Sonoma Discoveries pulled from
past issues to bring you these two stories
featuring summertime fun and memories along
the Russian River and in Healdsburg.
Recalling the Triangle Trip
by Kimberly Kaido-Alvarez
Before the days of inter-state and air travel, vacations naturally happened a bit closer to home, and this was true for many San Franciscans and those from the greater Bay Area and Sacramento who regularly flocked to the Russian River in Sonoma County for a little summer fun.
A peek into the past would reveal long lines at the north end of San Francisco’s Ferry Building in the early to mid-1900s. Buying tickets for “vacationland” along the Russian River is what the hustle and bustle was all about. “In the 1920s the trip to the Russian River from Sausalito was by train, and it was so popular it had a name. It was called the triangle trip,” said Russian River historian/author John Schubert. The triangle trip delivered people to the lower Russian River but also made stops in coastal areas like Point Reyes and Tomales. There was a separate train route to the Healdsburg section of the Russian River.
From San Francisco, the ferry would take passengers to San Rafael where they’d catch the train and finally arrive at chosen destinations on the Russian River where there was a plethora of sunshine, resorts and entertainment.
The town of Monte Rio was a popular choice for many vacationers. “That town rocked and rolled,” Schubert said. Many enjoyed the area so much that they purchased real estate there and stayed all summer, every summer, for years. But for those who didn’t have a summer home, the Monte Rio Hotel on the Russian River was a popular place to book accommodations and the hostelry could handle large crowds.
“It was three stories high and built into the hillside. Then they added another two stories at street level, making it five stories,” Schubert explained, adding, “It had the first elevator in Sonoma County.” The Monte Rio Hotel was rebuilt many times and in 1927 had seven stories.
Sully’s Resort and the Glen Rita were also happening spots in Monte Rio, and these hotels also offered tent cabins as a form of lodging. “These were wood platforms upon which walls would be built to frame the tent that was made of canvas,” Schubert said.During the winter months, the tents would come down but the platforms remained intact until the next season.
Russel Resort was yet another place to stay in Monte Rio. Built in close proximity to the beach, those who made reservations enjoyed sunbathing, canoeing, fishing and exploring the Russian River as well as live musical entertainment and dancing.
“There was a lot happening at the hotels and many had dining halls and dance pavilions as well as activities like bonfires and sing-alongs,” said Schubert.
Stage music was a main attraction at the hotels and often the best college bands would be booked for the whole summer, returning year after year. But if the hotel happenings weren’t satisfying enough, there were other venues for dancing that just so happened to feature the biggest names in jazz of the era.
Big Bands Delight Dancers
My grandmother, Constance Sandborn, and her sister, my great aunt Edith Norton, were locals from Sebastopol but had a summer home on the lower Russian River that they visited on weekends during the Big Band Era. Although they’ve both passed now, I took down a few notes when they told stories about the fun times they had dancing on the Russian River.
“I remember Phil Harris Orchestra as well as Teresa Brewer. It was ‘40s music and we danced the jitterbug and swing. It was a good time and we enjoyed meeting people from outside the area,” said my aunt Norton, who attended most of the dances with her boyfriend, who eventually became her husband. “We didn’t stay all week because we had to go back to Sebastopol and dry pears on the weekdays. I bought a bicycle with my money and my sister bought a canoe, which she paddled up and down the river.”
My grandfather and grandmother were dating at the time, and my grandfather spoke highly of my grandmother’s rowing skills, as she would sometimes arrive at a dance hall with a boatload of friends, by moonlight, in her canoe.
“Girls would come to the dances alone or with a group of friends; it was very safe,” explained Clare Harris, former owner of both Johnson’s Beach and manager of the Rio Nido Dance Hall. Locals and vacationers intermingled at the dance halls and there was often a big turnout of 1,000 people or more. After nearly a half century of ownership, Harris sold the beach resort in March 2015 to Nick Moore and Dan Poirier; the Russian River resort opens on May 29 this year.
Big Bands, Big Business
Securing contracts with the bands was serious business, and The Music Corporation of America (MCA) was the booker. Artists like Buddy Rogers, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Woody Herman and Ozzie Nelson stopped in Portland, Oregon first and then traveled along the Russian River before moving on to Santa Cruz. Playing at venues in Guerneville, Rio Nido, Forestville and Healdsburg, there were plenty of opportunities to dance or just listen to music. There was dancing seven nights a week and the cost was 50 cents on weeknights and 75 cents on weekends.
Getting from one place to the next along the lower Russian River was easy to do, and an adventure in and of its own with water taxis making rounds from Monte Rio to Guerneville, or from the Rio Nido Dance Hall back to a hotel in Monte Rio. There were several boats that taxied vacationers to and fro. “Bidwell Green’s boat was called the Russian River #3019. It had a seating capacity of 22 people but then was expanded to fit 32 passengers,” said Schubert, who remembers riding the boat as a kid.
There were three other boats making regular trips to various hot spots along the lower Russian River as well: the Montrio, the Sonoma and the Anona were their names. The Sonoma was more of an excursion boat that would take tourists to the Jenner area and back.
Another main attraction along the Russian River was in Healdsburg where Fitch Mountain and Merryland Beach were the two main attractions. Merryland Beach is where Memorial Beach is today, and it was also home to a water taxi/excursion boat that would basically take passengers from one side of the river to the other. “It was short-lived but very cool,” said Holly Hoods, research curator for the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society. The paddleboat could seat 75 and would take beach goers from the shores of Merryland Beach across the river to a restaurant/bar called “The Ark.”
The Palomar dance hall at Del Rio Woods in the Fitch Mountain area was a popular venue that featured the big bands that also played on the lower Russian River. “It had a really good swimming beach and a general store, too,” said Hoods.
Visitors often stayed at Camp Rose, also on Fitch Mountain. Camp Rose became another summer home community on the Russian River. “During the summer, moms and kids would spend the weekdays and then the fathers would join the family on the weekends,” explained Hoods.
Last but not least, was the French resort Villa Chanticleer, also located on Fitch Mountain. “It catered to the French-speaking tourists who visited from the city (San Francisco),” said Hoods. There were many repeat customers year after year and even a French chef was hired to cook the many delectable dishes that reminded the clientele of life in France.
The Villa Chanticleer still stands today and is used primarily as a meeting place for gatherings like weddings, conferences and seminars. Accessing the Villa now is just a hop, skip and a jump from the plaza in Healdsburg by car, but guests in 1910 would arrive by horse and buggy.
The Russian River area continues to see a steady stream of vacationers from the city and beyond. There are families who’ve passed down their summer homes from one generation to the next, and along with lots of day-trippers and weekenders, still exercise the tradition of summers spent on the Russian River—where beaches, musical entertainment and more still beckon.
by Millie Howie
There are those who are surprised to see throngs of smiling visitors strolling up and down the streets of Healdsburg, shopping, dining and tasting wines, but there is really nothing new about the lure of this relatively small town. From its earliest days, Healdsburg’s citizenry enjoyed having fun and devised dozens of ways to celebrate the beauty of its setting, its salubrious climate and spirit of fun.
One of the greatest attractions in Healdsburg, the tree-studded Plaza in the heart of town, owes its existence to the foresight of the town’s founder, Harmon Heald who made a gift of the verdant square to the town dedicating its use, forever, as a pleasure ground to be held free from business or public buildings.
Healdsburg is blessed to be sited within its own wide curve of the Russian River that flows past Geyserville, passing though Alexander Valley and in two large loops wraps itself around Fitch Mountain before turning to run south to the Pacific Ocean. In season, the Russian River offered fishing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking and an exciting sequence of water pageants drawing city residents north where enterprising entrepreneurs welcomed them with resort accommodations set up on the slopes of Fitch Mountain. The grandest of these, Villa Chantecler (sic), went through several transformations before its 17-acres of parkland and its rustic lodge, complete with ballroom, dining room, lounge and horse-shoe shaped bar, were purchased by the City of Healdsburg.
Some of the most colorful events staged in Healdsburg owe their creation to the routine summer damming of the river at Veterans Memorial Beach, creating a four-mile length of quiet and deeper water. A good many of the old-time water festivals are no longer indulged in, but for many years, visitors from up and down the state flocked to the Swim and Ski Festival, sponsored by the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce each August.
The festivities began with a swim meet, held in the open water of the Russian River at Memorial Beach on Saturday of the two-day event. Fourteen swim events were scheduled and approximately 300 youngsters participated. Sunday was dedicated to a daredevil water ski exhibition with comedy acts by clowns and their trained dogs and a thrilling ski-jump competition.
Off and on, from 1907 through the 1950s, with interruptions during the two World Wars, Healdsburg staged some of the most resplendent festivals and carnivals ever held in the state. The annual Water Carnival, combining sports competitions on land and water, concerts and even auditions for roles in motion pictures, had its own queen who presided over the two-day fête. The carnival began on a Saturday with a parade to the river where floats, including one spectacular creation in the shape of a swan, passed in review. Activities continued with competitions climaxing with hose-cart races that attracted teams of fire fighters from Mill Valley, San Rafael, Petaluma and Healdsburg. The day concluded with a concert in the Plaza, a grand electrical illumination, fireworks and dancing.
Another of the grand draws to the area were the Geysers, which brought health-seekers and the curious to see the phenomenon often referred to as the second greatest natural wonder in California, surpassed only by Yosemite National Park.
When William Elliott stumbled upon the geothermal fields of the Geysers while out tracking a grizzly in 1847, he unwittingly set the stage for a tourist attraction that would draw visitors from around the world and include visits by three presidents, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Grant, and noted journalists such as Mark Twain and Horace Greeley. The Geysers soon became a renowned tourist spectacle and resorts with fanciful names were quickly built to provide accommodations for those seeking the healing powers of the steam jets.
Stages pulled by teams of six horses made daily trips up the Redwood Highway from Petaluma to Cloverdale. The most famous and hair-raising rides were those with legendary driver Clark Foss at the reins. Writers of the period chronicled Foss’ “casual disregard of precipices as he careened along the narrow roads, over Hog’s Back Ridge where on each side the mountain plunged straight down thousands of feet to the ravines below.”
All of the major hotels in Sonoma County advertised stage trips to the Geysers. Roads were built from Healdsburg and Cloverdale. When journalist Bayard Taylor visited in 1862, he reported: “The rocks burn under you. You are enveloped in fierce heat, strangled by puffs of diabolical vapor and stunned by the awful hissing, spitting, sputtering, roaring, as of a thousand hell-cats.”
In 1871 the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad reached Healdsburg, bringing carloads of tourists from the Bay Area and helped put the Russian River and Healdsburg on the map as a desirable vacation spot. Additional easy access to the popular recreational area was provided when the Sonoma County Transportation Company began operation of regular runs between Healdsburg and Santa Rosa on six auto-buses that could carry 18 passengers each. Next came the Golden Gate auto ferries, then the Golden Gate Bridge was completed and the rush was on.
Still, basically, Healdsburg was an agricultural town. As Prohibition forced the closure of the area’s wineries, vineyards were ripped out and prune trees were planted. The more enterprising grape growers, who thought the Volstead Act would soon be repealed, hedged their bets by planting their trees between the rows of vines.
Prune crops flourished and Healdsburg became celebrated as “The Buckle on the Prune Belt.” Then with the residents’ unquenchable spirit of frivolity and pride in the bounty from their fertile valleys, one of the most beloved and best-remembered celebrations was born — the Annual Prune Blossom Tour. Every March, as millions of fluffy white blossoms transformed thousands of acres of valley orchards into seas of snow, the word went out that, for one full weekend, the prune was king. The 30-mile pilgrimage began with free coffee and prune cookies at the Villa Chanticleer (by then the spelling of its name had changed). Drivers of private cars and busloads (as many as 23 from Oakland alone) followed the curving roads through Alexander and Dry Creek valleys, some stopping for the antique show at the Alexander Valley Church, and all assembling at some point between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. for an old-fashioned country lunch at the Alexander Valley Community Hall. Cost of the lunch was $1.75 for adults and 75 cents for kids under 12.
With the Repeal of the 18th Amendment and the first signs of the renaissance of the California wine industry, much of the promotional activities of Healdsburg and its environs became centered on wine. One of the most successful of these ventures was the Russian River May Wine Fest sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce annually, starting in 1971. Estimates were that more than 5,000 tickets had been sold and recognition of Healdsburg and its surrounding vineyards had started their climb to prominence. Recognition of the quality of the region’s wines had begun.
Time has brought some new “must see” spots, such as Warm Springs Dam with its hatchery, hiking trails and a host of other outdoor offerings. New hotels, bed and breakfasts and a wide selection of restaurants presenting a diversity of cuisines now add to the hospitality and charm of Healdsburg as do fascinating shops catering to every imaginable taste.
And not all of the early recreational events have been discontinued. The best example of the longevity of Healdsburg’s traditional, predominantly local and agricultural events is the Future Farmer Country Fair now in its 67th appearance (to be held on May 26, 2016). The Twilight Parade, animal auctions and arts and crafts exhibits prove indisputably that Healdsburg respects its heritage as a farm-based city and holds fast to the values of its founding generations.
What lures visitors from all points of the compass to Healdsburg may change, but the eternal beauty of this river area and its friendly inhabitants make it worth the journey from where you are to here any time of the year. SD