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Napa County Historical Society offers aerial views of Napa Valley from yesteryear

Napa County Historical Society offers aerial views of Napa Valley from yesteryear


Local residents who want to see old Napa Valley from a new perspective can do so at the latest exhibit presented by the Napa County Historical Society.

Called “Above the Valley,” the show opens Friday at the Goodman Library in downtown Napa.

It includes 45 items – most of which are aerial photos of Napa County from the 1940s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The earliest photos depict a Napa Valley with far less development than today. In many areas, orchards, not vineyards, dominated.

“Our new exhibit showcases a portion of our oversized aerial photography collection,” wrote interim Executive Director Liz Alessio in an email.

The goal of the show is to help visitors “explore the borders and boundaries of the land, while uncovering stories and places outside of our city center.”

The images certainly do present a different look at the county landscape. In one series of black and white prints from the 1940s, Napa Valley orchards viewed from far overhead look like grids of tiny dots. Rivers and creeks twist like oak tree branches. Stick-straight man-made railways and streets bisect natural land masses.

The photos have been collected by the society or donated to it over many years. Some were taken in the 1940s by the U.S. government to study soil conservation, explained Nikelle Riggs, research librarian.

While she worked to assemble the display, “I fell in love with the photos,” said Riggs. The variety of textures captured in the photos, such as forests or wetlands, are remarkable to her, she said.

“When I first saw these pictures I was surprised at how beautiful everything was,” said Kelly O’Connor, exhibit curator intern. Much more detail can be seen in a print photo compared to photos that are available only online.

Another component of the project was the fact that not all of the photos were labeled, O’Connor noted. “It’s been a big adventure trying to figure out what everything is.”

Riggs said that one of her favorite aerial images depicts the Brazos Bridge over the Napa River south of Napa from long ago. A remarkable story is paired with that image, she noted. According to local news reports of the times, in both 1959 and 1983, parts of two different trains fell off the railroad tracks and into the river.

Because of the large size of some of the printed photos, those images are not usually as accessible, so the exhibit is a chance for the public to see them all at once, said organizers.

Together, the photos “capture a moment in time,” said Riggs. And perhaps that moment will give visitors a new perspective of Napa County and the land use issues that the county faces today.

In keeping with the “Above the Valley” theme, the exhibit will also include memorabilia from the Napa County airport, such as a windsock apparatus, a vintage landing strip marker and even rubble from the original landing strip.

Adjacent to that display, visitors will be able to see memorabilia from Napa Parks and Recreation projects such as an Australian Bunya Bunya pine cone from Fuller Park and obsidian from Glass Mountain and Yountville areas.

Other vintage photos of Stornetta Dairy, the Petrified Forest, Conn Dam, Napa State Hospital and American Canyon will also be featured.

Rounding out the aerial theme, an actual basket – or gondola — from a hot-air balloon will be installed as well.

Displaying archives like these is important, said Riggs. “It keeps history alive.”

You can reach Jennifer Huffman at 256-2218 or

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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