When the Lariat Fire burned through several homes last July as well as chewing away the brush and foliage at the edge of San Jose’s Alum Rock Park, it uncovered something unusual.
On a routine trail walk in an area where the flames had cleared away ten-foot tall thistle and poison oak, Park Ranger Huy Mac spotted bricks and what appeared to be the remains of a stone fireplace.
“That was one of my first indicators,” Mac recalled, “ok, this might be a house or a lodge.”
Mac realized the fire had peeled back not only layers of brush — but also time — to reveal the remains of some sort of historic structure. Just what it was, and just how old it was, was a mystery.
“If you look over here there’s some roof tiles,” Mac said poking around the small field of debris, marked with a grid of string for archaeologists. “There’s a bathtub and then a stone fireplace.”
It was easy to see why countless people over many decades hiked by the remains without a hint of their existence. The small patch of land, containing things like vintage bricks, bottles and a rusted bed spring, was encased in thickets of brush.
The building didn’t show up on old maps since the land wasn’t yet part of the park, which was established in 1872 and is considered California’s oldest municipal park. An early 1900s atlas shows the plot of land where the building’s remains lie was owned by a Davis Lundy.
Mac doesn’t know who Lundy is, but he does have a theory of what the building was.
“From the records and everything else, and from what other rangers have passed down to me, I think it’s a hunting lodge,” Mac said. “From around the 1900s or so — early 1900s.”
But to get a scientific opinion on that theory, Mac enlisted archaeology professor Andrew Kindon from West Valley College in nearby Saratoga to dig in a bit deeper. Kindon’s students made multiple trips to the site to excavate the remains, spiriting away things like a salt shaker, a rusted oil can and cast iron window weights. While all the items helped to pinpoint the era of the building, it was fire bricks stamped with the name Pluto from the manufacturer that yielded the biggest clue.
“The company that made these Pluto bricks, they started making that brick in 1905,” Kindon said, noting that another brick found at the site came from another company that ceased operations in 1927. “That gives us a really nice window of time where we know that this building was almost certainly built between 1905 and 1927.”
But what was the building? Kindon held up a crystal door knob and an antique bead collected at the site. They were among the evidence that lead him to believe the structure was a domestic house, whose memory was swallowed by the tall weeds.
“This was kind of what we think of in archaeology as kind of a happy accident finding the site,” Kindon said, “and it was because of that wildlife.”
On a recent day as Mac explored the remains of the building — eleven months after the fire — the towering weeds had made significant inroads toward reclaiming their secret. Poison oak was scattered among the fortress-like thistle and Mac warned of rattlesnakes in the area.
He said the park planned to create an exhibit in its museum with items from the excavation. He hoped descendants of Davis Lundy, or anyone else with knowledge of the building might come forward to help fill in its history. And he marveled that after many years working in the park, the land which had served as a vacation getaway since 1872 could still yield surprises.
“I’m always learning new things,” Mac said. “Every day there’s always something new about the park.”