X interior spaces allow for maximum flexibility. Users access utilities such as electricity, gas, water, and networking, from a pull-down ceiling grid. Desks, chairs and tables are modular and can be reassembled for deliberate or impromptu meetings.

These 2 Stanford buildings and the 3 ongoing projects share a common Foster & Partners aesthetic. They embrace technology, serve the user, and bring a new beauty to the landscape.

Google Domination

The Google Headquarters, aka “Googleplex”, is a required and favorite destination for all visitors to Silicon Valley. For groups without access inside, there are some outdoor destinations to enjoy, including the T-Rex in the courtyard of Building 43, the onsite garden, and the Android life-sized characters at Building 44. An interesting aside, the main building is #42. As you perhaps already know, 42 is “the answer to life, the universe, everything”. If you don’t know, “google it.”

Google’s sprawling campus is a testament to its rapid growth since 1998. What began as a powerful and efficient search engine with a mission statement “organizing the world’s information” has evolved to a multidimensional company, looking for “high tech solutions to human problems”. Thus we have the Google driverless car, the Nest high tech smoke alarm, Google glass, and many ongoing projects yet to be announced.

In 2005, Google bought Keyhole, a small data visualization company that led to the launch of Google Earth. Along with Google Maps, this program has evolved to become invaluable resource for individuals with increasing reliance on mobile devices. Consider the following added conveniences since 2005:

  • Finding your location and giving you directions from there
  • Embedding Google maps in websites of businesses and services
  • Planning a route by car, on foot, or by public transportation
  • Reporting current traffic conditions
  • Viewing the street and rotating around it
  • Viewing inside a public building or a business
  • Expanding the universe of Google maps to closed off countries (North Korea, for example)

Going beyond maps, Google asks the user “may we use your location” when you download an application or when you are asking for directions. If you answer, “Yes”, consider yourself “geotagged.”

Geotagging implies the convenience of assuming you, on your mobile device are the starting point for the directions. You can even see yourself move as you walk or drive to your destination. Geotagging has led to an array of new applications which locate your friends, your preferences, and even your iphone.

One of these applications, and a favorite of mine, is called Field Trip. This application uses the web to locate every interesting fact and item in your vicinity, complete with directions and maps. It’s your own personal tour guide anywhere you go and it’s free!