Rediscovering San Jose’s River of Dreams


By Tom McEnery

I often think of our river. It is a very critical part of what made San Jose and this valley unique. In a very true sense it defined us. This river, before it carried its current name, was for centuries critical to the first inhabitants of this valley.

They lived, fished and hunted along its banks and, in certain times, would build large fires in the balmy California evenings, gaze at an azure sky and dance, knowing that they were on the rim of the world, knowing that this place was very special. It was their place, their dream.

The earliest colonists and explorers, brown-robed Franciscans and mail-clad conquistadors, carrying the cross and sword northward in the late 18th century, were very impressed by the river they called Rio Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. This paradoxical band of men, women and children who had decided to make a home, build their future and pursue a dream by her banks.

They prospered, mostly. Contemporary annals, as related by historian Clyde Arbuckle, cite that “sometimes the early pobladores had reason, time and time again, to wonder why they ever left Mexico. Floods from the shallow and weed-choked Guadalupe repeatedly threatened them with an amphibious existence.”

This river has always fooled people. It, like San Jose, had the ability to metamorphose, to wear different mantles.

Savage floods in the winter of 1982-1983 hit us badly. I recall the damage wrought by the floods of the 1950s: The sandbagging of downtown businesses and old St. Joe’s School.

According to the famed California historian, Hubert Howe Bancroft, a traveler said of the pueblo of San Jose in 1824: “This pueblo lies in a beautiful spot…in the midst of orchards and hedges of vines bearing luxuriant clusters of the richest grapes. The inhabitants come out to meet us…and with much courteousness, blended with the ceremonious politeness of the Spaniards, invited us to enter their simple but clean dwellings. Unburdened by taxes of any kind, and in possession of as much land as they choose to cultivate, they live free from care on the produce of their fields and herd.”

Early settlers had a very interesting phrase to describe the harrowing journey overland to arrive here. As James Houston noted in his book, Californians: Searching for the Golden State, people would say, “I have seen the elephant!” At this time, the elephant, introduced by circuses to the United States, was the subject of much curiosity and wonderment. So, the phrase aptly captured the excitement and joy of new arrivals to this valley.

As so they came. Wave after wave of newcomers adapted to the valley and built up the area. There was always one constant for these diverse settlers: They sought their dream and reached for a better life in a better world.

As we approach the completion of downtown, we can reflect on the great visionaries and planners who created Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Central Park in New York in the 19th century.

The world is being recreated every day in this magical valley, and it is fitting that we recreate, in a very special way, this “axis of civilization,” the green thread of life that binds our community together.

The 500-acre downtown park, which radiates through our neighborhoods to the Santa Cruz Mountains and the broad expanse of south San Jose, is a worthy goal.

The Guadalupe River Park will provide today what it has provided for years-a sense of place.

See for yourself. This dream has truly been kept alive by a very clear sense of community. Once again, very soon, San Joseans can walk past the Spanish Plaza Park and beyond Silicon Valley’s Woz Way and look upon the river. It is a trip to the past and a look at the future. They can suspend disbelief for a moment and, if they try, I am almost sure that they can see the same sight that greeted those early pioneers so many years ago. It might only look like a carved figure, vaguely visible, on a magnificent new carousel provided for our kids’ delight, or maybe it’s the sound from a circus yet to perform at the new arena.

When the Guadalupe River Park takes its place among the great parks of the world we will all have seen the elephant.

Tom McEnery is a presidential fellow at Santa Clara University.

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