White Sulphur Springs

“People did not ask, ‘Where are you going this summer?’ It was White Sulphur Springs or nowhere.”

Once Northern California’s premier resort, White Sulphur Springs was where San Francisco’s elite went to relax and escape the City’s notoriously chilly summers. At Napa County’s first tourist attraction businessmen could follow the vacillations of the stock exchange on a specially installed telegraph wire while bathing in spring water, hunting, fishing and enjoying the warm weather in the hills above St. Helena.  Despite being patronized by some of the Bay Area’s wealthiest families, White Sulphur Springs has long suffered from disastrous floods, fires and periods of low attendance.  During its more than 160 year history as many as thirty different owners have tried their luck at developing the Springs with varying degrees of success, many ending in financial ruin.

Artifacts found on the grounds of White Sulphur Springs make it clear that it was used by Napa County’s native tribes long before Anglo settlers came to California.  Napa pioneer John York came across the
Springs while on a hunting trip in 1848.  Within a few years York and fellow pioneer David Hudson had built a small private resort on the site.  By 1852 the first guests of York and Hudson were arriving.  The springs were opened to the public in 1854, becoming California’s first destination resort, capitalizing off the growing wealth of nearby San Francisco. 

San Francisco’s elite visited White Sulphur Springs not just for rest and relaxation, but also to bathe in its curative waters.  The waters of White Sulphur Springs, named for a resort in West Virginia claimed to cure a variety of ailments and maladies.  According to an 1855 issue of California Farmer the waters of White Sulphur Springs, named for a similar facility in West Virginia, was said to heal variety of ailments and maladies.

One visitor stated, “Having visited the Sulphur Springs of Napa, we feel called upon to make known what we saw there, and these facts can be attested to by many witnesses. The cures that are taking place among those afflicted by rheumatic and cutaneous diseases are almost incredible. We saw a man that we had met only a week previous at Benicia, upon crutches: now he had thrown them away, and was quite active. Another who had been upon crutches for years; yet in a few weeks at this place, he had broken his crutches and was walking freely.”

In 1861 Sven Alstrom, a Swedish immigrant who had run successful hotels in San Francisco before purchasing the Springs, launched what was to be White Sulphur Springs’ golden age.  Over the next few years, he set himself to the task of transforming the resort into a world-class getaway. However, in the winter of 1861-1862, flooding caused by the collapse of a lake upstream washed away the resort’s bowling alley. Not long after, Alstrom also erected a hotel as well as several guest cottages on the site. Soon word of the resort’s popularity became wide-spread. 

While Alstrom enjoyed more than a decade of success, disaster again beset White Sulphur Springs in 1875 when a waiter, drunk after returning from the bars in St. Helena threw a firecracker on the roof of the sleeping quarters of the other male employees.  This ill-fated practical joke soon turned into a raging blaze which destroyed the main hotel building and the dining room.

Despite this setback Alstrom rebuilt after searching unsuccessfully for buyers, but the seeds of his eventual ruin were already sewn.  By 1878 it was seemingly business as usual at the Springs with the St. Helena Star noting:

“Those springs are the most select and fashionable of our watering places this season, the hotel and cottages are the temporary abode of many of our well-known San Francisco families who have escaped from the winds and dust of this city for a few weeks of rest in that charming locality.  Nature and art have combined to beautify that attractive spot until it is now one of the most delightful summer resorts on the coast.”

But by 1880 Alstrom was in financial straits and resort entered foreclosure proceedings.  The mortgage taken out in order to repair the grounds after the fire had been impossible to keep up with after sporadic closures and long winters without guests in attendance.  The resort was closed after the 1880 season, and winter floods compounded problems, washing out the bridge over Sulphur Creek.

Alstrom eventually lost the property, and four subsequent owners had the same luck between 1881 and 1904. Purchased in 1904 by John Sanford, White Sulphur Springs underwent upgrades including electric lights, phones, and new plumbing. Later that year a fire destroyed the landmark hotel leaving only the chimney. A new hotel went up in 1905, only to be burned down the same year and rebuilt again in 1906. The great 1906 San Francisco earthquake prevented many guests from visiting, but White Sulphur Springs was used to house earthquake refugees through the following year.

Beginning in 1909 the resort entered another cycle of multiple owners until it was purchased in 1916 by a local businessman named W.F. Mercier. Mercier’s greatest accomplishment at White Sulphur Springs was the construction of a Napa County’s first public swimming pool. Filled with opaque sulphur water, the pool was used by the Red Cross for swimming lessons through the 1940s. Mercier made other improvement including a new bath house, dining hall and additional cottages that are still on the property to this day. Mercier sold the property in 1941 and in the following forty years White Sulphur Springs was owned by several individuals and organizations. During this period it served as a boy’s camp, United Methodist retreat, and a Hadassah youth center.

Seward and Betty Foote bought White Sulphur Springs in 1983. Two years later, the Napa County Planning Commission vetoed the Footes’ $27 million plan to turn it into a world class resort citing that the historical property was zoned only for commercial and industrial use, not development. The Foote’s continued to clash with the County over the next couple years by attempting to avoid inspection and allegedly violating agreements by offering year-round housing to renters.

The Hoffman Institute began leasing White Sulphur Springs in the early 1990s, using the resort to hold retreat seminars. In 2000, a Hoffman Quadrinity Process graduate purchased the resort and donated it to his alma mater. Initially, the Hoffman Institute allowed the public to rent cottages and hold weddings on the property. However, by 2007 the company’s private business had grown so much they decided to close their doors to the public. Currently, White Sulphur Springs resort consists of the Carriage House, dining room, bathhouse, nine cottages, and a few other buildings. The only original cottage left was built in 1852 and presently houses the property’s caretaker.