To Napa old-timers, the name “Alta Heights” conjures up all kinds of memories, whether you grew up there or not. Everyone has a favorite experience to reflect on, whether it be a game of pick-up baseball at the school, throwing the football in the street, walking up to the now non-existent reservoir, flying down Montecito Boulevard on bikes, Halloween egg fights or parking with their “steady” on a dirt road lovers’ lanes high in the hills overlooking the twinkling lights of the city.
From almost any part of town, then and now, Alta Heights can easily be spotted looming directly above the eastern edge of downtown, and bounded by Silverado Trail to the west, Clark Street on the north, the high, rock-strewn ridge on the top of the hill to the east and Coombsville Road to the south.
History doesn’t record who coined the name Alta Heights, but it’s an oddly redundant name in that alta means “high” in Spanish.
The entire area was incorporated into the city of Napa in 1875, but remained largely undeveloped until the early 1900s. Then it was developed for residential use, beginning with the land just east of Silverado Trail and west of East Avenue. Many Italian families moved here after the Great Quake of 1906 and the area became known as Little Italy.
By the 1930s and 1940s, the staunchly middle-class residential neighborhoods had expanded eastward up the hill from East Avenue, which was a dirt road. Prior to that time, the city dump was located in a small valley near what is today known as Julian Street. As expansion approached the dumpsite, it was closed and covered over in the late 1940s.
One wonders if people who’ve paid nearly $1 million or more recently for houses in that area know what is directly under their feet.
By the 1950s, houses began popping up on the ridge at the top of Alta Heights where they can still be seen today.
This was before there was any cachet to living in the Napa Valley, and the need of the day was affordable homes for the hundreds of workers at nearby Mare Island, Basalt Rock Company and Kaiser Steel. To accommodate the children of the new residents, Alta Heights Elementary School was built and opened in 1949.
Also opened in 1949 was the Alta Heights Reservoir, christened on April 3 in a ceremony attended by mayors past and present, as well as other local dignitaries including Miss Napa County. But don’t look for that reservoir today; it was replaced by a 5-million-gallon underground cement tank in 2000 and all that remains visible is a stagnant pond in what is now known as Lakeview Park.
Joy Eldredge, water general manager for the City of Napa, said it was a water quality issue that doomed the Alta Heights Reservoir. But treated water is still pumped into the storage tank from various sites around Napa, and that water is sent to the Napa downtown area via a pipe system that’s easily visible behind Alta Heights Elementary School, she said.
The best descriptions of Alta Heights are from the people who grew up there and still live there today.
Kirk Candland, who was general manager at the Silverado Resort for some 30 years, recalls reading once in the San Francisco Chronicle that: “Alta Heights is the Berkeley of the Napa Valley.”
“It’s very quirky in Alta Heights,” he said. “The neighborhoods are just so unique. The people who live there now are a younger group. I was raised in Alta Heights, and when I was born in 1950, my father was building the house I grew up in on Montecito, across from the Mormon Church.
“Back then, there weren’t homes around there, it was very rural,” he remembered. “My dad bought a piece of land from the Mormon church, as did a couple of other neighbors up there, that’s when the Montecito development started. When you got a couple hundred yards past the church on Montecito, it was just a dirt road. Back behind us on Julian was a dirt road that that wasn’t paved until the early ‘60s.
“One of the early houses on Montecito that I own today was where the Napa Valley Horseman’s Association used to be, up by the reservoir. We have a well on that property the NVHA had put in for their horses.”
There was a lot more freedom for youngsters in those days, Candland said.
“Alta Heights was a wonderful place to grow up because we were more or less in the country and you could go out and shoot your BB gun and all that kind of stuff. We also enjoyed walking down the hill to a Chinese market on Silverado Trail or through the cemetery to the market over on Coombsville Road. If we were riding our bikes, we could really get up some speed coming down the hill.”
Like many young boys, Candland had a Napa Register newspaper route.
“Route 100, I remember it well,” he said. “There was a trailer park near where the condos are now, and there were some sketchy people in there. I got stung so many times because I would deliver papers to people for the first three weeks of the month, and when I could go back to collect in the fourth week, their trailer would be gone.”
“That old barn on East Avenue has been there as long as I can remember. I delivered papers to the people across the street and got bit by their big collie once. I saw the owner of that house years later at Silverado and reminded him of that,” he laughed.
“It was a working-class area then and the parents of a lot of people who lived up there worked at Mare Island, Basalt or Kaiser Steel. My dad was a pharmaceutical representative for Ely Lilly for 35 years and then worked as a pharmacist at the Queen of the Valley.” We eventually sold our family home across from the church to a prominent local attorney after my dad moved into a retirement community.”
Many Napa folk will recall the lower parts of Alta Heights were known as Little Italy. “Back in those days, there was an amazing number of Italians in this area. Alta Heights was filled with them. Joe Vallerga’s big farm was right across Silverado Trail,” Candland said.
But, he recalled, a lot of prominent Napans lived in Alta Heights back in the ‘50s and ‘60 because the upper parts were kind of the newer area before Monticello Park got going.”
“It was rural up on the ridge, you had some great vistas up there, particularly at night. We used to hike up to the cup and saucer (a prominent rock formation) before there were houses there for the view, which was a full day’s hike,” he recalled. “We would also hang out by the reservoir, which was fenced off with barbed wire so you couldn’t swim, but I absolutely saw some rattlesnakes around there. We still get deer that come down through the school; a lot of skunks, there’s even been talk of some bobcats. You go up to Meek Avenue and around there and it’s not surprising to see a bobcats even today.”
Candland, like most kids who grew up in Alta Heights after 1950, went to the newly opened Alta Heights Elementary School.
“I just walked down the hill then,” he said. “But now, even for kids as old as fifth or sixth grade who live close by, their parents have to walk them to school. We used to walk and ride our bikes everywhere and no one worried. Some of my better friends in the area were Warren Wilkens, John Vallerga and Jim Lyons, to name a few. There were so few people around us, we would go out on Montecito and throw the football around. You can’t do that now.”
“I was raised in the Mormon Church on Montecito, and we are still very active in the church. I remember Halloween in Alta Heights. Classic,” he said. “People would go up on the lawn of the church with eggs and wait for cars of teenagers to come up Montecito. People would run to hide in our carport sometimes when they were being chased. That was the hot spot in Napa on Halloween.”
When Candland was finished with elementary school, he went to the newly constructed Silverado Junior High on Coombsville Road.
“In those days, we used to go down to Catania’s Pizza on Silverado and play the pinball machines,” he said.
He said he and his wife had moved back to the Alta Heights area, into a rental they had owned, not so much for nostalgic reasons, but because it is a great neighborhood.
“We came back to Alta Heights because of the proximity to downtown. You can sit on your porch and listen to BottleRock and it’s actually clearer than if you were sitting in front of the stage.”
“The young people are gravitating to Alta Heights because of that. You can go downtown without having to get into your car. People just want to be able to walk to a restaurant,” he said. “The diversity of the architecture and the nature of people who make up the residents now also make Alta Heights a great place.”
Candland hears some of the old-timers talk about how they wish things had not changed in the area, but he remembers when it was not so sublime.
“This was a challenging area back way back when, and it wasn’t very nice. Tacky is too nice a word for it. A lot of buildings around here were dumps, and now they’ve been upgraded. We had businesses like auto dismantlers and trailer parks.”
And, of course, as is the case in other parts of Napa, a lot of the homes in Alta Heights are not occupied by the owners.
“There are an amazing number of VRBO (vacation rentals by owner) and Air B&Bs around us. I saw the calendar of one of these houses recently and it was rented 250 days last year at $300 a night.”
Christine (Pighini) Chapdelaine is a year older than Candland and grew up just a block away (if you were using one of the many dirt trails to cut through) on Julian Street. Chapdelaine’s family came to Napa at the turn of the 20th century from Italy by way of New York City.
“My Italian grandmother came to Napa in 1903 with her mother when she was 7 years and they settled on Spring Street,” she said. “Her husband had come three years earlier, because there wasn’t enough money for the whole family to come together. I’m just amazed at the commitment that these couples had towards one another.”
Like many immigrants, Chapdelaine’s great grandfather came through Ellis Island in New York Harbor.
“My great grandfather didn’t have enough money to go beyond Ellis Island so the plan was for him to work. The family lore says that he had a very long beard and a very wealthy lady saw him walking down the streets of New York and decided it was the perfect match for her hair,” she said. “He sold his beard to her for five dollars and he was able to come to San Francisco by train and then up to Napa.”
Chapdelaine said when her grandmother and other siblings arrived, she didn’t recognize him because when he left she was about three or four years old and had never known him without a beard.
“They lived in Alta Heights at 85 Spring St. where my grandmother and her husband later married and lived. My dad was born in that house in 1918,” Chapdelaine said.
“My grandmother said that they would walk to church to the old St John’s that is no longer there, and when they would walk home the old Italians would be on their porches playing their accordions. She said it was really, really cool and she loved it,” Chapdelaine said. This experience was corroborated by Napa author and retired Judge Raymond Guadagni in his recent book, “The Adventures of the Squeezebox Kid.”
Chapdelaine said her family and the other Italians in the area loved the Alta Heights neighborhood because it reminded them of northern Italy with the oak trees and the brown rolling hills.
So why Napa? It’s a long way from Italy, particularly when you are coming by ship and train.
“They came here because back then Napa was known for dairy, and the Italians were very good at milking and taking care of cows,” Chapdelaine said. “When my grandmother came over from Italy as a little girl, all kinds of extended family came along including her grandfather.”
“My grandfather did various jobs, including milking and working for the Italian French bakery that was behind where Brewster’s used to be downtown. I remember it as a little girl because I would go there and buy focaccia.”
Sometimes, working in a bakery gives you away in ticklish situations.
“I was told that he was to be Santa Claus at a family gathering and the kids spotted the flour on his shoes and knew right away it was ‘Nando,’ (short for Fernando)” Chapdelaine said.
“My grandfather lived across First Street from the Oxbow in a little house on the riverbank. He had a horse and buggy and would come up to our house in Spring Street in Alta Heights and pick up all the kids and take the whole group of them prune picking so that they would be out of their parents’ hair.”
Chapdelaine smiled, remembering there were probably more prunes thrown than picked by the youngsters.
“My brother Larry (Lorenzo) and I probably threw more prunes at each other than we picked. They were hot and juicy and they hurt.”
She said her father, Joe Pighini, spoke only Italian when he first attempted Napa’s original elementary school, Lincoln. But in kindergarten, the kids were allowed to speak only English so he eventually lost his ability to speak in his native tongue.
“During the Depression,” Chapdelaine said, “the Italians would shoot robins to flavor their gravy. My grandmother said that’s what they survived on, just that gravy over noodles and that was it. They also picked the cherry plums from the trees on the Alta Heights hills to make what they called ‘depression jelly.’ It was really sour because sugar was too scarce to use in jelly.”
“Money was scarce back then, in addition to working at several different auto repair places including Jobe’s Auto Repair, which is still here and the old Oldsmobile garage, which is not, he later also worked as a tow truck driver at night,” Chapdelaine said.
The lifelong Napan said her father’s job as a tow truck driver was more interesting that anyone imagined.
“You wouldn’t believe the prominent men that he picked up at the brothel down on Seminary and Third in the ‘40s and ‘50s because their car wasn’t working and had to be towed,” she said. “He never ever shared names because he was too much of a gentleman to do that, but he did say May Howard, the madam, was famous, and that her place had lots of rooms.”
She said that while her father was considered to be a city boy, her mother, O’Leta, grew up “in the sticks” near Healdsburg in very primitive conditions.
“I was born in Napa in 1949 and I was number 3 of 4,” she said. “When mom and dad married, Alta Heights was a cow pasture and East Avenue was a dirt road. When we moved to Julian Avenue, the only other house on the street belonged to the tax assessor, Ken Hotelling. Mom and dad bought from old man Trissel.”
Chapdelaine’s parents forbade their children from going there. “But of course we did,” she said. “We would cut through down there to walk to Silverado Junior High.”
Chapdelaine said her parents bought a 100- by 300-foot lot with six giant oak trees on it.
“Mr. Trissel was selling them for $300. But he charged my parents $50 more because there of the six oak trees. It was a handshake deal, pay as you go. Back then your word meant something,” she said.
“They had to take down one oak tree because it was growing into the house, but the three in the backyard are still there,” Chapdelaine said.
The early days of Alta Heights featured some rather unusual household pets that you are not likely to see anymore.
“When I was a little girl, my sister was good friends with a girl named Bobbie who lived in the house where I live now. When my sister Janice would go over to visit she discovered they had a caged mountain lion in the backyard, which, believe it or not, was somewhat common around here at the time,” she said. “When I finally saw the animal, it scared the bejeebies out of me because the mountain lion would pace and always keep his eyes on me. I had nightmares forever that it was going to come through my bedroom window.”
But the house across the street had one more secret that didn’t come out until after the fact. Elvis Presley once dined there during the 1960 Napa Valley filming of “Wild in the Country,” his seventh film. Turns out one of the older kids at her neighbor’s house was working on the film, and invited Presley over to dinner one night.
Chapdelaine said she was told the rock ‘n’ roll star was tired of being cooped up at Napa’s Casa Lu Al motel (now known as the Wine Valley Lodge), and jumped at the invitation.
“Of course no one was allowed to know,” she said. “Can you imagine the mob scene over there had people known?”
Chapdelaine said they were never far away from a drink of cool, fresh water. “There were underground springs that would just bubble up. That was cool. We could just lean down and get a drink of water whenever we wanted and we never got sick. However, I would always end up with a major case of poison oak,” she grimaced.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the lunch counter at Woolworths was a popular spot to take a break after shopping at nearby JC Penney or other downtown stores.
“We used to go down to the Woolworths for the grilled cheese and the fries. And I remember my girlfriends and I would wear pegged pants with solid color sweatshirts, and curlers in our hair with bonnets that matched the sweatshirts.”
She eventually returned to her roots and purchased a home on Ramona Avenue in 1997, just a block and a half from her childhood home.
“I love it up here, it’s still very peaceful and there’s a lot of wildlife around.”
As proof, the day of our interview we spotted a doe and her fawn wandering down Montecito Boulevard near the Mormon church in broad daylight. Chapdelaine said she occasionally rents out her spare bedrooms and because of the many frogs around, had to get earplugs for my guests to wear at night so they could get to sleep.
Her comfortable home is decorated with many watercolor paintings by her mother, who she said had a real eye for things in nature. The paintings include many historical Napa houses and buildings.
Take a drive, bike ride or a walk around lower Alta Heights today and you will find the neighborhoods almost exactly as they were when first settled.