Metro's Best of Silicon Valley 2002

[ 'Best of' Index | Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

[whitespace] Bill Wulf
Photograph by Paul Myers

Bill Wulf

Completely Historical

By Corinne Asturias

BILL WULF holds the title Los Gatos Historian, but his knowledge of esoteric history ranges the valley. Born and raised in San Jose, Wulf cut his teeth on local libraries and museum archives--and (figuratively) on his tutor, famed late historian Clyde Arbuckle, author of The History of San Jose. A self-confessed railroad fanatic, Wulf is quoted in 67 books and is currently working on publishing his own 100-page manuscript on early Los Gatos history. We reached the 63-year-old Wulf between shifts at Valley Medical Center, where he has worked as a hospital service attendant for 42 years. ("It's not brain surgery; I'm like an orderly," he says.) He was delighted to be contacted for this piece but commented, "Oh dear, the other historians will be jealous."

Metro: When did you first start collecting history?

Wulf: When I was a little boy and I met Clyde Arbuckle in Los Gatos when he dedicated the California Historical Plaque on Forbes Mill in 1950. I was only 11 years old. He was so nice to me.

Why is history important?

So that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past. But of course, we seem to anyway.

Can you give an example of history being ignored?

Right now, I'm watching them make plans to build the light rail line toward Campbell. On the part between Bascom Avenue and Hamilton Avenue, by the Delta Queen car wash, it's going to go alongside present railroad track. The railroad had a washout there years ago, where Los Gatos Creek makes a turn. They're building a retaining wall, but I wonder if we have a big flood if it will really hold or not. There's no rock in that creek bed--it's all soil, because this isn't an original creek bed. The original creek bed ran down Dry Creek Road in Willow Glen. After a huge flood in the winter of 1861-62, where most of the valley filled with water, a farmer dug an irrigation ditch at the edge of his wheat fields, and the creek changed its course. They [the planners] only look at the official water records, but these only go back to the 1870s. They need to back further than that to see what can happen here.

What's the best history museum in the valley?

Laura Bajak has done a good at the Los Gatos Historical Museum. Also the Saratoga Museum is a very fine historical museum. An important thing both are doing is that they change their exhibits several times throughout the year. Too many set up a permanent display, and it never changes. To keep people's interest up, museums should keep things changing.

What's the biggest lie that's survived local history books?

One of my favorites is Mountain Charley being bitten by the bear in 1854--and that he wore a silver plate in his head for the rest of his life. It's not true. On his insistence, they put a silver plate in his head to cover a hole, but only for a week, because he got an infection. They had to operate on him and remove the plate. He got another infection and had to be operated on again, on the dining room table of National Hotel on South First Street in San Jose in 1855, using ether. They cleaned out the abscess in his brain, and he lived until 1892.

What's the oldest historical spot in the valley?

Well, supposedly the first Mission Santa Clara was built Jan. 12, 1777, on the site of an Ohlone Indian village, at the north end of where San Jose Airport is today. And this really upsets me. It was called Tamien, like the light rail station they named in Willow Glen. Why did they name it that--just to confuse people?

What's the best-kept secret in the valley's history?

I could get in big trouble for telling you that. Probably that Sarah Winchester wasn't really crazy. She wasn't, you know--only interested in architecture and different styles. It was sort of a hobby and an amusement, since she was in deep Victorian mourning. She did the plans, and she was the architect, but she didn't know about all the principles of construction. So in the earthquake of 1906, about half of it collapsed. While her house here was being patched up, they just walled it off. That's why there are stairways and doors going to nowhere.

What's the best old building that's been knocked down?

Oh gosh, there's so many, I wouldn't know where to begin. It makes me cry. Probably, since I'm in Los Gatos, the Hotel Lyndon. They should have kept that. There were the railroad station, the town hall and the old roundhouse in downtown San Jose.

What's the best old building that's been saved?

Most recently, the 1889 Letitia Building, a three-story building on the northeast corner of San Fernando and First streets. They have completely made it over inside and out. It's just magnificent, all the woodwork and staircases and everything. Coming up will be the California Fox Theatre, on South First Street in downtown, but that's a ways down the road yet.

What's the best historic preservation effort you've seen?

I guess Willow Glen, probably because the value of the homes has gone up. I see people take pride in their homes. Willow Glen is starting to look the way that I remembered when I was a little boy in the '40s.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit