People from all over the world make their way up London Ranch Road in Glen Ellen in search of Jack London.
They’re not just tourists working off a bucket list or ticking off the Top 10 recommendations on Yelp. They come to Jack London State Historic Park to get closer to “Jack.” He spent the last 11 years of his life there, when he wasn’t traveling the world.
Jeff Falconer, who leads tours of the ranch, said many are downright pilgrims, including many from Russia, where London’s socialist writings and tales of the rugged north resonate deeply. Flowers are frequently left on his grave, marked by a large rock rolled over from the ruins of his Wolf House.
But London’s footsteps are all over the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California. His struggling family moved frequently, and many of the homes and small farms where he lived as a child and young man are torn down, built over or moved. That includes the place where he was born at 615 Third Street in San Francisco. But a plaque on the Wells Fargo Building at Third and Brannan marks the spot.
London was born in San Francisco, but Oakland has embraced him as a native son. The blue collar city on the other side of the bay is where London spent most of his youth, along with short periods in Alameda, Livermore and San Mateo.
The author’s most ardent followers invariably make their way to Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a rickety bar built in 1880 from the timber of a whaling ship at the foot of Webster Street in what is now Jack London Square. Although a fire in the 1920s destroyed a lot of the interior and memorabilia, some things were spared, including the original pot-bellied stove and 1902 ice cooler now wired for electricity, said Bryan Wells, who manages the old sailors’ hangout.
The floor is slanted from the 1906 earthquake. The worn bar counter and the foot rail where London would have rested his boots also remain, as well as several of the original tables, including the first one by the door — duly marked — where young Jack sat poring over a giant dictionary, Wells said. A pair of withered boxing gloves hanging from the ceiling by the door are said to have come from a legendary fight between Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons covered by London.
“It’s amazing the people we get in here because of Jack London and how far they come,” Wells marveled. “A professor from The Jack London Society in Japan comes once or twice a year. He usually comes with a new group of students or colleagues.”
A lot of Russians also make their way to The First and Last Chance — so named because it was the first place sailors could hit for a drink coming off ship and the last joint before they put out to sea.
Barkeep Johnny Heinold was one of London’s original mentors and supporters, and even loaned him money when he was scraping up the funds to attend UC Berkeley. London wrote notes for “The Sea-Wolf” and “Call of the Wild” while hanging out at Heinold’s and refers to it multiple times in “John Barleycorn,” his semi-autobiographical novel.
London followers make a beeline for their hero’s table, if it’s open.
“They like sitting there and trying to soak up some of the energy of him. We don’t allow laptops, but we definitely see people come in with notepads,” Wells said.
One regular was a dead-ringer for London, down to the riding pants and ranger hat. Another frequent patron is a young girl who grew up devouring London’s books and even has a dog that looks like a miniature wolf, Wells said.
The Oakland waterfront is much more gentrified than the rough and ready place that London knew. But visitors can also see the cabin — or at least a part of it — where London spent the frozen winter of 1897 in The Yukon, battling scurvy. London champion Russ Kingman, who founded The Jack London Foundation, teamed up with actor Eddie Albert to retrieve half the cabin from a remote creekside post 70 miles south of Dawson City in 1968. It was rebuilt from original logs and new ones at Jack London Square and is open to visitors. The other half of the cabin is now part of a Jack London interpretive center in Dawson City.
The Oakland Free Library where librarian and later state poet laureate Ina Coobrith took a young Jack London under her wing, is gone, as is the old City Hall where a teenage London began making a name for himself as “The Boy Socialist” by delivering rousing speeches. But people can visit the Jack London Oak in Frank Ogawa Plaza at the current Oakland City Hall. Jack’s widow Charmian gifted the sapling to the city a year after he died. The majestic, century-old coast live oak is now a symbol for the city of Oakland.
London’s great-granddaughter Tarnel Abbott said the baylands and the Oakland hills are where she would go in search of Jack’s world.
“Just walk along The Bay Trail and in the hills, and you’ll be in the areas he was in,” said Abbot, who lives in Richmond. “He waxed poetic on the eucalyptus trees and the poppies. He would go fly kites on those hills with my grandmother (London’s oldest daughter Joan).”
There is an access point near Fifth Avenue, and a good stretch from Emeryville to the Berkeley Marina. To get a view of the bay where London sailed and worked as an oyster pirate and patrolman, take a ferry from Jack London Square to San Francisco, Abbott says.
Tilden Park gives a sense of the landscape as it was. Linda Brown of the California Writer’s Group, of which London was an early member, suggests a good spot to get a sense of Jack’s world, Joaquin Miller Park in the Oakland Hills. London and Miller, “the poet of the Sierras,” were founders of the literary circle and met at what was then Miller’s home for outdoor salons with “a blanket and a basket of chow.”
London drew the landscape of his own Sonoma Valley in words, particularly in the novel, “The Valley of the Moon.” In his own town of Glen Ellen there are a few buildings, including the The Jack London Saloon and The Chauvet, that would have been part of the streetscape in the early 20th century. Jim Shere, executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society, said London used to play poker above the old mill in Jack London Village, which now houses the Aventine restaurant.
London’s short story, “Told in the Drooling Ward,” is set at the old Sonoma Home, now the Developmental Center, whose upper reaches neighbor his ranch. The old grounds make for a pleasant and mysterious stroll among old buildings, including the stately brick administration building that was there in London’s time.
London first became acquainted with Glen Ellen at The Wake Robin Lodge. It was at this country retreat, owned by Ninetta Eames, the aunt of Charmian Kittredge and his editor at “The Overland Monthly,” where Jack took refuge after separating from his first wife, Bess and where he and Charmian stayed when they were in Glen Ellen before moving up to their ranch in 1911.
The Lodge at 4100 Wake Robin Drive in Glen Ellen, a registered county landmark, has been significantly remodeled and is privately owned and closed to the public. But a stroll along the woodsy Wake Robin Drive gives a sense of what it was like in London’s day.
London also spent time at the “Summer Hijinks” at The Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, although you will need to be a member or have connections to get in.
Farther north, in Eureka, The Oberon Grill in old downtown has a London tale to tell. A plaque on the one-time saloon indicates that in 1910 it was the site of a terrible row between Jack London and the 19-year-old son of the man who owned the powerful Pacific Lumber Company. The story goes that London and Stanwood Murphy got into a heated argument over politics that came to blows. The fight went on for an extended period of time and forced the saloon owners to lock the doors.
Perhaps because of the prominence of the two men, it was kept hush-hush, said Nicholas Kohl, who owns the Grill and whose father owns the building.
But the local paper reported the next day that London, who was staying with the mayor at the time, was not seeing visitors, said Eric Vollmers, who leads history tours of downtown Eureka.
The Kohls have a copy of a letter sent by a “Hap” Waters to his doctor in 1966. Waters was prompted to write it, Kohl said, because the physician had the same name, Stanwood, as the Murphy boy who took on London. He said hearing the name reminded him of a bar fight he witnessed back in 1911 at The Oberon, between the two prominent men.
The Humboldt County Historical Society held a “Jack London Fight Night at the Oberon” in 2009, with Jack London experts Susan Nuernberg, a local London scholar, and Richard “Doc” Stull, a Jack London Park docent who is a retired professor at Humboldt State.
Beyond the letter and some stories that came down through the Murphy family, there is little concrete evidence to substantiate the tale. But, as Kohl says, “we have fun with it.”