Calistoga is celebrating the 125th birthday of its official incorporation — Jan. 6, 1886 — but this northernmost Napa Valley town’s long history dates to pioneer times in the 1840s.
Memoirs from some the earliest settlers provide a glimpse of Calistoga’s early years when the wildness of the upper Napa Valley was soon tamed by the arrival of a railroad and the founding of Calistoga as a destination spa community.
Elizabeth Cyrus Wright, the daughter of two pioneers who became the town librarian, wrote in her book, “The Early Upper Napa Valley,” about the first settlers in the early- to mid-1840s.
John York is credited with building the first pioneer home in Calistoga in 1845 at the mouth of Kortum Canyon, near the present-day intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. A California Historical Landmark plaque marks its site. York is also credited with planting the first wheat field in the Calistoga area.
Wright’s pioneer father, John Cyrus, described the area at the time as being “an unfenced park” filled with wildlife.
Ira Clayton Adams, who moved to Calistoga as an 8-year-old boy in 1882, wrote in his “Memoirs and Anecdotes of Early Days in Calistoga” about the Elliot family who lived near the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Main Street.
When the men went on hunting trips, Mrs. Elliot and the children slept on cots on a platform set up in the tree. “This was done as a precautionary measure, as the bears and the lions and other wild animals came around the place every night,” Adams wrote.
The Calistoga area was originally known as Aqua Caliente, later translated to Hot Springs. According to Wright, in 1852 the Napa County Board of Supervisors officially recognized three townships: Napa, Yount and Hot Springs.
These springs attracted the attention of Sam Brannan, a San Franciscan who purchased a 2,000-acre tract of Hot Springs township in 1859.
Regardless of his true intentions (or sobriety), Brannan was responsible for the name Calistoga when he tried to predict that his new town would be the Saratoga of California, and tangled his words.
He also campaigned for infrastructure improvements such as a telegraph service and the Napa Valley Railroad, both reaching Calistoga by 1867-68. Brannan left Calistoga with a reputation as a renowned resort destination.
“When I came to Calistoga, there were no improved sidewalks of any sort except on Lincoln Avenue,” Adams said of his boyhood in the 1880s.
Wooden planks were laid over ditches along the street edges, “and if and when a board was broken, a stake was stuck in the break and a lantern was hung to warn pedestrians of danger,” he said.
In many areas, “it was quite a common thing for the water to get up over the walk, and it was not a pleasant feeling to have it splash up over one’s shoes and clothes.”
“In these cases, many choice words of the English language were wasted on the winter air,” Adams said.
In 1890 Adams and several friends set up a telegraph line connecting their homes. “This was a source of amusement for all of us,” he wrote. This close-knit community is proud of its native sons and daughters, Adams noted. “There is a magnolia tree in my yard that was planted in honor of William Arms who was the first boy from Calistoga to go to war,” he wrote. “This was the First World War.”
A strong sense of community helped Calistogans rebuild after two major fires in 1901 and 1907. “The first and largest one occurred on Friday, Aug. 3, 1901,” Adams wrote. “It was a very hot day and the extreme heat exploded two drums of gasoline in back of the John Wolf store on Lincoln Avenue.”
“The firemen ran the hose-cart down in front of the building where the fire started and attached the hose there, but the heat was so intense and the flames spread so rapidly that they were unable to get to the hydrant where the hose was fastened. So burned where it lay.
“At that time of the year, the pressure on the pipes was very low anyway and when the hose was gone, there was nothing that could be done to combat the flames.”
The fire quickly consumed many of the Lincoln Avenue buildings. People scrambled to save what they could, including Homer Hurst, who rushed into the burning City Hall.
According to Adams, Hurst rushed “up the burning stairs and breaking open the locker, removed the (official) records and thus they were saved.”
At the train depot, a railcar loaded with gun powder was moved out of harms way.
Adams, 27, performed a heroic act of his own. He was working at the time at Grauss’ store and “remembered a barrel of salmon bellies that we had just received.”
Adams rushed into the store, smashed open the barrel top with an ax and filled two buckets with the brine, “and with this the men on the roof put out the little fires, so from there on to the railroad, the buildings were saved,” he wrote.
Calistogans quickly began to rebuild. “As soon as the 1901 fire was over, and while the ashes were still hot, Charley Kimball, Rual Kimball and Frank Butterfield ordered lumber and put up a little building and were dispensing liquors as usual in a day or two,” Adams wrote.