Similar to many Napa neighborhoods, Alta Heights possesses its own unique history. However, unlike other local residential areas, it also has a one-of-a-kind natural feature known as the Cup and Saucer.
Alta Heights in its earliest days was the site of a permanent Native American village. In addition to providing a great vantage point as well as safety from rising floodwaters, it had natural springs. Later, in the 1870s-1880s, the area was considered for a possible resort site.
For decades, the neighborhood was a recreational area for locals with only a few farms dotting the hillside district. Numerous longtime Napans — many of whom have since passed away, remembered excursions to Alta Heights for picnics, picking wildflowers and hiking. The main draw for the latter was the Cup and Saucer rock formation located in the present-day Montecito Heights area.
Louis Ezettie, a former Napa Valley Register history columnist, wrote the Cup and Saucer “was a ever challenging attraction. As we climbed its ‘treacherous’ slopes it seemed a 1,000 feet high, although actually it probably is not more than a few hundred feet above town level.”
Another longtime Napan, the late Margaret Clark Hoover, added her recollections about the formation and its name. “There was a huge boulder shaped like a tall coffee cup. It was fastened down to a larger slab formation we called the saucer. Halfway up the cup shape was a hollowed-out lump of rock that protruded forming the cup’s handle. The hollow was just large enough to provide a foothold to boost children to the rim.”
According to both Ezettie and Hoover, the view from the Cup and Saucer was spectacular. One could see as far south as Mt. Tamalpais. And in the spring, the northerly view was of fluffy white prune orchards in bloom.
Hoover also stated a second outcropping, the Camel, was just 100 feet from the Cup and Saucer. “It had two humps that we envisioned as a camel laying down. Embedded in this slab is a metal survey marker which takes advantage of the view in all directions.”
Both of these geological landmarks were located on private property and, regardless of that fact, were the destination of many young Napans. Hoover confessed, “We didn’t bother getting permission in those days because the hillside was always teaming with other children from town, who would be climbing that hill on weekends.” The owner of the property was Charles S. Bachelder, a local rancher.
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His acreage, 472.58 in total, stretched from East Avenue in Alta Heights eastward to First Street. In 1932, the land was auctioned off by the Federal Land Bank to supposedly satisfy a loan. The land was purchased for $9,500.
The Napa Daily Journal reported, “Purchase of the choice property situated east of this city, ... for the purpose of establishing a subdivision devoted entirely to residential purposes, was announced last night by Walter Lutge, widely known Napa businessman, and his sister, Mrs. Elsa Moore.”
The Journal reported the land was to be divided into two- and five-acre lots suitable for home sites “and will be offered for sale at prices comparable to city homesites.” The lots were originally listed for $2,500 to $3,500 per parcel. The developments became known as Montecito Heights and Acres as well as the Lakeview and Neilson subdivisions.
The Alta Heights land offered numerous challenges. Unlike the level soils of most of Napa’s previous subdivisions, the rocky hillside posed some daunting obstacles for the construction of improvements, such as streets and utilities.
The roadways were to follow the contour of the land and be landscaped in the latest designs that “will add greatly to the natural beauty of the subdivision,” wrote the Journal. However, in order to meet required grade specifications, portions of the natural contour and hillside were severely excavated and regraded.
The landscape maintained some of its native plants. However, in order to create outdoor living and gardening spaces as well as level construction sites, the project required extensive terracing and truckloads of topsoil.
Another improvement, the subdivisions’ water supply was originally to be hooked up to the city water mains with a “booster system” to pump the water to the higher sites. Ezettie added, “A water pressure problem was solved with the installation of two huge water tanks, each with a 44,000 gallon capacity, placed near and at the summit of the subdivision.”
As with many initial concepts, the original plans included extra-special features. However, finances eventually tabled the grand but unrealistic Alta Heights plans for an aviation field, amusement center, academy and hiking trails. Only the academy was partially realized with the construction of the Alta Heights Elementary School.