The Haunting of Soda Springs by Lauren Coodley with Cathy Mathews

I have reached the inner vision
And through thy spirit in me
I have heard thy wondrous secret.
Through thy mystic insight
Thou hast caused a spring of knowledge
To well up within me,
A fountain of power, pouring forth living
A flood of love and of all-embracing wisdom
Like the splendor of Eternal Light.
– Edmond Bordeaux Szekely: The Essene Gospel of Peace, Book 2

Indigenous North American peoples considered mineral springs to be “power spots”—a place to heal their spirit. These cultures utilized the natural waters for purification ceremonies, sacred gatherings, and tribal meetings. Those who lived in the Napa Valley, the Water Going Out Place People (later called Guapo by the Spanish for their good looks, which was pronounced Wappo by American settlers) were frequent visitors to all of the mineral springs in the valley which they knew so intimately. They considered hot springs to be sacred places inhabited by the Great Spirit. Many legends exist about geothermal activity, as part of indigenous oral histories.

Every major hot springs in North America has some record of indigenous presence. Often, they kept its existence a secret from the arriving Europeans for as long as possible. Battles were sometimes fought between indigenous and settlers over the springs. The geothermal field of Calistoga was originally settled by the Pomos and Mayacamas peoples who used the hot springs and heated muds for healing purposes. They called the region “tu-la-ha-lu-si,” the beautiful land, and the hot spongy turf was “coo-la-no-maock,” the oven place.

Silverado Trail had long been used by indigenous peoples to walk up and down the valley. After the discovery of gold, 27 springs of mineral rich cold water about seven miles north of Napa City were claimed by Amos Buckman in l855. By then, the indigenous residents of Napa had been exterminated by epidemics or displaced to Sonoma or Lake Counties. Buckman saw the commercial potential of the location. Doctors and resort owners, as well as the public, attributed many cures and health benefits to the use of therapeutic mineral waters.

By July 1856, the first resort hotel had opened at the springs, owned by San Francisco lawyer Eugene Sullivan and run by W. Allen. In a letter dated July l5, Allen complained to Sullivan that they needed dressers because “women have too much trouble getting things out of their traveling trunks and back in again.” He also requested cooking butter. Allen wrote to tell Sullivan about the first day he officially opened the bar and dining room; they earned $93. The only complaints concerned the inferior cigars. He requested a better brand. Too many cigars perhaps: by the following month, the hotel burnt down. That fall, Eugene Sullivan and Amos Buckman initiated legal proceedings to reinforce their claims to the property. In 1860, the earliest known ad promoting the water at the spa appeared in the Napa Reporter. The Reporter continued to inform its readers about the legal battle during l86l. In April of that year, the newspaper that while Buckman was in Benicia discussing his case with regional legal authorities, J.H. Wood and companions attacked Mrs. Buckman and workers at the springs, beat them, and destroyed the bottling works. Wood and his associates were each sentenced to a $75 fine or 35 days in jail.

Late in l862, The Pacific Echo reported that Whitney, Wood and their employees were arrested for illegally throwing Buckman out of his house. While everyone else was in Napa, masked men set afire the bottling works operated by Whitney and Wood. A week later, the men ran an ad offering a $1000 reward for information concerning the arsonists. By l863, Whitney and Wood won title from Amos Buckman, who then moved to San Diego and founded Buckman Springs.

On April 6, 1872, the Reporter announced that Dr. J. Henry Wood sold the Soda Springs property to Colonel J.P. Jackson for $120,000. By l874, Jackson had built a health and pleasure resort. Visitors to the hotel could view a wide stretch of the valley. Nearly all the buildings were constructed from stone quarried in the mountains nearby. Visitors could bowl, play tennis or billiards. They could hunt, fish, ride horses, or stroll among the olive and almond, citrus and apple trees. The grounds were over one hundred acres, with twelve miles of “pleasant walks through the hills and canyons.” Meanwhile, Napa historian CW Menefee described how the Napa indigenous were captured and “used as servants or slaves. They seldom lived for two or three years…they would at times make night hideous with their howling among the willows along the banks of the river, with what purposes or motives we are left to conjecture.”

Napa Soda Springs contained a mineral water of health giving properties. On July 3, 1875, the Napa County Reporter ran a story about the technology involved in bottling gaseous water. A new bottling building had been constructed, and the springs were putting out more than 300 dozen bottles a day. Local resident Charles Allen had discovered how to carbonate and bottle water to sell it commercially.

On April 2l, l877, the resort presented a ball to introduce the Rotunda, a 75 foot high circular building topped by a glass cupola. There were two stories of outside rooms and a large interior drawing and reading room, lighted from the dome shaped roof by a sixteen foot chandelier. Pugh’s Quartette Quadrille Band performed, and a “first class” supper was served to 75 couples. In l88l, the resort opened to overnight guests.

In July l884, the Napa County Reporter highlighted the “many changes and improvements” at the springs, including the Tower House, Ivy House, Music Hall, Garden House, clubhouse and pagoda; all rooms had gas lighting and running water. Gardens and exotic plants covered the grounds. It accommodated almost 300 people. So great was its beauty, says the article, that even William Keith and Virgil Williams, California’s most famous landscape artists, arrived to visit and paint.

On March 2l, l885, The Napa Register reported that the Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Company would soon be installing lines before the summer season, allowing guests to call San Francisco and Oakland. On January l5, l886, The Register reported that the Springs would be open year-round, a great stimulant to the local economy and “what was good for Napa Soda Springs was good for Napa.” It noted that the previous June, the resort spent $l000 on meat alone.

On June 2l, 1889, The Register reported that Colonel Jackson’s new residence, Bellevue, was almost done, as was the new swimming pool, l50 by 50 feet, situated just below the lawn tennis courts. On May 2l, l892, the Register reported that on the previous Friday, the springs shipped l500 dozen bottles, the most ever in one day. Seven wagons were required to haul the water down to the Depot. On November 20, l892, the Register reported that the new dancing pavilion had been improved for winter by glassing in its previously open sides with l500 panes.

The bottling plant with all the latest equipment was situated on the main resort area. The water was bottled and capped on the premises. It was widely advertised for both alcoholic drinks and lemonade. On February 19, 1895 The Napa Register reported the wonders occurring at the springs, suggesting that the tallest century plant ever known in California was blooming, almost reaching 40 feet in height, and that the bottling plant was shipping two million bottles annually.

In July 18, 1897 The Napa Daily Journal noted that San Francisco saloons recently ran out of Napa Soda; the emergency was met by an all-night shift at the bottling plant, and a delay of the steamer Napa City so the needed bottles could be stowed aboard.

On March 27 of l900, The Napa Daily Journal reported that a court decided that only soda water from Napa Soda Springs can be called “Napa Soda,” precluding various defendants also from identifying their products as “Walters Napa County Soda” or “Phillips Napa County Soda.” According to the judge’s reasoning, the Napa Indians were indulging at the Soda Springs long before there was an officially recognized geographical place known as “Napa.” Since there was a “Napa Soda” before there was a Napa, the defendants couldn’t use the name “Napa” in any form, despite their contention that it was merely descriptive of the place from where it came. On September 26, 1900 Colonel Jackson suddenly died, leaving the property to his wife. That century, the Soda Springs Resort began a slow decline. The First World War and Prohibition led to the closing of its doors to guests. Napa Soda–or “Jackson’s Napa Soda”–continued to be sold through the Second World War, despite a devastating wilderness fire in the ’40s which spared the bottling plant. In the Fifties, the Napa Soda Lemonade was served at the Gilt Edge in Napa, where Cathy Mathews remembers ordering it. The resort has never been restored. The plant itself was burned in an arson fire in the early 1960s. A visitor to the once prestigious site will find nothing to indicate its former splendor. Fenced off from Soda Canyon Road, all that remains is the stone archway that once greeted visitors from around the Bay Area and the nation. The indigenous peoples who once used the springs are invisible and almost forgotten, yet Calistoga water is drunk everywhere.

Lin Weber, Old Napa Valley History to l900, Wine Ventures Publishing, l998.

John Lund, “Historical Impacts of Geothermal Resources on the People of North America,” October l995, Proceedings of World Geothermal Congress, Florence Italy.

Lauren Coodley is the co-author, with Paula Amen Judah, of Napa Valley Farming. Cathy Mathews’ great grandfather Jose Mateus worked at the Oak Knoll Ranch, pictured in the book, during the same period that the Napa Soda Springs prospered. He founded his own sherry oven at the Lisbon Winery, also pictured in the book and now known as the Jarvis Conservatory.