Aetna Springs

In its heyday the resort at Aetna Springs was called an “Edenic Mecca,” a little slice of heaven on earth where the sick were healed and generations of Northern Californian’s came to while away long summer days in beautiful landscape.  The headline from an 1879 pamphlet described it as:  “a sky as bright as Italy’s best – a climate as charming as San Diego – the fountain of youth – equal to the best in the world.”   Today the resort lies mostly in ruins.

The story of Aetna Springs did not begin with the healing waters that made it famous, however; it began with a mine.  Cinnabar the mineral from which mercury is derived was discovered in the area in 1861.  For most of that decade miners toiled mining for quicksilver in that section of bucolic Pope Valley.  From the start they met obstacles.  Hot water and gasses issuing from the mine made work difficult and dangerous.  Seven Chinese miners were killed in an underground explosion triggered by escaping gasses.  In 1867 the mines closed, but water continued to flow out of the underground springs.

By the early 1870s the site was being used as an informal health spa where those seeking the curative waters of the hot springs camped or holed up in abandoned miners’ cabins.  The site on the land of leading Napa politician Chancellor Hartson’s land became known as Aetna Springs.  With the growth in the popularity of the springs Hartson decided to develop the land into a public resort.  Many travelers made the trip traveling up the Napa Valley by rail, then riding over the mountains on a special Wells Fargo stagecoach that served Aetna Springs.

At same time Hartson began to promote Aetna Springs ceaselessly.  Weekly columns appeared in the Napa County Reporter waxing eloquently about the health giving properties of the springs.  Doctors were hired to analyze the waters and enumerate the cures to be had from bathing in the pools at Aetna Springs.  These early analyses compared Hartson’s mineral springs to the then famous German hot springs resort at Ems, one of Europe’s most popular resorts.  The Napa County Reporter encouraged visitors to quit “doctor’s and drugs for a month and come and bathe in the royal baths, and more regal morning sunshine, and gloat upon the wondrous mountain scenery.” The waters at Aetna Springs were said to be an effective cure for rheumatism, certain forms of paralysis, and just about every kind of nervous disorder.

One of the early visitors was Len Owens who claimed to be at death’s door before visiting Hartson’s springs.  He claimed to be cured of all his ails by taking the waters at Aetna Springs.  Owens’ recovery or perhaps the whiff of a great business opportunity spurred him to purchase the resort from Harton’s widow in 1891 for the sum of $35,000.  Like Hartson, Owens was a ruthless promoter of Aetna Springs.  He used his own backstory, his supposed recovery by use of its hot springs, to build a successful resort community in Pope Valley.

It is said that Owens hired famed Arts and Crafts architect Bernard Maybeck to design showpiece buildings for the resort including the clubhouse.  Owens expansions of Aetna Springs included guest cabins, a golf course, swimming pools, and a bottling plant.  Visitors to the springs could eat, bathe, play tennis, hike, horseback ride, play games, fish and hunt.  The water at Aetna Springs, however, still remained the central attraction.  The water from its springs was a commodity more valuable than even wine.  A case of the water sold for as much as $12.  To launch his new bottling operation Owens held a grand ball on May 19, 1893.  The waters won the gold at Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1906.  However, the fad for bottled mineral waters faded bottling was discontinued in 1932.

When an illness mostly deflated the marketing phenomenon Len Owens had created based on his own health, he sold the resort to George and Ruth Heibel in 1945.  Aetna Springs continued to be a prime summer vacation spot for many wealthy and powerful California families.  Ronald Reagan even declared his candidacy for governor on the steps of the resort’s dining hall in 1966. By the 1970s, however, the resorts fortunes had begun to wane due to the fact that it was not cost-effective to operate the springs as a summer only resort.

Aetna Springs closed in 1973 and the Heibel’s drafted lofty development plans for 982 condominiums on the land.  This proposal was shot down by the Napa County Board of Supervisors, a political body which has become increasingly concerned about the tide of development replacing agricultural land in Napa County.  A reduced proposal was submitted and still rejected by the board.  Aetna Springs ended up held in bankruptcy court in 1976 when a mysterious educational foundation swooped in and made the purchase.

The new owners, New Education Development Systems (NEDS) seemed innocuous enough at first, but the press quickly tied the foundation to Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, a group colloquially known as the Moonies.  The group known to draw in wayward youth and runaways and for its large scale arranged marriage ceremonies intended to use the resort as a spiritual retreat and religious education center.  Hearings on this proposal before the planning commission lasted three years, and included charged testimony from former church members, local officials and community members.  The eventual result was the rejection of the proposal because the resort area was not zoned for education uses.  But was not nearly end of the battle between the county of Napa and NEDS. Suits and countersuits raged on for seven years, including a lawsuit by NEDS claiming religious discrimination by the County.  Meanwhile NEDS has continued to use the resort as a weekend indoctrination retreat for Northern California youth.  $800,000 and miles of frayed nerves later the two parties settled out of court.  NEDS was allowed to continue with its weekend retreats but could not expand its operations further.

Since NEDS ceased Unification Church operations at the camp in 1997 a series of developers have tried and failed to return the resort to its former glory. These dreams have included luxury homes and expanded golf courses. However, plans have been dampened by more court battles and even a failed ballot initiative to change the site’s zoning.  In 2006 a new clubhouse for the golf course was opened, but so far no one has made good on their vision to bring back one of California’s most notable resorts.  Today its historic buildings continue to languish as a memory of the good times once had in Pope Valley’s summer sun.

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