These are the big dreams that got away.
Napa County would be a different place today, if some of these plans from the past had become reality. Possible game-changers included a world-famous university in Calistoga, a Lake Berryessa holding 10 times the water and a BART connection.
These were more than idle daydreams. Each actually had a chance to come true. In some case, in-depth studies were made.
Here are the dreams, the dreamers and what could have been.
Larger Lake Berryessa
Lake Berryessa in eastern Napa County is big, but could have been much bigger.
The federal government in 1957 finished building Monticello Dam to create a reservoir 23 miles long and three miles wide holding up to 1.4 million acre feet of water. In 1963, Gov. Pat Brown wanted to increase the capacity to 14 million acre feet.
Brown and the state Department of Water Resources called for building a Greater Berryessa Dam a mile downstream from 300-foot-tall, concrete Monticello Dam, which would be removed. The new dam across Putah Creek would be 650 feet tall and made from earth and rock fill.
The Berryessa watershed couldn’t provide enough water to fill this bigger lake. Extra water would be imported from the Eel River basin, a state report said.
This behemoth Berryessa wasn’t to be created immediately. But it would be created in coming decades – say, by 2020.
“Reservoir areas in the state are becoming limited, and this is probably the most favorable site in Northern California,” George Baumley of the Department of Water Resources said.
The rural community of Circle Oaks was begun in the 1960s about six miles from Lake Berryessa. A sales brochure made the nearby lake a selling point – and hinted that Berryessa might someday be bigger, coming to the foothills of the development.
David Heitzman bought a lot in Circle Oaks in the early 1980s for $9,000. He recently considered how his life might be different if the community had become lakefront property.
“I probably couldn’t afford to live here,” he said with a laugh.
Perhaps a bigger Berryessa would have led to the fulfillment of the original Circle Oaks building proposals, Heitzman said. The community master plan called for an air strip, 18-hole golf course and shopping area.
As it is, Heitzman said, Circle Oaks has a Country Club Lane, but no country club.
The bigger Berryessa idea resurfaced in 1981. In this version, extra water would be pumped to the lake for storage from the Sacramento River through a canal and 2.3-mile-long tunnel.
Downsides included an estimated cost topping $2 billion. Also, a state report said, 1,000 year-round residents and up to 4,000 mobile home residents would need relocating. Habitat for 3,000 deer would be flooded.
These days, water officials talk about building a new Sites reservoir in Colusa County or a higher dam for Lake Shasta instead of expanding Lake Berryessa.
Stanford University in Calistoga
Various articles over the years have stated that Leland Stanford in the 1880s considered Calistoga as a site for Stanford University. One article can be found on the Visit Napa Valley website.
Certainly the famed railroad tycoon and former California governor had a Calistoga connection. In early 1885, he came to Calistoga to buy land for what was then described as a “mammoth” hotel.
Stanford targeted the Calistoga Springs property as a spot to replace the Hotel Del Monte in Monterrey. That Monterrey venture was unsuccessful because of its distance from San Francisco and cold winds, The Weekly Calistogan reported on Jan. 28, 1885 .
Bigger news came in the Sept. 2, 1885 edition of The Weekly Calistogan. Stanford was about to spend $10 million on establishing an education institute and Calistoga Springs was the rumored location-to-be, the paper reported.
“We hope our Calistoga readers will not immediately assume an air of importance after reading the following,” the paper said.
It’s easy to see why the rumor gained credence. The Sacramento Bee reported Stanford had invited F.A. Walker, president of the Institute of Technology, to Calistoga Springs for two weeks to confer with him on educational matters.
No further articles mention Stanford bringing his university to Calistoga. Stanford had previously talked about establishing the institution at his Palo Alto farm in the southern Bay Area and that’s what happened.
“It was a passing thought,” Calistoga resident and history buff Dean Enderlin said. “I doubt it ever made it past that point.”
Calistoga at the time needed something good to happen, which might have led citizens to engage in wishful thinking. The resort business had languished and phylloxera was hurting vineyards.
“It was a one-two punch for Calistoga,” Enderlin said.
Had Calistoga landed Stanford University, it would be a different place today. The question is how different.
“It would have been a much larger community, that’s for sure,” Enderlin said. “It probably would have diminished (Calistoga’s) importance in agriculture and made it a university town.”
Could Napa Valley with that educational powerhouse have ended up as Silicon Valley? Or, as Supervisor Diane Dillon suggested, would a Calistoga location have changed Stanford University?
“Maybe it would have been a smaller institution with fewer disciplines,” Dillon said.
A Calistoga-based Stanford University might have had less infrastructure available than the one in Palo Alto. Perhaps water supplies and roads and mountains on three sides of a narrow valley would have limited its growth.
Enderlin said Stanford’s educational institute in Calistoga might have ended up more like today’s Pacific Union College in Angwin.
The Calistoga Springs property was a mere 55 acres, about the size of today’s Vintage High School in Napa. Stanford instead donated his 650-acre Palo Alto farm for the university and through subsequent purchases brought the total to more than 8,000 acres, of which 60 percent remains open.
BART comes to Napa
The idea of Bay Area Rapid Transit stops in Napa County was once on the drawing boards.
That dream looked possible in 1957, when BART was still only an idea. A map from that era shows the future system extending over the Carquinez Strait at two locations into Vallejo, going north to the city of Napa and east through Jameson Canyon to Fairfield.
The Napa Sunday Journal editorial of Feb. 24, 1957, called for a great deal of caution. BART could end up being too great a cost to Napa County for too distant a benefit, it said.
“Napa was to be the last county which would be reached by the system, perhaps a decade from the present time,” the paper said.
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Caution won the day. Napa County didn’t end up part of the BART district that could levy a property tax of 5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
The dream was still alive among local officials in 1964, though some envisioned BART reaching Napa County through Marin and Sonoma counties, not Solano County.
“Bay Area Rapid Transit will eventually come to Napa,” county Supervisor N.D. Clark said that year. “A new bridge across the Golden Gate with rapid transit facilities will have to be constructed first.”
Meanwhile, Napa County played a role in making BART a reality in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties. Kaiser Steel along the Napa River in the late 1960s fabricated 23,000 steel tunnel liner rings for 12 miles of tunnels. Each ring was 18 feet in diameter and weighed three tons.
BART opened in 1972. Since then, there have been additional discussions about extending it toward Napa County.
For example, in 1990, the BART president urged Solano County to support extending the system over the Benicia Bridge to Vallejo. Solano County leaders balked at the $1.4 billion estimated cost. They instead backed creating the Capitol Corridor Amtrak passenger train system on existing tracks.
Today, the Napa County BART dream seems more distant than ever.
For one thing, there is the price. The recent 5.4-mile Warm Springs extension in Fremont, including a new station, cost $146 million per mile. A Napa connection would stretch some 20 miles, cross the Carquinez Strait and pass through Solano County, which has yet to show interest.
Napa County would never be able to pay for such an undertaking on its own, Napa Valley Transportation Authority Executive Director Kate Miller said.
Miller sees a more realistic rail dream for Napa County – running passenger trains between Suisun City and Novato on existing tracks, with a stop at American Canyon. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in 2019 studied the idea.
“I think that probably the best way to focus our energies is on that,” Miller said.
An airport in Oakville was not a dream, but a reality in the early days of aviation.
George Hansen in 1926 went to Chicago for lessons in airplane construction. In 1927, he tried to convince the city of Napa to build an airport. In December, 1927, Hansen and his father built an airport near Oakville.
“This will be the first airport to be in the county and should attract many flyers to Oakville when wanting to land in this section,” the Dec. 16, 1927 St. Helena Star reported.
It was first, but just barely. St. Helena shortly thereafter established a small municipal airport three-quarters of a mile from its downtown, according to the St. Helena newspaper.
Aviation-mania was sweeping America at the time. Charles Lindbergh had just made the first solo trans-Atlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis.
The Oakville east-west runway was marked with flags to be visible from the air. A weathercock showed fliers the wind direction. A hangar went up in 1928. The small biplanes and monoplanes of the day had a place to land in Napa County.
By 1933, Hansen was manager of the Oakville airport. More than a thousand flights were made there in 1932, mostly by students, with no accidents, he reported.
A barnstormer stopped by the airport in 1932 and flew passengers at a cost of one cent per pound. A 1934 air show drew a crowd, with onlookers watching a parachute jump and taking $1 plane rides.
Then, just like that, it was over. In 1934, the airport was plowed over for farming. Possibly, Pacific, Gas & Electric had something to do with its demise, given the utility in 1931 had built power lines that threatened airplane safety.
Today, Napa County Airport near the wetlands in the south county is the county’s biggest airport. Airport Manager Greg Baer said the Oakville airport, if it had survived, is unlikely to ever have achieved this status.
“For larger aircraft, the topography is definitely an obstacle,” he said.
Napa County Airport was built during World War II in one of the flattest parts of the county.
Perhaps a small Oakville airport, if things had gone differently, would have had a place in the heart of Napa County’s wine country. Or maybe local leaders would have ultimately considered it a bad fit.
John Reber was a man with a plan – a plan to transform the region’s bays from salty, tidal bodies into giant reservoirs providing fresh water to cities and farms. Some Napa County leaders were intrigued.
The school teacher and actor wanted to make his mark. He shopped his Reber Plan for a couple of decades, including at then Gov. Earl Warren’s California Water Conference in 1945.
“I am John Reber and starting in 1907, on my own initiative, in my desire to do something for the State of California and the nation – I had a knack for planning – so I worked for 25 years to work out a plan,” Reber told the conference.
Dams would go in on San Francisco Bay near San Quentin and Richmond to the north and the Bay Bridge to the south. Near Napa County, San Pablo Bay would become a reservoir. Ship channels and locks would be created.
Napa County would have been awash in fresh water, if the idea worked out as Reber billed it. No longer would the lower Napa River and wetlands have been brackish.
In 1949, Napa County Supervisor Lowell Edington testified to a congressional committee on the idea.
“The Board of Supervisors of Napa County are interested in the possibilities of the Reber Plan,” Edington told legislators. “Many of our citizens are interested in the plan.”
Reber traveled tirelessly promoting his plan, including to the Rotary clubs of St. Helena and Calistoga in 1950. He was introduced by his long-time friend, Napa County Supervisor Tom Maxwell.
“Reber’s training as a showman was evident in the histrionics he used in arguing for his idea, which he has seen grow from an embryonic thought to national acceptance,” the St. Helena Star reported.
His plan would keep water levels bordering Napa County at high tide all the time, Reber said. He predicted the Western, Pacific and Santa Fe, with an assured dry land crossing of San Pablo Bay – trains could use the dam—would run lines to Calistoga. Values for marginal land along the Napa shore would soar.
Reber’s plan garnered enough interest that the Army Corps of Engineers in 1957 built a 1.5-acre model of the Bay Area with tide-simulated water in a Sausalito warehouse to gauge what all this damming up would do. People can visit the Bay Model today.
In 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers declared the plan “infeasible within any frame of reference.”
Among other things, it found evaporation, fish ladders, locks and other factors would lead to so much fresh water loss that the giant lakes would shrink to below sea level in a few years. Then tidal water would have to be allowed in again for navigation.
Today, local environmentalists want to see a Napa River with healthy salmon and steelhead runs, with the fish traveling to and from the ocean. The idea of giant dams blocking tidal influence is anathema.
“We have to work with nature,” local environmentalist Chris Malan said when contemplating the Reber Plan. “We can’t work against nature.”