History of Napa’s Spanishtown
A Project of Leadership Napa Valley
< Sam Kee Laundry, 1245 Main Street
Photo Courtesy of Napa County Historical Society.
Each year LNV selects 30 class members, who work in small practicum groups to develop projects intended to have a lasting impact on the community. One such group has conducted extensive research into Spanishtown.
The history of the City of Napa is rich and varied. From the earliest settlers to modern times, many different people and industries have called Napa “home.” Much of Napa’s history has been well documented over the years, but one small corner of downtown Napa, known as Spanishtown (or Spanish Town), has been largely overlooked by historians.
In the mid-19th century, Napa was a thriving industrial town following the California Gold Rush. Downtown Napa was undergoing growth and change at a rapid pace. The earliest examples of the downtown Napa street grid were taking shape, and in 1852, George Cornwall turned his farming fields into additional neighborhood streets. Originally known as Cornwall’s Addition (Cornwell’s Addition in some reference documents), this area near the industrial section of downtown became home to myriad working class families. As the Mexican ranchos were sold off to real estate developers, many of the ranchos’ Spanish-speaking laborers were forced to relocate into Cornwall’s Addition. As settlement in this area occurred, Napans began referring to it as Spanishtown, which reflected the origin of many of the residents.
Spanishtown loosely referred to a northern section of downtown Napa bordered by Napa Creek, West Street, Clinton Street, and Yajome Street. In some historical references, Spanishtown extended further west to Brown Street, north to Vallejo Street, and as far east as Soscol Avenue.
Within the town of Napa, manufacturing and industrial development occurred primarily to the northeast and south of downtown. Examples of the industrial diversity of Napa included a glue manufacturing company, McBain Tannery, Napa Growers buildings, Napa City Mills, Albert Hatt’s Warehouse, James Boggs and Knapp lumber yards, Enterprise Planing Mill, and various wine companies; including Migliavacca and Andruan.
Because of its proximity to the industrial areas in existence along Soscol Avenue, Spanishtown became a convenient and desirable option for many families. As more immigrants and workers settled into this area, Chinatown and Spanishtown came to thrive as more and more homes were built to accommodate the demand for housing. Architecture in Spanishtown was fairly typical of working class residential developments found elsewhere in Napa, and many of those original homes can still be seen today.
Although known as Spanishtown, this area of Napa soon became multicultural and diverse. In addition to residents from Mexico and Spain, many poor, working-class and Italian immigrants settled in or near this area. Families were drawn to this section of town near the Second African Methodist Episcopal Zionist Church (that was on Vallejo Street) and St. John’s Catholic Church, which were focal points for many community activities, serving as catalysts for a diverse working-class residential development in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Although a desirable neighborhood for many, Spanishtown was not immune to hardship. An outbreak of smallpox in 1869 forced government officials to take action to prevent an epidemic. Of the 60 known cases of smallpox in Napa, 46 of those afflicted were residents of Spanishtown. Due to its proximity to the Napa River, flooding was another threat to the community. The flood of 1894 resulted in severe flooding to Spanishtown homes, which reoccurred multiple times in the 20th century. Like much of Napa, the Spanishtown neighborhood was hard-hit by the 1906 earthquake.
Some historical documents emphasize the more salacious side of Spanishtown, which became notorious for a number of murders recorded during the Victorian era. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Spanishtown also became a red light district—featuring brothels, which were gently referred to as “female boarding houses.” Many of these houses of ill repute were located along Clinton Street near Yajome Street. The Pfeiffer Building, now the Vintage Collective on Main Street, has been home to many different businesses and industries over the decades—including a brewery, and the Sam Kee Laundry, also a well-known as a brothel in the early 20th century.
According to historical documentation, Spanishtown was a cultural center and home to neighborhood dances and festivals, which often started on Friday evenings and could extend all the way through the weekend. Usually these weekend social gatherings occurred at the Garcia Hall, which was located at the corner of Pearl and West Streets. However, by the 1930s, many of the original residents and families of the area began to drift away. Downtown Napa had expanded its footprint west and south, and Spanishtown began to lose its identity. No longer the close-knit community it had once been, by the mid-1930s, residents began to refer to the section north of downtown as the area “formerly known as Spanishtown.”
Much of the history of Spanishtown has been lost over the years but a small group of future leaders has taken on the task of drawing renewed attention to this section of northern downtown Napa.
Leadership Napa Valley (LNV) provides leadership development for community-minded individuals. Each year LNV selects 30 class members, who work in small practicum groups to develop projects intended to have a lasting impact on the community. One such group has conducted extensive research into Spanishtown. Their goal is to erect an interpretive sign using historic photographs, and a scannable quick response code to provide access to more information about Spanishtown. The group hopes signage will lead to a deeper appreciation for Spanishtown’s relevance to Napa. A GoFundMe page has been started to help finance sign construction, which is expected to cost $5,000. To support this effort, visit gofundme.com/f/spanishtown-napa or email firstname.lastname@example.org.