Alum Rock Park’s historic mineral springs in San Jose, CA

Once a popular mineral soda fountain, this gazebo is still present today. | Photo via History San José

Napa has wine. Portland has craft beer. But what beverage defines San Jose?

Believe it or not, between 1890-1932, San Jose was known nationally for its mineral-rich spring water, which was said to have health properties.

In honor of Drink Up Week, let’s drink up the history of Alum Rock Park’s spring water industry.

Locals drinking from the original “soda stream.” | Photo via History San José

💦 The “watering place”

Alum Rock Park is California’s oldest municipal park — but before it was designated a public park by the State Legislature in 1872, it was the historic home of the Tamien Nation, who called the area Shistuk or Shestuc.

Later, during the Spanish Pueblo period, the area became known as “Aguague” or watering place — denoting the importance of its water systems.

After a hot spring was discovered in 1896, water would become a critical part of Alum Rock Park + San Jose’s future.

How do you like your soda? Sulfurous? | Photo via History San José

🚰 #DrinkUpAlumRockPark

Alum Rock Park boasted 27 mineral springs — some salty, some carbonated — with a variety of ingredients including:

  • Black sulfur (aka iron sulfide)
  • Soda
  • Magnesia
  • Iron
  • White sulfur
  • Arsenic

Despite these unsafe + smelly “flavors,” in the 1890s, 11 local doctors certified the water as beneficial for “kidney and stomach troubles, rheumatism, and malarial affections.” Ummm, are you sure about that?

These pronouncements would transform the park into a massive health resort where people from around the country came to “take the waters.”

Even as the rest of the park grew into a resort nicknamed “Little Yosemite,” water tastings would continue into the 1970s.

Locals “take the plunge” in Alum Rock Park’s Natatorium. | Photo via History San José

🌊 Little Yosemite

Drinking Alum Rock’s water wasn’t the end of things — people wanted to bathe in this special water too.

Thus, luxury bathing venues sprung up — including private baths + an indoor pool known as The Natatorium, or “The Plunge.”

One noteworthy bath was the Alum Rock Lodge, built in 1904. The lodge had hot mineral water pumped up from the park into large copper tubs. The tubs were then rocked by hand, creating a sloshy, frothy bath — like a jacuzzi.

These baths joined hotels, a penny arcade, a Japanese tea house, a 77-animal zoo, a bandstand, and other park attractions. Railroads + streetcars were brought into the park to cope with the huge influx of visitors.

At its height, Alum Rock Park could expect 10,000 people visiting on a Sunday outing.

These decorative, Victorian-style grottos are some of the last remnants of the Alum Rock Park spring water industry. | Photo via @mizrablack

🍃 “Water” we doing today?

Over time, the park’s popularity took its toll on the native plants + habitats. In the 1970s, the city decided to return the park into its more natural state, removing old resort buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Since then, the park’s animals + environment has thrived.

Today, not much remains of “Little Yosemite” — just a few old stone grottos, railroad bridges + a log cabin.

And what about the water? Though 21 springs still exist, park officials now warn visitors to never drink unfiltered park water as it can cause serious illness. But never fear, there are other ways to explore this rich water history

Among the many ongoing events being held to commemorate the park’s 150th anniversary, we recommend:

  • The Mineral Springs Walk on Sat., Aug. 27
  • The Cultural & National History Walk on Sat., Oct. 1
  • The Hidden Water Resources virtual presentation on Sat., Oct. 15