Old-Time Napa Resorts

From California's earliest days, San Franciscans recognized Napa County as a particularly lovely place to vacation. This is a list of only the most memorable resorts, since so many were barely noted in their own days. Yet another limit to comprehensiveness is the fact that it was so easy to create a "resort." In travels around Northern California, one discovers numberless businesses and houses in historic settings that inform visitors that they once served as resorts. Typically, such places consisted of a two-story building with a veranda, and perhaps a balcony on the upper level. Almost inevitably, they wore a coat of whitewash, and they hosted guests by the dozens or fewer. Many lasted no more than a season or two, and many others claimed the name "resort," when, in fact, they were households in nice locations, which took in temporary boarders.

White Sulphur Springs
Founded in 1852, this is California's earliest known resort. It's situated just a few miles southwest of St. Helena in a lovely redwood-studded canyon where the water runs clear and cold even in late summer. Respectable San Francisco families started coming here in days when most San Franciscans did not trouble themselves with respectability, and familes were in short supply. Old pictures show a simple two-story building on a country road. Go west on St. Helena's Spring Street and you'll come upon the establishment a few miles up the road.

Napa Soda Springs
Soda Springs first opened its doors to paying customers in the summer of 1856; it promptly burned down, and spent the next 20 years in litigation. In the interim, it served as a popular spot for picnics, and the springs were developed in order to sell sparkling and medicinal waters. It seems not to have been an overnight resort again until 1881, when it commenced its best days, which lasted until the turn of the century. During those two decades, the most wealthy people of San Francisco and beyond passed entire summers there, while the valley below achieved its greatest heights in pleasant living. Ex-President Benjamin Harrison even stayed here in the '90s, but after 1900, its slow decline left it emptier with every year, and ultimately forgotten by the time Prohibition tightened its grip across the land. Fires in the 1940s and 1960s gutted the buildings, leaving behind picturesque--but inaccessible--ruins. You can catch glimpses of it by driving up Soda Canyon Road, which is just a few miles north of Napa on the Silverado Trail; look for the grand stone pillars on the right, marking an entrance to nowhere, and look up the hill.

The Calistoga Hot Springs Resort
The town of Calistoga owes much of its existence to Sam Brannan's desire to develop the area as his very own pleasure preserve. The train up the Napa Valley was an outgrowth of Brannan's desire to get customers there easily, and he chose the site of the train depot. The name, as is often explained, derives from his possibly inebriated attempt to compare it to the great watering hole in New York State, when he said something to the effect that it would be the "Calistoga of Sarafornia" instead of the "Saratoga of California." The resort opened in 1862, and eventually featured a sizeable indoor swimmming pool, a dining hall, hotel and many cottages. Though it's locally reputed to have been quite popular with San Francisco's best people, that is only half true. By the time of its opening, Brannan was openly consorting with women who were not his wife. Proper people avoided the place, but it was very popular with monied men who sojourned there to drink, gamble and carry on with mistresses. Calistoga's Sharpsteen Museum has an excellent series of displays showing what it looked like, and there is even an original, furnished cottage, exhibiting all the excesses in taste that characterized the Victorian era. The museum is on Washington Street, just off Lincoln Avenue.

Samuels Springs
Once mentioned as a modest equivalent of Soda Springs, Samuels Springs seemed especially proud of its gardens, inasmuch as that's what you always see in the old pictures to the exclusion of buildings. Sited near the northwestern corner of Lake Berryessa, it appears to have been well establsihed by the early 1870s, and to have vanished without a trace by the turn of the century.

Aetna Springs
Allegedly designed by Bernard Maybeck--San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts is his well-known masterpiece--Aetna Springs opened in 1877. A sprawling, Craftsman Style collection of buildings in Pope Valley, Aetna Springs catered to Bay Area socialites and once hosted President Cleveland. It also claims to have the first golf course on the West Coast. Reverend Moon's organization ran the establishment as a retreat in the 1980s, but it is now empty of guests, though the golf course remains in operation. To get there, take Highway 29--that's the valley's main highway--to Deer Park Road, just north of St. Helena. Follow the road up and over the mountain, and follow the signs to Pope Valley. Ask for directions at the settlement's commercial district.

Lokoya Lodge
Lokoya Lodge operated for several decades after the turn of the century, when it burned down in the 1950s. Featuring a large hotel like the Ahwanee at Yosemite, it commanded a beautiful ridgeside in the mountains separating Napa and Sonoma counties, and rustic furniture reinforced the hunting-lodge atmosphere. In later years there was still remaining a not very large swimming pool, and a dozen or so cottages. In the 1960s and early '70s, counterculturalists thrived there, the cottages then being rented monthly for about $125; Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger are said to have stayed at one of the bigger cottages when they were playing concerts in the Bay Area. The property boasts many redwoods, including one of heroic proportions. What's left is reached first by heading west from Highway 29 on Trancas/Redwood Road toard the Hess Collection Winery (site of another old time resort of little note), taking the Mt. Veeder Road fork about five miles later, and then the Lokoya Road turn off about seven miles after that.

Napa Valley Ranch Club
Situated near the southern end of the present Lake Berryessa, the Napa Valley Ranch Club was more glorified campground than conventional resort. It seems to have been a post-war product in which members bought a share of the equity. The club grounds encompassed a general store, large swimming pool and a pleasant site shaded by oak trees on gently rolling hills. The most luxurious accommodations were simple cabins, with screens instead of windows; amenities consisted of shared restroom and showering facilities. Most visitors pitched tents in the campground. In the days before the dam created Lake Berryessa, people often visited the bucolic little town of Monticello, where time stood still at the turn of the century. White washed houses, a country store or two and a gas station comprised the commercial district, now all underwater, along with the Putah Creek Bridge, the county's largest river crossing. Club activities ranged from hikes in the woods, nightly barbecues, ghost stories and songs around a great fire, and hay rides by moonlight. It lives on as the R Ranch.

Vichy Springs
It's difficult to determine whether Vichy Springs ever boasted hotels and restaurants, but the facility did produce bottled soda water for many decades, and it competed for a time with Napa Soda Springs water. In any case, by the late 1950s, it lacked overnight accommodations and no longer sold sparkling water. It did boast a large swimming pool, surrounded by great expanses of grass, and beyond, sizable picnic facilities. The establishment included a snack bar and a magnificent games arcade, a museum, in effect, of every kind of coin operated game extant for the previous 20 years. Besides playing pinball, guests could blast ducks in the mechanical shooting gallery, fire ack-ack at Nazi aircraft over London, or look through a periscope and sink Japanese ships. The picnic grounds were long-time favorites for every kind of union, fraternal organization or ethnic group in the Bay Area, and regulars routinely encountered hundreds of people speaking Greek one weekend, Chinese the next and Italian the one after that. The great picnics highlighted masses of barbecued meat of every variety, and the sorts of old-fashion games familiar to Americans for a century, like three-legged races and egg-tosses. Situated near the current Silverado Country Club, Vichy Springs died in the late '60s or early '70s, to the great disappointment of people from Napa and beyond.

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