By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
In Brief: One of the most engaging early books about 19th-century California is Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his 1880 visit to the Napa Valley, titled The Silverado Squatters. The emerging writer honeymooned with his bride and her child in an abandoned cabin at a defunct silver mine, known as the Silverado Mine, north of Calistoga, and recorded his impressions of the area.
The Historic Story: Among the more felicitous phrases that Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) used to describe the Napa Valley was his assessment that “the wine is bottled poetry.”
A stop at the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena can acquaint you with the full story of his wanderings here. More than 8,000 artifacts of Stevensoniana, including first editions, original letters, and manuscripts can be savored. Stevenson was the author of such classics as Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verse. The locations he described in Treasure Island were directly affected by his observations in Napa. At the museum you can see many endearing artifacts of Stevenson, including the toy soldiers he played with as a boy.
Already in the 1880s, the Napa Valley—roughly 35 miles from Carneros in the south to Mt. St. Helena in the north—was producing outstanding wine and captivating visitors with its classic valley proportion. An observer named Frona Waite wrote a book on viticulture of the time—The Wines and Vines of California—which will amaze a modern reader with its detail on how developed wine production then was.
Earlier, shortly after the Gold Rush of 1848, the Napa Valley was planted totally in wheat. Flour then sold for 1-1/2 cents a pound. But in 1850, with thousands of miners arriving in California, the cost of flour jumped to $1.50/pound. The Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park, three miles north of St. Helena on Highway 29, tells this pre-viticulture part of the Napa Story.
A taste of sparkling wine at Shramsberg Vineyards can repeat Stevenson’s tasting at this winery, an early maker of champagnes, as sparkling wines were then called. Stevenson tasted about 15 champagnes with the proprietor of Schramsberg, which suggests how advanced California wine production was even at that early day. Today you can see the original owner’s house and taste wine in the caves, but call ahead for an appointment.
A rather strenuous hike to Stevenson’s cabin site, now the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, which has picnic tables at the base, completes the outing. The park presents a trail that proceeds a mile up the mountain to where the author stayed. Nothing remains of the cabin today, but at the site is a marble book on a pedestal, with some of Stevenson’s poetry inscribed. Here Stevenson hoped the dry air would help him regain his health, which was frail due to a bronchial congestion. He delighted in his marriage to Fannie Van de G. Osbourne, hoping his family would approve and continue his funding. He began writing some of the early works that launched his literary career.
Hikers can ascend four miles beyond the cabin along a fire road to the top of Mt. St. Helena. The view from the top ranks among the finest of those in Northern California. On a clear day you can see San Francisco and Mt. Tamalpais to the south, the Sierra to the east, Mts. Lassen and Shasta to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. There are evergreen forests in the canyons and on the north slopes. In this sunny inland area, the south-facing slopes are covered in dry chaparral. The hike requires that you be in good condition and take plenty of water and, in season, protective gear for rain, wind, or hot sun.
Getting There: Drive north in the Napa Valley on Highway 29 to St. Helena, where you will find the Stevenson Museum. Schramsberg Vineyards is west of Highway 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga. The Robert Louis Stevenson State Park is eight miles north of Calistoga on Highway 29 enroute to Clear Lake. A further enjoyable drive that approximates the bucolic beauty of Stevenson’s period would be a drive south along the Silverado Trail from Calistoga to Napa on the east side of the Napa Valley.
Be Sure to See: The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum (1490 Library Ln., St. Helena; 707/963-3757; www.stevensonmuseum.org) is the critical first stop. You might want to purchase a reprint copy of The Silverado Squatters. Schramsberg Vineyards is west of Highway 29 in Calistoga (707/942-4558, www.schramsberg.com). Call ahead for touring and tasting appointments.
The Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, which has the hiking trail to his former cabin site, is eight miles north of Calistoga on Highway 29. The Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park on Highway 29 (3601 St. Helena Highway) presents an interesting living-history look at the wheat flour world of Napa before wine. For details on the Napa Valley State Parks: 707/942-4575, www.napavalleystateparks.org.
Best Time of Year: The Napa Valley is engaging to visit any time of the year. Hiking through the Stevenson State Park is idyllic in late autumn and winter, during a sunny period, after the rains have cooled the area. In late spring the ground is still moist and wildflowers are abundant. Summer can be hot and dry. The quietest time for tasting at Schramsberg would be in the winter.
Lodging: Calistoga’s Indian Springs Resort has lodgings with kitchens, ample lawns, a large outdoor hot pool, and a full-service spa on property. Indian Springs Resort is at 1712 Lincoln Ave., 707/942-4913, www.indianspringscalistoga.com. The resort is only a short walk from downtown Calistoga’s restaurants, shops, and grocery markets.
Dining: Charter Oak is a popular restaurant serving seasonal dishes family style. They are located on Highway 29 in St.Helena (1050 Charter Oak Ave., 707/302-6996).
For Further Information: Contact the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce (657 Main St., 707/963-4456, www.sthelena.com). The overall area tourism source is Visit Napa Valley (Welcome Center at 600 Main St., Napa, 707/226-7459, www.napavalley.com). For Calistoga information, contact the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce (1133 Washington St., 707/942-6333, www.visitcalistoga.com).