Water and fire
The gilded age of the old Springs
The large “plunge pool” at Boyes Hot Springs was billed as the largest swimming pool in Northern California.
Boyes Hot Springs, Agua Caliente, El Verano, Fetter Hot Springs: the collection of communities just north of Sonoma is a topographical conundrum. It looks like its streets were laid out from a child’s scribble. The houses splay higgledy-piggledy, squeezed in on top of each other, many worn and frayed, others spiffed up and laid down in neat cul-de-sacs. Strangest of all is the extravagant four-star hotel, iced in pink and shrouded behind walls of lush vegetation, where a room for one night costs as much as a month’s rent in a bungalow one street over. Viewed from above, the Springs looks like a mop of unruly hair aside richly coiffed Sonoma. But that’s not the story at all.
In fact, it used to be the other way around. At one time, Sonoma played a commonplace second cousin to the splendid Springs—a holiday destination which, in its flamboyant heyday, drew thousands of upscale vacationers to its glamorous resorts. Vacationland, a book put out by the Northwest Pacific Railroad, describes one:
Fetters Hot Springs—Sonoma County, Cal. … Modern, up-to-date hotel, with all appurtenances. Stem heat throughout, splendid hotel annex and club house; cottages and tent houses. electric lights and running hot and cold mineral water throughout; long distance telephone. The mineral waters are beneficial for all bladder, stomach, kidney and rheumatic troubles. Thirty private porcelain bathtubs; hot tub plunge; electric light baths. The concrete swimming tank, 75x100 feet, has a graduated depth. An abundance of fruits, milk, cream, butter and eggs. Hunting and fishing. Bowling alleys, tennis and croquet. Theater, dancing and motion pictures every afternoon and evening. Expert masseurs and careful attendants. The hotel is ideally located in the midst of 100 acres of orchard and garden … Can accommodate 300.
Centuries ago, American Indians considered the area sacred, the waters of its hot springs curative. The first European to take notice was San Franciscan Dr. T.M. Leavenworth, who in 1850 purchased 800 acres of what is now Boyes Springs. He built a small bathhouse, but it didn’t last long. A man with a quick temper, the enraged Leavenworth burned down the spa one day after a row with his wife. The heated spat may have sparked a precedent, because from then on the history of the Springs has been forged in equal parts water and fire.
In 1895, the enterprising Captain H.E. Boyes acquired the old Leavenworth property and struck 112-degree water 70 feet down while drilling a well. He quickly realized his fortune. Within five years, Boyes had built the Boyes Hot Springs Hotel, near the site of today’s Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa.
Soon every weekend saw hundreds, then thousands, of tourists pouring in to “take the waters” and indulge in a good time. In 1902, a train carrying 540 passengers arrived in the Springs, but without enough rooms available, many were turned away. It wasn’t long before resorts sprang up to accommodate the crowds, including the Agua Caliente Hotel and Fetters Hot Springs Resort.
Within a decade, the narrow strip of land around Sonoma Creek and stretching north along what is now Highway 12—from Boyes to Fetters Springs and Agua Caliente and east to El Verano—was known as “the resort capital of Northern California.” In that lush and leafy swathe stood 28 grand resorts shimmering with pools and hot springs, while smaller inns and cottages vyed for room in between.
By the 1918 season, 70,000 people arrived by boat and train to dip in the mineral baths. Two railroads now competed for their business, connecting from ferry landings and stopping at the more than 16 stations, one every half mile or so—Schellville, Vineburg, Boyes, El Verano, Fetters, Agua Caliente and north. Buses, usually horse-drawn, whisked passengers from depots to resorts nearby.
Visitors came from cold, foggy San Francisco for the health benefits of clear air, Sonoma sun, the wide variety of entertainment, fresh fruits for the picking, milk, cream and butter from local cows—and of course, the pools. They also came because it was simply the “in” thing to do.
The resorts tried to outdo each other by boasting bigger and better amenities. Boyes Springs Hotel claimed to operate the largest swimming pool in Northern California, the Boyes Springs Bathhouse. It also housed a dance pavilion, roller rink and restaurant. Rumor has it that for at least one season, guests could ride little boats with candy-striped awnings on a canal between the hotel and bathhouse. (The canal would have been on what is Pine Street.) The bathhouse burned in 1969, its grounds eventually giving way to a suburban neighborhood.
Swimming and boating were also popular on Sonoma Creek, whose previously ample waters were temporarily dammed in summer to create small pools in which many local and visiting children learned to swim. Some resorts boasted their own creekside beaches.
Today very little remains of this glorious era. But the curious can still catch a glimpse of what was. From Highway 12, turn west on Vailetti Drive and go past the aquatics club, following the road around to the right. On the left sits an enormous stone building—once the swank Agua Caliente Springs resort, advertised as a “thoroughly modern, fireproof hotel” in which “every room has running hot and cold radio-active sulfur water and dining room service (that) represents the best that experienced chefs and the markets can give.” Today it serves as a retirement home.
Or, from Highway 12, turn west onto Verano Avenue. Across from Maxwell Park, peer through the weedy acacias and you’ll see an elephant of a building constructed of dark wood. A sign reading “Paul’s” still clings to the roof. According to Sonoma native Mary Blankenship, Paul’s was “rustic, but gorgeous.” Its main building boasted a dining room, bar, dance floor and large hot-water pool. At its height it was a “hoppin’ place,” says Blankenship—with a professional musician and a little girl with a big voice named Clarette Clementino, who was known and heard for miles around. Cottages on the premises are still lived in today, but the music and dancing are long gone.
The Finnish American Home Association, or FAHA, also on Verano Avenue, started out as a resort. Its location near Sonoma Creek proved ideal. Run by the Parentes and then the Rosarios, it was called “The Palms.”
The expansive Fetters Springs Resort weathered a long history but eventually burned under the ownership of legendary restaurateur and ex-madam Juanita Musson. You can still see part of its driveway on some empty lots next to the Charter School on Highway 12.
So what happened? In 1923 a fire—started by a beekeeper—swept across the area, and many resorts and homes burned.
While most of these structures were never rebuilt, the Boyes Springs Resort was quickly restored from the charred ground up. Today its reincarnation, the posh Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, offers guests the same mineral spring waters coveted here a century ago.
In the 1920s and 1930s the Springs experienced a small revival, but its carefree heyday was over. The Depression, wartime gas rationing, decreased train service and a polio epidemic all contributed to the waning popularity of the area. Some of the actual springs dried up, others were capped, and by the 1950s, suburban homes and shopping centers proliferated across the old vacation grounds. The last big fire swept through in 1979. And so it goes…
Author’s note: It’s hard to ignore the irony that today there are no public swimming pools in either the Springs or Sonoma. One is under discussion.
The author is deeply indebted for this article to Diane Moll Smith and Mary Blankenship of the Depot Park Museum, Smith’s book (co-authored with Valerie Sherer Mathes) Sonoma Valley, and The Sonoma Valley Story by Robert M. Lynch.
From the Spring 2008 issue of SONOMA