In the 1830’s, the Napa Valley became one of the first in California to be settled by American farmers. When California was granted statehood in 1850, Napa Valley was in the territory of California, district of Sonoma. In 1850, when counties were first being organized, Napa became one of the original 27 counties of California with “Napa City” (later shortened to Napa) as the county seat. By 1870, the white man had inhabited the Valley and the Native Americans who once roamed freely were wiped out by smallpox and other white man’s diseases.
In 1848, Napa City was laid out by Nathan Coombs on property he acquired from Nicholas Higuera’s Rancho Entre-Napa, an 1836 Mexican Land Grant.
It was the gold rush of the early 1850’s that caused Napa City to grow. After the first severe winter in the gold fields, miners sought warmer refuge in the young city. There was plenty of work on the cattle ranches and in the lumber industry. Sawmills in the Valley were cutting timber that was hauled by horse team to Napa City where it was then shipped out via the Napa River to Benicia and San Francisco.
Napa Valley is now known mostly for its premier wines. In the beginning, white settlers planted vineyards with cuttings supplied by Catholic priests from Sonoma and San Rafael. In 1861, Riesling cuttings were introduced to the Valley and, from these small beginnings, Napa Valley has become noted as one of the premier wine-making regions of the world.
The most eloquent word picture of the Valley at the close of the pioneer period was drawn by noted author Robert Louis Stevenson after he rode the train from Vallejo to Calistoga in 1880 on his honeymoon. “A great variety of oaks stood now severally, now in a becoming grove, among the field and vineyards. The towns were compact, in about equal proportions of bright, new wooden houses and great and growing forest trees; and the chapel bell on the engine sounded most festally that sunny Sunday, with the townsfolk trooping in their Sunday’s best to see the strangers, with the sun sparkling on the clean houses, and great domes of foliage humming overhead in the breeze.”*
*R.L. Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters (Boston, 1895)
The Napa River and Flood Protection Plan
Since the 1950’s, the City of Napa has evolved from a rural small town known for prunes, Kaiser Steel and the Napa State Hospital, to an increasingly urbane community known for its position within the world-renowned Napa Valley winegrowing region. Economic and business trends have led to substantial growth in the farming grapes and production of fine wines, and a concurrent increase in related hospitality fields.
While Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga saw continuous growth in tourism, the City of Napa struggled to find ways to draw visitors. The effort was not helped by periodic severe flooding. Restrictions on development in the flood plain chilled prospects for success, even when property owners were willing to take the risk. While Napa was often mentioned as one of the very few California cities with a navigable River running right through it, there was little done to capitalize on the waterway as an attraction for visitors or a recreational amenity for those who live here.
With the passage a voter supported flood control plan in 1998 came the birth of a new potential for a central downtown district free of flooding. The creation of a flood protection project offering amenities and access all along the River’s course began to create a new mood of excitement in Napa. Property owners and developers began to envision a City of Napa with the essential ingredients to become an attraction for visitors, and a City with improved quality of life for the locals.
GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT has already begun, with the construction of the renovation of the Historic Napa Mill, the restoration of the Napa Valley Opera House, the Napa Riverfront, Veteran's Park and numerous other projects within a stone’s throw of the Napa River. When the Flood Project is completed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will create a new floodplain and floodway map. With flood water elevations reduced, 3,121 structures on 2,500 parcels no longer will be listed as flood prone. That will clear the way for growth and renewal in places closest to the riverside.
The City of Napa Project offers the potential to provide higher net benefits for each dollar invested. The Project is estimated to cost a total of $255 million. Over the life of the Project, flood protection measures are expected to generate $1 billion in savings. Economic activity throughout the City of Napa has been stimulated by the Flood Project. Spurred on by the investment of public dollars, the private sector has begun to invest aggressively in the future of the City. In the downtown area alone since 1999, over $196 million in new local investment has begun to change the face of Napa’s riverside, with more plans on the drawing boards.
The Project’s miles of pedestrian and bicycle riverside trails, from areas with a rural feel in the south and north, to urban promenade elements in the central core, will enhance quality of life. Unattractive sites and neglected structures are being removed or replaced, wildlife is flocking and swimming into newly created habitat, and the future hold the promise of ever-increasing access and activity on the water and along the riverbanks. Locals and visitors can now begin to reap the benefits of a community vision that looks to the River rather than turning its back.
Information provided by the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. www.napaflooddistrict.org
HISTORIC DOWNTOWN NAPA
In addition to being the center of a world-famous wine-making region, the city of Napa is a historic and culinary landmark in its own right. Founded in 1847, this beautiful community on the Napa River was a staging site for the Gold Rush of the late 1850s. Although many of the city’s buildings were damaged or demolished in the earthquake of 1906, Napa’s historic downtown still exhibits reminders of the miners and merchants who helped establish the city as the economic hub of the Napa Valley - such as the Historic Hatt/Napa Mill buildings, dating from the 1880s and still among the most prominent structures on Main Street, which now house the elegant Napa River Inn: the only luxury 66-room boutique hotel located in downtown Napa, shops, a spa and delightful restaurants. The 2.5 acre Historic Napa Mill is an entertainment Mecca featuring Greenhaus Day Spa, Celedon Restaurant, Angéle French Bistro, Silo's Jazz Club, Sweetie Pies Bakery, Vintage Sweet Shoppe and Napa General Store.
Visitors are also sure to enjoy a performance at the newly restored Napa Valley Opera House or the Jarvis Conservatory. The Napa Valley Opera House, having undergone extensive restorations, reopened in 2002 as a versatile performing arts center with two separate venues. The first floor of the Opera House, the Café Theatre, offers a varied schedule of performances in an 180-seat caberet-style setting. The historic upstairs theatre, the 500 seat Margrit Biever Mondavi Theatre, presents international quality plays, musical theatre, opera, dance, chamber music, jazz, family programming and the popular Napa Valley Arts & Lectures series.
Whether it’s food, wine, beautiful scenery, relaxation or culture that you desire, the city of Napa has it all - including the pleasing year-round climate for which California is famous.
For these reasons, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the country’s largest private, nonprofit preservation organization, named Napa to its 2004 list of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations, an annual list of unique and lovingly preserved communities in the United States.
“The city of Napa has been overshadowed by the worldwide fame of the Napa Valley winemaking region,” said National Trust President Richard Moe. “We’re very happy to turn the spotlight on this unique community and make travelers aware of the rich variety of historic, cultural and recreational attractions it has to offer as a vacation destination.”
Landmark Structures in the Downtown Area
Many of the beautifully restored historical buildings in Napa now house restaurants, wine tasting rooms, museums and retail shops.
Napa Valley Opera House (1879), 1026 First Street
Winship Building (1888), 948 Main Street
Oberon Building (1934), 902-912 Main Street
First Presbyterian Church (1874), Third at Randolph
Semorile Building (1888), 975 First Street
First National Bank (1917), 1026 First Street
Goodman Library (1901), 1219 First Street
Gordon Building (1929 and 1935), 1130 First Street
Bank of Napa (1923), 903 Main Street
Alexandria Hotel (1910), 840 Brown Street
Napa Mill/Hatt Building (1880), 500 Main Street
Napa County Court House (1878) and Hall of Records (1917), Third at Coombs