Napa's Historic Resorts
White Sulphur Springs. This is the first in a four part series. Stay tuned!
Just two miles west of St. Helena, lies what once was the oldest operating resort in California, White Sulphur Springs. The grounds nestled on the valley floor at the foot the Mayacamas Mountains originally spanned 640 acres of redwood groves, hot springs and “shrubbery, ferns and wildflowers of every variety.” Waterfalls cascaded down the hillsides, “making a panorama of romantic scenery not to be found anywhere else in the State.”
The unrivaled beauty of the property moved guests to memorialize their visits with poetry and inspired Sophie Alstrom Mitchell, daughter of owner and proprietor Swen Alstrom, to spend a lifetime painting the wildflowers of Napa Valley.
Though John York and David Hudson are credited for “discovering” the springs in 1848 while on a hunting trip, archaeological evidence shows the Wappo inhabited the land around the springs long before. Local legends tell conflicting tales of how or if the Wappo used the springs. Some say the springs were sacred grounds used for their healing powers, others contend the fumes rising from the springs were interpreted as a sign demons inhabited the water.
Dr. Lillie, a physician from Kentucky, believed the mineral springs possessed the same curative properties that had turned European springs into world-class tourist destinations. Lillie claimed the land and built a bathhouse for visitors to “take the cure” from the waters. The first iteration of the grand White Sulphur Springs" resort opened its doors to the public in 1852, just two years after California received statehood and more than two decades before the town of St. Helena was first incorporated.
Private cottages, a dining room and a bowling alley were built to house and entertain guests looking to soak in the springs and rest in the fresh mountain air. The immediate popularity of the resort led to the development of a 250-foot long hotel in 1859. The new building soon burned to the ground. Two years later, the bowling alley washed away in a flood. Fires and floods continued to plague the resort for the next century.
Swen Alstrom, a Swedish immigrant and successful hotelier, sensed the potential of the resort and purchased the property in 1861 with ambitions to build an opulent getaway serving affluent San Francisco families. Alstrom quickly set about building a world-class resort, constructing ten buildings including a dining hall, bar, billiard room and a livery stable to supplement the naturally occurring attractions – the curative mineral springs found onsite.
Alstrom’s vision for the property and flair for hospitality launched the golden age of White Sulphur Springs. One hundred fifty rooms and private cottages served as summer homes for guests who “consisted largely of wealthy families who came early in the season and stayed all through.” At the behest of several San Francisco businessmen led by Dan Koshland, chairman of Levi Straus & Co, Alstrom even installed a telegraph wire for the resort’s clientele to follow the stock exchange while vacationing with their families.
Notable figures like writer Ambrose Bierce, tycoon and founder of Stanford University Leland Stanford, and poet Joaquin Miller vacationed at the resort. Perhaps most famous, or infamous, to Napa Valley was regular guest Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Lillie developed a reputation as being an “unusual character” in her time. She was an avid gambler and was often found donning men’s trousers and smoking a cigar. W.W. Lyman remembered “Mrs. Coit seemed always to go about with at least two men. It was understood by all who knew her that, while she was extremely unconventional, she never had what was called ‘improper relations’ with men.”
White Sulphur Springs’ golden age came to an end one July night in 1875 when a young waiter returned to the male staff quarters after a spirited evening in St. Helena. He lit a firecracker and threw it onto the roof as a prank to startle the men asleep in their beds. The explosive smoldered before erupting into a blaze that destroyed the main hotel building and dining room.
Alstrom searched for new buyers following the fire but was left with the task of rebuilding when none could be secured. The resort regained its prestige and grandeur by 1878, but the financial burden was too costly for Alstrom. In 1880, the resort entered foreclosure and closed its doors to guests. Winter floods ravaged the property that same year, washing out the bridge over Sulphur Creek.
White Sulphur Springs exchanged hands numerous times between 1881 and 1904 when John Sanford purchased the property. Sanford ushered in a new period of resort development, upgrading the hotel and cottages with modern conveniences expected by waealthy guests, telephones, new plumbing and electric lights. Later that same year, a fire destroyed the hotel. Sanford rebuilt, opening a new hotel in 1905. It too burned down. Sanford rebuilt and reopened White Sulphur Springs in 1906, just in time for tourism to plummet due to the San Francisco earthquake.
Brochures for White Sulphur Springs continued to espouse the healing powers of the mineral springs through the 1920s, claiming the waters possessed “exceptional medicinal properties and cures of relief.” Visitors ailed by “rheumatism, neuritis, stomach troubles, and skin disorders” convalesced at the resort, often proclaiming a marked improvement in their health.
As time progressed, the resort continued to cycle through new owners. In 1948, Bob Campbell, a San Francisco restaurateur, purchased and redeveloped the property. The changes made to the resort reflected changing trends in travel; health retreats were no longer in style. Campbell created a veritable playground for guests of all ages. Patrons were encouraged to enjoy horseback riding, ping pong, badminton, hiking, an ice cream bar, a cocktail bar, and “food as good as Bob’s Smorgasbord and Bob’s Steak House.”
White Sulphur Springs reigned as an opulent retreat for the famous and infamous for more than a century. The era came to an end in 1955 when Max Friedman purchased the property, converting the land to a boys’ camp. From 1955 through 1982, the rural beauty of the land with access to hiking trails and springs continued to attract organizations seeking a remote setting. The property was used as a camp and retreat by the Methodist Church Conference, the Northern California Zionist Youth Commission and the Sanatana Dharma Foundation. The Hoffman Institute, current property owners, use the grounds to house students enrolled in the Hoffman Process and Q² Graduate Intensive programs.