Mount Umunhum


Perched on the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, above the southern rim of the Santa Clara Valley is Mount Umunhum. The large five-story building prominently visible on its summit has been a local landmark since it was built in 1961. The unusual name, the remote location, the stories about there being an Air Force Station located up there, and the fact that it has been off-limits to the general public with aggressive enforcement, has made the journey the dream of many teenagers and adults. Those who attempt this quest have found a series of locked gates, private security cameras, and old mountain men with guns. The perimeter around the mountain top facility is fenced with chain link and/or barbed wire fence, and very steep slopes surround the area. You will be cited for trespassing at this point in 2011! Until Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) finishes removing the abandoned hazardous buildings and materials left by the Air Force, restores the site and creates public access, it will be closed to the public. After that, it will become one of the most spectacular, must experience locations in the Bay Area. Until then, it is best to explore the area using Google Maps or Google Earth, to avoid those old mountain men with shotguns.

Geographically, Mount Umuhnum is the fourth highest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains at 3,478 feet, northwest of the highest peak, Loma Prieta at 3,727 feet, and east of Crystal Peak at 3,599 feet, and Mount Thayer located a mile to the west of Mount Umunhum at 3,481 feet. Steep and rocky, with a average grade of 10.2%, maxing out at a 17% grade, these mountains were made from the upward elevations with Oak and Madrone in the lower altitudes. The headwaters of Los Gatos, Soda Springs, Rincon, and Guadalupe Creeks are found in this 11,646-acre area that marks the southern-most tip of the MROSD Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. North of the Monterey Bay and south of the Santa Clara Valley, warm days and cool nights are the norm. The town of New Almaden is 9.6 miles away to the east and the Town of Los Gatos is 14 miles down tortuous, partially paved mountain roads, across private property. New Almaden was an important area in the history of California with the discovery of cinnabar and its derivative, mercury. Because of Mount Umunhum's proximity to this important area, Mount Umunhum has a long rich history of habitation by different groups throughout time. The Native Americans held this area to be of great spiritual value and Quicksilver was discovered by the European settlers in 1845. The new Almaden Mine (named after a prolific mine in Spain), quickly became one of the most productive quicksilver mines in the world.

For the last ten thousand years, the Native Americans who called the Santa Clara Valley home were the Somontac, Chaloctaca, and Chitactac. They stayed mostly in the valley, but ventured up the mountain to retrieve the precious cinnabar for their rock paintings (pictographs), dabbling on artifacts, and for ritual body paint. The rich vermillion red color was highly prized and there are historical accounts of the neighboring band of Native Americans from the Santa Cruz area fighting for control of the mines. The coastal peoples who spoke different dialects, the Sayant, Aptos, and Shokel, also valued the cinnabar, so both tribes claimed this land as their own and fought for control of the area. The descendents of these peoples refer to themselves as the Muwekma Ohlone in the valley and the Amah Mutsun in Santa Cruz and Monterey. Both value mountain tops, mountain ridges, and rock outcroppings as being connected with their version of creation. Artifacts have been found on many mountain tops and ridges in the Bay Area.

An abridged version of the Ohlone story of creation recorded in Monterey, California and published by anthropologists C. Hart Merriam and G.W. Block shows the importance of high mountains and hummingbirds in the lives of the local Indians. "When this world was finished (by creator), the Eagle, Hummingbird, and Coyote were standing on top of a high mountain in Monterey county. The world was being flooded and when the water rose to their feet Eagle carried Hummingbird and Coyote and flew away to a still higher mountain. There the three stood until the water went down. Then Eagle sent Coyote down the mountain to see if the world was dry. Coyote came back and said: 'The whole world is dry.' Eagle said, 'Go and look in the river. See what there is there.' Coyote did so and came back saying, 'There is a beautiful girl.' Eagle then said, 'She will be your wife, in order that people may be raised again.' Eagle gave Coyote a trowel of abalone shell and a stick to dig with. Coyote married the girl. Coyote's children went out over the world and become the forefathers of the different tribes."(Merriam & Block 1990 100-102)

As well, the Indian connection to the cinnabar is well documented: "The Indians of Santa Cruz and Santa Clara seem to have always been in fights about the possession of the cinnabar mine...The Indians away from the Tulares (San Joaquin Valley Yokuts people) and Sacramento, were accustomed to come often and get their share of the red paint, and great battles were always fought in these vermillion expeditions. One of them occurred even as late at 1841 or 1842, when several of the intruders were killed by the Santa Clara Indians." (Heizer 1974:57)

The first European, Spanish explorer, Jose Francisco Ortega scouted the region for Captain Gaspar de Portola in 1769, making notes for future exploration. At that time, there were around fifty Ohlonean tribelets, divided into extended families or clans, spread throughout the San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay areas. In 1777 Father Junipero Serra established the eighth of twenty-one missions, Santa Clara de Asis, and California's first town, el pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe was founded, securing a Spanish foothold on the area and on the indigenes peoples who resided within its boundaries. In 1791, the mission was established in Santa Cruz and in 1797, the missions in both San Jose and San Juan Baptista were built. The ten thousand Native Americans in the area were forced to move into the missions and their lands were seized, destroying their culture and lifestyle. The valley Indians were moved to the mission in Santa Clara and the Santa Cruz and Monterey Indians were interned in the Santa Cruz and San Juan Batista Missions. The Mexican Revolution began in 1812 and by 1832, the Mission Indian population had dwindled to only two thousand, reduced from being exposed to the diseases brought in by the Europeans. Between 1834 and 1836, the Mexican congress opened eight million acres of mission lands to private ownership, dissolving the mission Indians rights to their native lands.

In 1842, Mexican Governor Alvarado made two grants of land that included Mount Umunhum and the precious cinnabar mines. The land was divided between Jose Reyes Berryessa and Justo Larios, who established Ranchos San Vicente and Canada de los Capitancillos. Then, at the Santa Clara Mission in 1845, Captain Andres Castillero of the Mexican Army noticed some reddish rocks and inquired as to their origin. "An old Indian, a short time after the forming of the mission of Santa Clara, told the Padre he knew where there was a spring of living water (mercury), but that there were also evil spirits who killed all who trespassed, and therefore he dare not conduct him to the place. The Padre, however, prevailed on the Indian who guided him to a spot, which was on the top of a mountain and which proved to be a vain of cinnabar, so rich that the mercury retorted by the heat of the sun, and condensed by the moisture of the sod, had filtered through the earth so as to form small pools of the liquid. The evil genius was, of course, salvation and death, produced by inhaling the fumes of mercury and arsenic from the metal which the Indians burned as an evil spirit. The tribe that had possession of the mines was wealthy as it monopolized the trade in vermillion, a paint that was ever in demand with warlike savages. These Indians did a considerable commerce with their neighbors to the north, who visited them in canoes. It is a fact that Mr. Forbes (James Alexander Forbes of Forbes Mill, later known as Los Gatos) after opening the mines eight feet, (deep) found the skeletons of some ten or a dozen Indians, who had coyoted in to get the vermillion, and had been buried by the earth caving in on them." (A.S.Taylor, 1860) The Mexican Government was offering a $100,000 reward for the discovery of valuable minerals, so Captain Castillero filed a claim to the site of what was then referred to as the Mina Santa Clara and on December 30th he was granted "three thousand varas (obsolete Spanish unit of length: 33') of land in all directions around the claim," (Payne 1987:57) which included Mount Umunhum. This was the first legal mining claim in the State of California.

John C. Fremont visited the Pueblo de San Jose in 1846 and wrote about the cinnabar in his journal giving widespread knowledge of its existence. He had been tipped off by fur trapper Jedediah Smith who had come to the Pueblo de San Jose in 1826 with a group of Walla Walla Indians from northern Oregon wanting to know why the red paint was no longer being traded north.

1848 brought both the end of the Mexican American War and the discovery of gold in California. This triggered a flood of immigration and the state went from a population of 10,000 to a population of 100,000 in two years. California became a state on September 9, 1850 and a slew of lawsuits and court cases ensued over the ownership of much of the land in California. Mount Umunhum and the quicksilver mines were embroiled in ownership disputes, as well. The demand for quicksilver in the mining of gold and silver brought a great deal of attention to this area, with the mining of cinnabar continuing under various owners until 1960.

Alexander Dallas Bache directed many projects along the Pacific Coast and was responsible for the naming of the mountain peaks for the United States Government. The great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, he became the superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1853, until his death in 1867. He gave a Spanish name, Loma Prieta (dark hill) to the highest peak and the Ohlone Indian word for hummingbird to Mount Umunhum. Investigation of the word for hummingbird in the local Ohlone dialects appears to show the word is derived from the Santa Cruz and Monterey tribes languages. The current translation "resting place of the hummingbird" is not substantiated according to archeologist, Mark Hylkema in his report commissioned by MROSD in 2011.

With the influx of immigrants and the advent of the railroad in California, orchards sprang up throughout the state and aerial photographs show orchards of olives and vineyards of grapes, with cattle grazing on the southern flanks of Mount Umunhum. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and World War II instilled fear into the hearts of the American public. With the advent of the Atomic Bomb and the Soviet Union working toward the development of their own nuclear weapons, our very shores were vulnerable to attack and the Cold War was a real threat in the minds of the American people and the United States Government. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was established by the United States and Canadian Governments to protect North America's airspace from the cold war tensions.

In 1957, the United Sates Air Force started construction on the forty-four acre Almaden Air Force Station on the summit of Mount Umunhum, for use as a radar transmitting and receiving station, providing a two hundred and fifty mile radius blanket of security for the residents of the San Francisco and Monterey bay areas. Funding shortfalls and the remote location caused delays in construction, but the station was fully operational by March of 1958, becoming the home of the 682nd Radar Squadron. In 1960, the summit of Mount Thayer, a mile to the west, was acquired for use as a communication facility.

Eighty-Eight structures were constructed over a six year period, with thirty-one habitable for use by the one hundred and twenty military and civilian personnel and their families who lived there at its peak in the mid 1960s. The station consisted of four areas, the main Operations Area on top of Mount Umunhum which was completed in 1957, with an original domed search radar built by the Bendix Corporation. In 1962, the station saw the completion of a new frequency-diverse search radar which, consisted of the large radar tower commonly associated with the station. The tower is 84.5 feet tall with 63.3 squared sides. The antenna sail on its roof was 40 feet tall, 120 feet wide, and weighed 85.5 tons. Built by General Electric, it was the second of twelve that were built, with a rotation every ten to twelve seconds, depending on how fast the wind was blowing. Adjacent is the heart of the site, the Radar Operations Center. This building housed the scopes which the airmen would watch around the clock, in three shifts. Also located within the operations area were the two height finder radars, a helipad, power plant, telephone communications building, supply, and civil engineering maintenance. It is accessible by a paved road from the central Cantonment Area, which was below the Operations Area, at the north end of the access road through the front gates. The Cantonment Area consisted of the auto maintenance shop, swimming pool, recreation center, commissary, two lane bowling alley, several parking lots, and the airmen barracks. (In 1974, most of the deteriorating barracks were demolished, with only the foundations remaining.). Below the Cantonment Area is the Family Housing Area, situated at the southernmost portion of the station and characterized by seven apartment buildings, the Commander's house, and various parking lots.

A mile to the west along the ridgeline, located on the top of Mount Thayer was the Ground to Air Transmitter/Receiver (GATR) site. The property between the Mount Umunhum facilities and Mount Thayer is privately owned by The Umunhum Development Corporation (later to become Communication & Control Inc. (CCI)), established by Loren R. "Mac" McQueen in January of 1950, for the purpose of providing communications sites and services from his family owned mountain top properties. Among other communications antennas in his antenna farm is the NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar) Doppler weather radar operated by the National Weather Service which services San Francisco, San Jose, and Monterey Bay areas.

By 1980 defense satellites had taken over the country's foreign attack detection and ground-based radar stations had been rapidly phased out. The Almaden Air Force Station was declared excess to the needs of United States Air Force and was inactivated on June 30, 1980. The property was transferred to the General Services Administration (GSA) for disposal and in 1986, it was acquired by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) for the fair market value of $260,000. The area is now a part of the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. The United States Government has finally begun the removal of hazardous materials in 2011. The clean-up includes removal of hazardous materials from the buildings containing lead based paint and asbestos. Demolition of the buildings not being retained, restoration of the site, and creation of the open space is to take place after the environmental clean-up. Access issues with local property owners are being addressed at this time.

According to MROSD, "the goal of the proposed Project Plan is to establish a fiscally sustainable visitor destination that balances public access, enjoyment, and education with environmental restoration. This goal aligns with two directives of the District's Mission: to protect and restore the natural environment, and to provide opportunities for ecologically sensitive public enjoyment and education. This goal will be achieved through the following:
• Create a destination that is accessible to and accommodates a broad range of user groups and introduces new visitors to open space.
• Remove or permanently cap physical hazards and restore the native landscape and habitat for wildlife as much as possible.
• Provide minimal visitor amenities that complement and highlight the world-class views and open space experience.
• Provide ample, rich, & diverse trail experiences for hikers, bicyclists, & equestrians.
• Highlight the rich natural and cultural history of the site through self-discovery and focused interpretive and educational opportunities." objectives( When Mount Umunhum opens, the public will experience expansive views as far as San Francisco to the north, Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay to the south, and San Jose, the Mount Hamilton Range and the Mount Diablo Range to the east. Trails of various severity will provide something for everyone who chooses to visit this destination place. The 3.2 million dollar federally funded clean-up of hazardous materials is underway. Another ten-million is needed to demolish the remaining buildings that are not being retained, restore the site, and create public access. The restoration is in progress and MROSD hopes to have Mount Umunhum open in the next few years. Follow the progress at:

Check out the Webcam
Bibliography We would like to thank the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District for their help and support. Regina Coony, Meridith Manning, and Leigh Ann Gessner
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, Archaeological Survey Report (ASR), Mount Umunhum, Environmental Restoration and Public Access Project, Santa Clara County, California, Mark G. Hylkema, January 2011,+CA%22&key=AlmadenAFSCA&pic=AlmadenAFSCA&doc=AlmadenAFSCA
San Jose Mercury News, Various articles
Oral Interviews:
Basim Jaber- Almaden Air Force Station Historian
John McGinnis- Resident of Soda Springs Road
Jim Hamm- Resident of Soda Springs Road
Regina Coony, Meridith Manning, Leigh Ann Gessner-
Midpeninsula Open Space District

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