By Jenna Sanders
Photo Credit: Napa County Historical Society
This is the final in a four part series.
The story of Calistoga Hot Springs is more so one of the visionary rogue behind the resort rather than a tale of the lavish property itself. The shadow of a historical figure like Sam Brannan looms large enough to dim the shine of the full square mile of land on which Brannan built his hot springs resort. A resort so grand, the only way to properly open its doors was to charter a ship, stagecoaches, and carriages to whisk hundreds of wealthy guests from San Francisco to Calistoga, where they feasted on roast fowl and cheered with champagne.
Was he a calculated swindler or an opportunistic scoundrel? Brannan’s contributions to the nascent state of California are difficult to untangle from his posthumous infamy. Some historical records tell of a savvy businessman, a man of California firsts. In these accounts, Brannan is credited with establishing the first school, the first fire department, and the first newspaper in what became San Francisco.
Other records reveal a certain tarnish to that golden halo. Historians have hinted Brannan may have stolen money from the Mormon church, buried the news that gold had been discovered until he was able to establish the only store between San Francisco and gold country, and formed a vigilance committee in San Francisco that was heavy on the vigilante and light on the justice.
Brannan’s legendary nature carries through to the naming of his hot springs resort. As the official unofficial story goes, Brannan, after a sumptuous meal and many glasses of wine, proclaimed to his table full of guests the resort he planned to build would be the “Calistoga of Sarafornia!” An alcohol-induced blunder of the “Saratoga of California.”
Though even this story has been contested, a post in the Railroad Gazetteer broke down the name behind the resort as, “Calistoga signifies ‘Hot Robe’ from ‘cali’ (hot) and ‘toga’ (robe). The healing vapor baths thus envelope the person like a hot robe.”
There is one claim that unites historians: regardless of the legality or morality of his business dealings, Sam Brannan was California’s first millionaire.
His considerable fortune afforded Brannan the opportunity to invest in Napa Valley. Between 1850 and 1860, Brannan amassed 2,000 acres of land on which he built a hot springs resort designed to rival those of Europe and the East Coast. No imaginative detail or expense was spared. Estimates place Brannan’s total expenditures at $500,000 before opening the doors of Calistoga Hot Springs to guests in 1860.
Twenty-five guest cottages with gingerbread trim and a grand hotel housed wealthy San Francisco travelers. Wide avenues cut through manicured lawns connecting guests with the myriad amenities available at the resort. Guests enjoyed a racetrack, stable, bathhouse, pool, riding trails, a skating rink, and for the sporting sort – bear hunting just miles from the grounds.
Some of Brannan’s loftier plans for the property involved planting a grove of mulberry trees in hopes of launching a booming silk industry. Pieces of the nearby petrified forest were brought to the resort and used to erect a “druid temple.” Brannan brought thousands of French merino sheep to the property, planted acres of vines, and built a distillery, winery, and cooperage shop. On the hillside of Mount Lincoln, he constructed an observatory where guests could marvel at the valley sprawling below.
Despite the grandeur of the resort, the remote location proved challenging to entice enough patronage to support Brannan’s venture. His attention turned to funding a railroad that could shuttle guests up the valley.
The first phase of the railroad, completed in 1865, connected the Suscol Boat Landing to the city of Napa. Although a few political and financial hiccups temporarily paused the project, Brannan had a railroad leading nearly to the doorstep of his resort by 1868. He, once again, celebrated his success with an extravagant affair. This time Brannan brought 3,000 guests from San Francisco to Calistoga Hot Springs via ship and the newly completed railroad. A bountiful feast, free-flowing champagne, and a firework show commenced what Brannan thought to be the inevitable success of his venture.
The largesse of Brannan’s life ultimately led to his undoing. Earlier that same year, a local man named Andy Snyder shot Brannan over a financial dispute.
Though Brannan recovered from his injuries, healing in time to host his second lavish “opening” party for Calistoga Hot Springs, the shooting was a harbinger of greater misfortune.
By 1870, Brannan’s wife had tired of her philandering husband and filed for divorce. She received their San Francisco property and much of Brannan’s considerable fortune in their divorce settlement. Brannan was left with Calistoga.
Brannan had previously been successful in subdividing and selling land parcels in San Francisco and Sacramento. He once again attempted to subdivide his land in Calistoga to generate income following the divorce. This time his efforts failed. By 1875, Calistoga Hot Springs was bank-owned.
California’s first millionaire, Samuel Brannan, passed away in 1889 – and, if there is any truth in rumors from the past, died without even a penny to put towards the cost of his burial.