Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: The unsolved mystery of John W. Hammond
Memory Lane

Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: The unsolved mystery of John W. Hammond


In early November, 1929, the Napa Daily Register published an article about an unsettling local mystery. It reported the sketchy details about the baffling and possibly suspicious disappearance of an Atlas Peak resident, John W. Hammond.

It began, “While relatives in the Eastbay, San Francisco, Sacramento, and other cities waited for the possible arrival of John W. Hammond, 81, Atlas Peak resident, Under Sheriff W.W. Gaffney and J.A. Hammond of Berkeley, a son, were in Chiles Valley and Sage Canyon regions today seeking trace of the missing man.”

Apparently, the large natural spring on Hammond’s property had essentially dried up. As a result, Hammond was forced to search for water “in the canyon below (where it would be) easier to obtain that a five mile hike over the summit to his nearest neighbor.”

The Register continued, “The Hammond cabin is on a barren flat on the northerly slope of Atlas Peak. Surrounding the flat is a waste of chaparral and jagged lava rock. The town of St. Helena is visible in the distance.”

It added, “Forced to leave his ranch by the exhaustion of the spring, and following a trail down the canyon to Chiles Valley below, he may have met with a fatal accident.”

According to the Register, the search of his cabin revealed an odd discovery. “The fact that the aged man’s ‘best’ apparel is missing mystifies officers.”

According to the family, then and now, a few days before his disappearance, Hammond had chased some trespassers off of his property. Their theory was, and is, those trespassers may have come back to get even and “did him in!” Many locals adopted this belief.

The 1929 article also provided a bit of background information about the missing Atlas Peak resident and additional observations by Gaffney. “Rusting under a clump of oak trees near the cabin is a rude blacksmith shop the anvil, sledge, stone furnace and equipment still intact. Although an expert blacksmith in his younger days, Hammond had been forced by his advancing years to give up this work.”

Hammond, born in Iowa in 1848, came to California with his parents and siblings when he was about 4 or 5 years old. They settled in the LaGrange area near the Tuolumne River, the site of a recent gold strike.

There, he began his career as a blacksmith. In 1874, he married a widow and mother of a young son, Charlotte Sarah Bisset Bailey. They moved to the Groveland area where he established a prosperous blacksmithing business.

According to some of his descendants, while living in that area, Hammond also worked as a guide in Yosemite Valley. Before settling in Napa Valley, circa 1883, the Hammonds lived in San Francisco. Their numbers also increased with the birth of four children, three surviving to adulthood.

The year they moved to Napa Valley, Hammond established a blacksmith shop and purchased his first tract of Atlas Peak property. After he successfully filed a land patent for the 160-acre parcel, Hammond built a three-room cabin for he and his family. He expanded his land holdings a few years later with the purchase of an additional 160 acres adjoining his original homestead. Shortly thereafter, he built a second cabin.

Even with the additional housing, Sarah (Charlotte Hammond preferred to be called by her middle name,) did not like living in such a remote and rustic place. As a result, she and the children moved back to San Francisco. On occasion, Hammond made trips to San Francisco to visit his family and for years, Sarah and the children would return every summer to the Atlas Peak homestead. But, while the old adage may say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.,” that was not the case for John and Sarah Hammond. They eventually divorced, sometime between 1900-1910.

As time passed, Hammond became more reclusive, rarely interacting with his mountainside neighbors. Eventually they thought of him as a hermit, although some who remembered Hammond realized he was just a private and quiet person, not a recluse.

Some of his long-ago acquaintances had unique memories of Hammond. One such individual was the late “Duke” Duhig who had a vivid recollection of Hammond. Duhig recalled he could barely stomach one particular visit with Hammond. Apparently, the former blacksmith was cooking with what he called “Skunk oil.” According to Duhig, the stench was horrible!

Although personable, Hammond did possess a real zeal for privacy, which may have ultimately lead to his baffling disappearance. As for the fate of John W. Hammond, he was never rescued, or recovered. The circumstances of his disappearance, and presumed death, continue to remain an unsolved mystery.

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