Napa's Historic Resorts - Napa Soda Springs - The second in a four part series. Stay tuned!
By Jenna Sanders | Photo credit: Napa Historical Society
The storied history of Napa Valley’s hospitality industry dates back as far as 1850 when California entered the Union as a free state. Napa Valley first gained popularity as a travel destination for both affluent families living in San Francisco and for those who suffered from rheumatism, kidney disease, cystitis, chronic indigestion, and conditions of the blood and lungs. Families and the chronically ill sought the healing power of the naturally occurring mineral and hot springs as well as the warm, dry climate and fresh mountain air.
Like many of the spas operating in Napa Valley in the late 19th Century, Napa Soda Springs was first purchased and developed by a doctor who found his health restored after spending months convalescing on the property. With his newly recovered vitality, Dr. John Henry Wood seized the opportunity to transform the plot of land into a premier destination for curative waters, much like the renowned spas strewn throughout Europe.
In 1856, Amos Buckman built the first small hotel to serve the property. The building promptly burned to the ground. That same year, Charles Henry Allen developed a second venture to monetize the healing powers of the mineral waters found on the property – bottle and sell the soda water. The small operation grew into a bustling bottling line churning out close to 300 bottles of soda water daily. Meanwhile, Buckman and Wood fought bitterly and unsuccessfully for the title to the property. The beauty of the grounds and the springs continued to attract picnickers while Buckman and Wood battled for the title.
One such picnicker, Colonel John Putnam Jackson, visited the property in 1870 at the encouragement of his father-in-law. Colonel Jackson had, at this time, garnered significant success in the military, law, politics, and business. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Jackson spent the first 15 years of his professional career practicing law with such esteemed contemporaries as Rutherford B. Hayes, who went on to become the nineteenth President of the United States. In 1864, Colonel Jackson received the unanimous nomination of the Republican Party for the Governorship of Kentucky, which he declined in favor of the post of Congressman from the Sixth District of Kentucky. Three years later, Colonel Jackson transitioned to new ventures. He traveled to Europe to raise funds for the California Pacific Railroad Company before moving to San Francisco and serving as the president of the company.
Colonel Jackson, with his keen eye for business opportunities, immediately recognized the potential of the property and its springs that had so enamored his father-in-law. He purchased the 1,000-acre plot of land for $20,000 – allegedly on the day of his first visit. Jackson envisioned a luxurious resort celebrating the natural beauty of the landscape. Stone was quarried from the estate to construct elaborate curvilinear buildings designed to blend into the hillside.
Development began with a grand 75-foot-high circular building intended to serve as a barn and horse stables. By 1879, Colonel Jackson had invested $40,000 in the still unfinished project. The Napa Reporter estimated construction on the building would cost an additional $20,000 to complete. Mounting costs cut deeply into Colonel Jackson’s wealth. He scrapped his plans to build a barn and stable unlike any people had seen before.
Newspapers declared this supposed defeat “Jackson’s Folly,” but Colonel Jackson swiftly reimagined the potential for the building. The newly conceptualized Rotunda went on to become the defining feature of his magnificent resort.
Once completed, the one-hundred-and-twenty-foot diameter Rotunda housed a grand parlor and ballroom festooned with a gas chandelier sixteen feet in diameter boasting thirty-two lights. Fifty guest bedrooms outfitted with windows granting guests some of the best views in Napa Valley circled the perimeter of the Rotunda. Situated 1,000 feet above sea level, the Rotunda reflected “clear across Napa Valley, and its windows strike the distant beholder as glittering plates of steel.” A “glass cupola which reflected for miles like the rising and setting sun” capped the towering structure. From the Rotunda, expansive views of the valley sprawled below. Mount Diablo dotted the skyline to the east, Mount Tamalpais rose up on the horizon to the west, and Mount St. Helena towered in the north. On clear days, the San Francisco Bay glittered to the south.
Napa Soda Springs fulfilled nearly every traveler’s needs from the moment the doors opened to guests in 1881. Bath-houses were constructed for those seeking recovery from illness by “taking the waters” in the property’s 27 hot and cold natural springs. Tennis courts, bowling alleys, billiard tables, croquet, shuffleboards, pony and horse rides, and dancing entertained families day and night. A post office and long-distance telephone allowed affluent San Francisco businessmen to maintain contact with their companies while summering with their families at the resort.
Guests less inclined to rambunctious activities enjoyed paths stretching through manicured gardens and groves of towering Eucalyptus, oaks draped with Spanish moss, Italian cypress, almond, avocado, and orange trees. Lawns and flower beds planted beneath the trees created shady nooks for guests to retreat for quiet contemplation. “A more picturesque and beautiful location could hardly be found,” declared the Napa Reporter.
While the resort catered, quite successfully, to wealthy San Franciscans, sales of Jackson’s Napa Soda boomed. A chemical analysis claimed the beverage was an “efficient aid to digestion, being antacid and tonic” and “beneficial in the treatment of chronic and subacute metritis and ovaritis.” By 1879, 36,000 bottles of water were shipped from the springs to nearby stores and restaurants. Colonel Jackson made the waters of Napa Soda Springs “famous throughout the state” while “making himself a handsome fortune at the same time.” Two decades later, production had nearly tripled.
Visitation to Napa Soda Springs began to dwindle in the early years of the twentieth century. The advent of the automobile dramatically altered how wealthy travelers vacationed. Easier access to more locations put an end to lodging at a single resort for an entire summer. In 1913, a fire swept through the resort. Despite scarring several buildings on the property, Napa Soda Springs continued to operate under the management of Colonel Jackson’s son, Andrew Jackson. By the time a second fire scorched the Rotunda and closed the bottling line in 1944, the once elegant resort had fallen into shambles.
Vandalized ruins are all that remain more than a century after the fires that fell Napa Soda Springs, a haunting reminder of the opulent resort that once glittered like a gem on the hillside.