The Port of Alviso

The earliest use of Alviso Slough as a shipping port was recorded by John Henry Dana in his book “Two years before the Mast.” Mission Santa Clara shipped cowhides and wheat during the 1830’s from what was then known as the “Embarcadero” (“landing place”). In 1846, during the Mexican War, 30 armed American troops under the command of Lt. Robert Pinkney disembarked by the Embarcadero to get bread from Mission Santa Clara and to participate in the one engagement in Northern California against Mexican troops, “The Battle of Santa Clara.”

For a time, the slough connecting Alviso to the Bay was known as “Steamboat Slough,” as the water was so low at low tide. It was dredged in 1858 to make it more accessible and today the water passage is known as Alviso Slough.

The 1850’s were Alviso’s heyday as a port when numerous passenger steamboats arrived there. On April 11, 1853, a terrible steamboat disaster occurred when the “Jenny Lind” exploded four miles out of Alviso. Although accounts vary, 21 people were immediately killed, including many prominent San Joseans. Later deaths brought the total to nearly 50, most caused by injuries from escaping steam. One passenger stated: “On starting it was natural to bid adieu to cleanliness and comfort for the time being, and having so fortified myself, I was better able to withstand the intolerable filth of the “Jenny Lind.” She has since blown up, which is about the only thing that could have purified her.”

The South Bay Yacht Club was chartered more than one hundred years ago and Alviso had many happy days as a yachting capital. In the spring of each year, the yachting season opened with a parade of pennant-flying boats sailing out of the harbor for a cruise of the bay. This was an elaborate social event, with San Jose’s elite leading the parade. Guests at the two-story, 1903 clubhouse, could gaze directly from the veranda across the harbor to see the brightly-flagged boats.

Unfortunately, mankind has not been kind to this little port. Our valley sits on an underground aquifer from which vast amounts of water have been pumped for agriculture and human consumption, causing the ground to subside by as much as fourteen feet. Dykes were built to keep the bay from flooding, but when winter storms coincided with a high tide and a north wind, Alviso repeatedly flooded. The worst was in 1983 when six feet of water covered the floor of the clubhouse and the rest of Alviso.

In 1985, the first meeting of the South Bay Yacht Club in the restored clubhouse was held, and the club is still active today, albeit with difficult sailing conditions.

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