So it started out to be a field trip to Bear Valley on the Lake/Colusa County line north off Highway 20 to look at wildflowers. Load mom, daughter and grandson in the Subaru, pack a picnic lunch and some field guides, and take off to see what Mother Nature has on display. Then it turned into a history mystery. Yes, wildflowers were viewed and fun was had by all, but a casual glance out a window sent this historian digging into old books and internet references to satisfy her curiosity about a point of history she knew next to nothing about.
For the botanically curious our area of northern California is blessed with a “hot spot”, a site of enormous beauty with extravagant wildflower blooms. These sites are usually in the middle of no place since human occupation often obliterates them. Death Valley and the Carrizo Plain in southern California are two such sites and here locally the Bear Valley area can be amazing.
More than 25 years ago I visited this area at its wildflower bloom peak and it was a delight to the eyes. The area is protected with 16,000 acres under the American Land Conservancy program. Cattle ranching exists there but there are fields labeled “wildflower viewing area” with gated entrances that allow humans in and keep livestock out. While we missed the peak bloom (go in March) purples, white and yellows of brodiaeas, yellow tidy tips, meadowfoam, lupin, poppy and all sorts of rare and endangered species still colored the landscape. If a two-lane gravel road, a 25 m.p.h. travel speed and a car passing every half hour appeals to you this is a great ride.
We were traveling with my five-month-old grandson River, and I think we forget how much fun it is to watch the wide eyed amazement and delight on the face of a tiny tot seeing something for the first time. There was a cow loose on the road and we took River out of his car seat, rolled down the window and held him up to watch the cow. It was certainly bigger than any living thing he’d ever seen before and he looked back and forth from mom to the cow with fascination.
Later we stopped on a bridge to watch swallows fly. There were mud nests under the bridge over Bear Creek and individual swallows would burst up into view looking for bugs. Again we stopped, got River out, and watched Mother Nature put on an air show for a little one. I know he’d never seen so many living things moving so quickly.
One wildlife vista we quickly rolled up windows and turned off the air conditioner for were bee swarms. There were commercial stacks of honeybee hives every few miles, and in one location a piece of fence four feet wide and three feet high was covered in a living, pulsating curtain of bees. Some wads of bees would pull away and fall to the ground only to swarm back up and reattach themselves. The only term I could use to describe this was 'psychedelic' as I observed this phenomenon.
Driving north when you reach the end of Bear Valley you have three choices for your return to civilization. Back the way you came, west to Indian Valley Reservoir and its access road to Highway 20, or the road less traveled. With a historian in the car, a sunny day and time to spare, the unexplored road was the choice. This is where the history mystery reached out and grabbed me. We chose the road going east through Leesville, with a building dated 1878, down to Highway 20 west of Williams. We drove to a spot called Windy Point and my daughter looked out the window and said, “We’re going down THERE?”
What we saw was mile after mile of switchbacks winding down the slopes as the road headed for flat land. I looked at it and thought, “That’s the perfect grade for stagecoach travel, but where were the stagecoaches going?” That was my history mystery. Now I know Lake County is replete with hot springs and mineral springs, but until my research began I had no idea how vital they were to the growth of the county. I got out a map and started tracing the path of mineral springs along what we today call Bartlett Springs Road from Williams past Windy Point, Leesville, Bartlett Springs, and ending in Upper Lake. (Warning, do not attempt the whole route except in summer.)
Researching, I discovered in 1904 the four-horse stage leaving Williams traveled more than 75 miles before arriving in Lakeport, passing almost a dozen medicinal springs resorts along the way. From the 1860’s to the 1930’s there were thriving resorts but when I read Bartlett Springs in a season could accommodate 5,000 people I thought it was a typological error. Someone had typed in too many zeros.
But yes, it’s true, there were ample accommodations for people ”taking the waters”.
The promotional materials of the day promised “the tired & weary merchant, the convalescing invalid, the worn-out mother & pent-up city child would all benefit from visiting springs at over 2,000’ elevation where one would find the blood tingling in one’s veins”. In 1890, Bartlett Springs, with Adams Springs three miles distant, had five hotels, 350 cottages and cabins and campgrounds, and handled 300 to 800 people a night. With waters good for rheumatism and other ills they could serve 5,000 people a season as health seekers came and stayed for weeks. Dining halls, restaurants, tea gardens, hiking, swimming, fishing, hunting, lawn bowling, and tennis filled the hours. There were doctors, ice plants to make ice to cool your mineral waters, a phone line to the outside world, church and Sunday school services and a bottling works so you could take curative waters home with you.
Like today’s Wilbur Hot Springs recent disaster of a fire, Bartlett Springs Hotel burned down in 1934 and never reopened to its former glory. (Wilbur is already reopened.) In 2007 a major wildfire burned through the area, and it would be hard to tell today all that activity once existed there. Those of us who are history buffs can tell you about Point Arena Hot Springs, or Crabtree Hot Springs up in the Mendocino National Forest, lost to us now. I enjoyed Skaggs Hot Springs in the 1970’s and it now sits under Lake Sonoma. My husband knew where Seigler Springs in Lake County once existed and we went to drink water there and it tasted funny.
The powers of curative springs turns up some unusual visitors. Pugilists resided at mineral springs. Rocky Marciano in the 1950’s used Calistoga’s springs in Napa County. Race horses, including Man o’ War in the 1940’s, were taken into mineral springs for restorative swims. In cold climates, outdoor hot springs can attract everything from monkeys in Japan to bison in Yellowstone who all “take the waters” in their own way.
So my family wildflower expedition turned history mystery had a happy ending. Grandson River met a cow and swallows, and Nana Katy took a long and winding road down the east side of the Coast Range and discovered why those stagecoach routes climbed west to the mineral springs.