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June 8, 2010 > History: Let's Go Swimming

History: Let's Go Swimming

By Phil Holmes

When pioneers wanted to get clean they usually washed in a basin or tub. When they wanted to go swimming, they usually headed for Alameda Creek. The most popular place to swim was in Niles Canyon. Pioneer boys recalled that they could swim there all day, undisturbed and without the need of any clothing.

As the population grew, families and groups of friends flocked to Niles Canyon for picnics, wading and swimming parties in warm weather. Niles Canyon became the most popular destination, and some groups had their own favorite swimming holes. It was understood that winter floods sometimes damaged these holes or created new ones. School groups such as Washington College students enjoyed picnics and outings there and in pools that often persisted even in hot weather and dry years.

Warm Springs was a special place where the warm waters were used for their medicinal value by the Native Americans and Spanish settlers. Clement Columbet bought the springs in 1850 and developed a fashionable resort with medicinal baths. He dug out a space for a lake where one could row a boat. It appears that the patrons were more interested in the healing baths or the gambling amusements than they were in swimming. Josiah Stanford built a bathhouse with dressing rooms about a circular swimming tank. The Sisters of the Holy Names remodeled the pool in 1927.

By the 1890's Niles Canyon was widely recognized as an ideal spot to spend summer outings. W.W. Dugan was advertising his Niles Canyon Picnic Grounds in 1897 as the "Handsomest and most popular picnic grounds in Alameda County." Picnic trains were already bringing large groups. There were sulphur springs on the grounds and people sometimes bathed in them.

By 1898 J.B. Barnard had developed his Niles Canyon Picnic grounds with a dancing pavilion, restaurant, bath house and a landing place for small boats. Gradually many more campgrounds were established in the canyon. Barnard leased property in 1901 near Stony Brook and developed Fernbrook Park. Other picnic grounds developed along the creek including Joyland, Cobble Crest, Idlewild, Sim's Place, Silver Springs, Canyon and Blue Diamond.

The 1910 Edition of the Township Register noted that Henry Lachman had "a bathhouse, swimming pool and boats for aquatic amusement" at his Palmdale estate in Mission San Jose. The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company came to make movies at Niles in 1912. The canyon and creek became their studio for outdoor western scenes. Filming activities offered distractions to bathers and swimmers.

The local paper reported in 1916 that "all Niles, like the ducks, is taking to the water on warm days." The most popular place for bathing and swimming was in the deep pool in the creek back of Niles Glen tract. The J.C. Shinn family for a change was using the old Jarvis Landing where Mr. Shinn had recently put up a private bathhouse. In the thirties the Mendonca swimming hole near Clark's bridge was popular. When water was plentiful, "swimming came into its own and some pools were crowded."

The idea for a swimming pool at Washington High School was proposed as a project for the Centerville Lion's Club in 1931. A "new campaign for a pool was launched the next year when the Club engaged Harry Bogart of San Francisco to take charge". Local teachers were also working for the project. Plans were later postponed till after the war.

The Grau gravel pit west of Niles became the popular swimming hole for local youngsters and was sometimes called "the school hole." Niles Boy Scouts constructed a bathhouse, ladders and diving boards in 1933. A lifeguard was on duty at times. Two scouts, Jack Townsend and Lawrence Pine received awards for saving the life of a boy there in 1934. The water was described as "fairly alive with screaming urchins."

There were other favorite swimming holes. W. B. Hammond described his experiences at the Geary Ranch on Alameda Creek about 10 miles south of Sunol. There was a spot deep enough for swimming, but Mr. Brinker had his bulldozer operator form a small gravel dam to make the pool deeper. The children dived from a large rock near the deepest part. They improvised a diving board from old lumber. Dr. Elmo Grimmer also made a dam to form a pool for swimmers at his ranch on upper Alameda Creek. Settlers who lived near Bell Ranch Bridge had a favorite swimming hole near the bridge. Irvington reservoirs also became popular swimming sites.

As civilization developed and some people had more leisure time and financial resources, they began to build concrete swimming pools. An immense pool in front of Senor Jose Montealegre's was reported in 1887. The Patterson family developed their pool along with tennis courts around 1900. It was used until about 1980. St. Mary's of the Palms provided an excellent pool for their students. Tom Witherly purchased Linda Vista in 1922 and developed a park with a swimming pool enjoyed by thousands. Probably the most unusual pool, because of the high elevation, was built by the McClure family at their Peak Meadow Ranch just below Mission Peak. As time passed, many private pools were built in backyards and developers provided community pools for their residents.

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