You are the owner of this article.

Here's the story behind some familiar Napa sights

  • 6 min to read
Sawyer tannery water tower

The water tower at the former Sawyer tannery in south Napa during a storm this spring.

Take a look around Napa and there are plenty of oft-seen sights with overlooked, behind-the-scenes stories.

Some sights are eye-catching, such as the elevated metal water tower in the southern part of Napa. It has a long history tied to the now-gone local tanning industry and a new, 21st-century function.

Others blend in with the scenery as they serve important functions. For example, a rectangular building down the street from the water tower is indispensable, even though passersby might not give it a second thought.

Showy or subdued, the following structures and places are part of the fabric of Napa life.

Water tower

Just like the classic American small town of yesteryear, the city of Napa has a can’t-miss-it elevated water tower that approaching visitors can see.

That is the metal tower on the Sawyer Tannery property along the Napa River at 68 South Coombs St. It stands 140 feet tall, rivaled in height in this part of the city only by the graceful Imola Avenue bridge.

“It’s most definitely a landmark, as far as visually,” said Rebecca Yerger of Napa County Landmarks.

The tower is on the city’s historical resources inventory list. Also, it gets the star treatment in the city’s development guidelines for the Tannery Bend area.

“New buildings constructed in the vicinity of the water tower should defer to it visually,” the guidelines say.

F.A. Sawyer opened the Sawyer Tannery in 1869 and by 1925 the company could turn out 1,400 sides per day of upper leather for shoes. Long-time local resident Peter Manasse remembers the water tower from the early 1940s, when his father worked at the tannery.

“It was definitely built before my time,” Manasse said. “There wasn’t a lot of water pressure in the city when they built it. They just built a tower and filled it with water and used the water for the tanning.”

He and his family lived on Elm Street and they could hear the whistle mounted on the water tower blow every day at 4 p.m. That whistle was part of the routine of small-town Napa.

“That was the time we knew dad was going to come home from work,” Manasse said.

Dogs heard the whistle and expected dinner, he said.

Sawyer Tannery closed in 1990 and its buildings were occupied by small businesses and artists. In the early 2000s, a local real estate development company bought the property, water tower and all. Today, the old Sawyer property is listed on the Rudd Properties website as having 85,000 square feet of mixed use/commercial space.

Chris Economou of Rudd Properties said the Sawyer tannery water tower is iconic and brands the site.

“I think it will stay as long as it’s in good condition, which it is,” he said.

The water tower no longer holds water, but in the mid-1990s started transitioning to a new function. That’s when property owners began mounting cellular equipment around the tank.

In October 2011, the water tower became the focus of high-altitude drama. A 22-year-old transient climbed atop the tank and didn’t come down for more than six hours, at one point throwing a can with rocks at police below.

Elevated water towers in California are a diminishing breed. Manteca, Chico and Stockton are among the cities that have demolished towers in recent years in favor of ground-level tanks, for fear that earthquakes might send millions of gallons of water gushing down.

Napa had an official city elevated water tower built in 1904 on Pine Street near Shearer school. It lasted until 1946. In what amounted to an obituary, The Napa Register that year called it an “imposing landmark” slated to be cut up by torches and sold for scrap.

But Napa still has the Sawyer Tannery water tank as a landmark, albeit a privately owned, empty tank now used for cellular antennas.

Hazard Hill

Along the busy stretch of Napa Valley Vine Trail near South Napa Century Center and Imola Avenue is a hill with a metal gate blocking the rutted path leading up it.

Hazard hill

The gate on this hill near the Vine Trail and the South Napa Century Center is a dredge disposal site.

“No trespassing. Hazards may exist,” reads white writing on a red sign posted on the gate. That’s it. There’s no elaboration.

What lurks on top of the small hill? A rattlesnake pit? A nuclear waste dump? The imagination could run wild, though the fact that the hill isn’t fenced in argues against the direst interpretations. Anyone could easily walk around the gate.

In reality, the hill is a dredge disposal site. Muck sucked up from the Napa River channel is deposited there, such as when the Army Corps of Engineers in 2016 did a dredge job.

The sides of the hill are really levees, said Phillip Miller of the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. Dredge spoils are pumped to the site to be dewatered until the district finds a use for them, such as fill for construction projects.

At the crest of Hazard Hill, the sight isn’t impressive. The terrain is slightly crater-like, with weeds, cracked soil and metal pipes.

Hazard Hill history dates to 1980. That’s when the Army Corps of Engineers was ready to dredge the Napa River channel and required the county to provide a place to dump the silt.

The Napa County Flood Control District chose this site owned by the Napa Sanitation District near Imola Avenue. Napa San previously had its sewage treatment plant there, prior to relocating the plant to today’s site near the airport industrial area. Napa San officials in April 1980 agreed up to six acres could be a dumping ground for dredge spoils.

And so it has gone over the years. Only in recent years, with the coming of the local Vine Trail segment, have people seen the site on a regular basis, though.

So Hazard Hill isn’t such an ominous place after all. While not for public use, it’s no Superfund site or other toxic blot on the wine country landscape.

Pump station

A nondescript mystery building near the busy corner of Imola Avenue and South Coombs Street in the city of Napa helps keep the local toilets flushing.

NapaSan building

The Napa Sanitation District pump house on South Coombs Street is used to pump sewage under the Napa River to pipes on the other side. It is to be replaced.

The West Napa Pump Station is the size of a small store. It is painted tan with red and yellow sections near the bottom and has three doors facing the street and no windows. A Spanish-style roof adds a dash of character to a utilitarian building.

Inside are two 100-horsepower pumps and one 35- horsepower pump. They pump raw sewage from the southwest city under the Napa River and into a 66-inch-diameter pipe that leads to the sewage treatment plant in the airport industrial area.

Better look at the pump station soon, though. Napa Sanitation District plans to knock it down in coming months and replace it with a new, improved, $10 million version.

“That building will be gone and we’ll be going to a different style of pump station,” Napa Sanitation District General Manager Tim Healy said. “It will be a submerged pump station. The next building will be smaller.”

The existing pump station has passed its useful life and doesn’t have adequate capacity. With the upcoming Browns Valley Trunk Project, the sewer system will be moving more wastewater to the station more quickly, he said.

A pump station has existed on the South Coombs Street site since just after the birth of the Napa Sanitation District in 1945. Before then, the community simply poured its sewage into the Napa River, resulting in water quality described in a contemporary The Napa Register article as “highly septic.”

The Napa Sanitation District’s first sewage treatment plant was located on the east side of the Napa River near Imola Avenue. In 1948, the agency built the first version of the West Napa Pump Station to pump sewage generated west of the Napa River under the river to the plant.

The pump station by the early 1970s wasn’t always doing the job. Heavy rains would overload its capacity and that led to some raw sewage flowing into the Napa River.

“It couldn’t be very much,” then-district Manager Carl Lynch told The Napa Register.

It was too much for the state, which ordered the Napa Sanitation District to upgrade the pump station. The district did so in 1979, creating the version that is seen today.

The district in the late 1970s moved its sewage treatment plant from near Imola Avenue to several miles south, near the airport industrial area, where it remains. But a pump station is still needed to move sewage produced by homes and businesses on the west side of the Napa River to treatment facilities on the east side.

All of this makes this nondescript South Coombs Street building among the more important in Napa.

Channel markers

Landlubbers looking at the Napa River in and near the city of Napa might wonder about the periodic pilings sticking up 20 or so feet into the air with orange triangles containing numbers.

Channel markers

Channel markers in the Napa River guide boaters so they don't run their vessels aground in the shallow areas.

Even the least nautical probably know these structures have something to do with boating. After all, they sure aren’t lifeguard towers.

These markers maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard tell boaters where the deep water is so they can avoid shallow areas. Napa Valley Yacht Club Commodore William Carol Moore said boaters follow them along the Napa River from Vallejo to Napa.

“There’s a lot of shallow water in the river,” Moore said. “If you have a boat that has a five-foot draft, you have to be careful to stay in the channel.”

New channel markers went up in the river near downtown Napa in 2005, the Napa Valley Register reported that year. They reflected the new reality of the flood control project that created marsh terraces to handle flood waters.

“When the tide is high, the river looks very big,” Moore said.

But much of that water is covering mudflats just below the surface. The channel markers guide boaters to keep them from running aground.

Moore noted that boaters travel to the Napa Valley Yacht Club dock from around the Bay Area. Some of the trips are cruises to the area by other yacht clubs. On a recent weekend, 46 boats came from Sausalito Yacht Club and other clubs.

“We get a lot of traffic here,” Moore said. “It’s a good draw for the city.”

These are boaters who might not know all the nuances of the local Napa River. The channel markers are their guide.

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News