In the years straddling the turn of the last century, it seemed everyone in Santa Rosa was coming and going to the Russian River during the summer months. For many of them, however, the appeal of the river area had less to do with water activities than the siren call of rocking chairs in rented cabins, croquet and bowling and billiards with friends from town, hotel service, and for some above all, eating.

View Russian River train stops and resorts c. 1900-1909 in a larger map

RIGHT: Russian River train stops and resorts c. 1900-1909. Blue markers indicate Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) passenger stops; red markers show resorts or other tourist destinations

Much has been written about the river scene from the mid-1920s onward, but info about the first decade of the river resorts is scarce, although they were a central part of Santa Rosa life in early 20th century summers. Where exactly were these places, and what were they like? Why would someone prefer to go to Camp Vacation instead of Summerhome Park? After picking through out-of-town newspaper ads, railroad timetables, maps and atlases and all those “personal mention” columns tracking local residents, I present (what I believe to be) the first cross-referenced map of the Russian River byways during that era.

My early confusion centered upon the tangled names. Some spots were known by two or more – the Olivet train stop became Woolsey and Trenton became Laguna, for instance – and making matters worse, the Santa Rosa newspapers were sometimes sloppy about accuracy. Before Eaglenest became Rionido, then later Rio Nido, it was also in the papers as Eagle Nest, Eagle’s Nest and Eagle’s Nest Camp. And don’t even ask about Camp Six.

It’s also tricky to judge the popularity of any of these places. A new get-away popped up almost every summer during those years, while the paint was still almost fresh on the oldest resort, only about a dozen years old. Time spent anywhere on the river was still a novelty, something to talk about with your neighbors and friends, and the next time you went maybe you’d try another place that you’d heard good things about.

Today it’s hard to imagine the Russian River wasn’t always a tourist destination, but most thanks for transforming a no-man’s-land of redwood stumps into a primo resort area goes to north coast railroad baron A. W. Foster, president of the Northwestern Pacific (NWP). Mr. Foster is best remembered as a heartless supervillain in the 1905 “Battle of Sebastopol Avenue” (although it’s more likely that history has given him a bum rap). As logging was winding down in the mid-1890s, Foster saw an opportunity to cash in on the growing popularity of Sunday excursion trips and vacation rentals, as best told in the often-quoted (but rarely credited) book “Redwood Railways” by Gilbert Kneiss:

To Foster, however, belongs much of the credit for opening up the Russian River country as a vacation land. Informal camping in the forests and two-week rocking-chair sojourns at American plan, pitcher, basin, and thunder-mug resort hotels had long been common. Foster was thinking in terms of summer homes and traffic for the Guereneville Branch where logged out country had left rusty rails. He bought some of the cut-over land, now green an bushy with second growth…[soon] Guerneville converted itself from a hard-drinking, bullwhacking lumber camp to a village of parasols, mandolins, and ice-cream sodas.

It’s not the job of this Santa Rosa-centric blog to tell the story of railroads, but I wish more history was available on how Foster and his railway developed this area. Did the NWP plan and build the resorts, then selling or leasing them once profitable? The intriguing thread tying most of the resorts together was Santa Rosa’s industrious Cnopius family, who were apparently managing nearly all of them at different times between 1896 and 1906. Did they work for Foster? Mrs. L. C. Cnopius (no first name found, sorry) was particularly key to the progress, and her importance was even noted in San Francisco obituaries. Mrs. Cnopius is also known here for being the last direct victim of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake.

TOP: Section of the Camp Vacation dining room, 1908. Note the hungry fellow peering through the window
RIGHT: Boating at Camp Vacation, 1907
MIDDLE: NWP Locomotive No. 99, “Coffee Grinder”
BOTTOM: Boarding the eastbound passenger train at Guernewood Park, probably 1909. Note the pile of luggage at the far end

Dining room photo courtesy UC/Berkeley, all others courtesy Sonoma County Library

CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge

The first resort to open was Mirabel Park, which soon became a particularly popular spot for large groups – unions, churches, fraternal organizations – to hold day-long Sunday picnics. So great was Mirabel’s appeal that it threatened the overall success of the area. In the 1900 San Francisco papers it was reported  that “many families fear to take [Russian River trains] owing to the dread of coming in contact with Sunday picnics,” although the railway assured the public that “this road has had no trouble on this score.” Still, they promised to herd picnickers into separate train cars: “In the future, therefore, no one traveling on the California Northwestern Railway on Sundays will come in contact with Sunday picnics.”

Mirabel Park was also somewhat unusual in this era for having a “villa” offering actual boarding rooms. More common were partially-furnished bungalows for rent or sale, should you have the overwhelming urge to buy a tiny shack with no running water or electricity. And these cottages near the river did not sell cheap; ads from real estate brokers listed them for $400 up, about three times more than a place in Camp Meeker.

Bungalows were suited for anyone spending the season on the river or planning to entertain friends, as many people did. But most people vacationing for a few days or so stayed at one of the tent hotels, adults $2/day, $10 per week, children under ten half-price. An advertisement for Camp Vacation describes the accommodations: “To sleep beneath a tent, to pass the day in the open air and have nothing else to do is to camp with luxury. Camp Vacation makes this easy for all. It is a hotel under canvas. Regular hotel service is furnished, but the guests live in tents. The tents are provided with wooden floors, are well furnished and are taken care of by those in charge.”

Meals were included in the deal, and the all-you-can-eat grub seemed to be as much an attraction as the Great Outdoors. In a September, 1908, San Francisco Call how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation writing contest, 8th grader Ruth Moore told of her good times at one of the tent hotels:

My vacation was spent in the beautiful redwood groves of Sonoma county…we arrived at Montesano station about 3 p. m. and lugged our heavy baggage up hill, over stumps, rocks, brush and other obstructions to our camping grounds. Then our troubles were over. Nothing to do but eat, sleep and seek pleasure….

…When I first arrived at the camp I did not have a very big appetite, and I was surprised to see my friends eat. Their table manners seemed to have been left at home. They grabbed everything in sight with both hands. They would drink out of the bucket in preference to using a cup and wipe their mouths on the tablecloth.

But in about three days I was just as bad. I simply could not get enough to eat, and how good everything did taste. I never did get enough of hot cakes and maple syrup any morning…

For Santa Rosans and other locals, the most popular resorts – or at least, the most often mentioned in the newspaper columns – were Camp Vacation, just across the river from Bohemian Grove, and Eaglenest, location of modern-day Rio Nido. The latter included bungalows and a true resort hotel, complete with a “box ball” bowling alley (a cross between a half-length 9 pin bowling lane and and a looooong coffee table, often found in arcades at the time – photo here). Besides four miles of beaches,  Camp Vacation offered tennis courts, and it’s worth noting that tennis and box ball bowling were among the few genteel sports where women could compete against men.

But maybe the best part of those months was having the entire lower river available as your personal playground. When passenger and freight trains weren’t scheduled, the railway used the tracks to offer a kind of trolley service using an ancient steam engine and open railway car recycled from the old timber days. Meeting your friends at a particular swimming hole by catching a ride on the “Coffee Grinder” –  which looked like an oversized toy, and puffed away at less than ten miles per hour – added to summer’s delight.

Even the James Wyatt Oates family joined the river stampede, in their own way. The couple escorted a couple of girls a family friend and her daughter to a 1909 house party at the home of Charles Rule in Jenner, where they visited at least once a year every summer or autumn.

This chapter of the resorts ended in late 1909, when the NWP line finally met the narrow gauge railway that came up the coast. After that the railroad began promoting the “Triangle Trip” Sunday excursion trains from San Francisco, a 150-mile ride with a little stopover at Monte Rio. A day out of the city sitting on trains while watching some nice scenery, then home for dinner. Oh, look, there’s a beach. Those trees look tall. Gee, I wish there was only some way I could stop thinking about work.

NEXT: Big Changes on the Russian River in 1910

To Interfere With Regular Sunday Travel.

The California Northwestern Railway is making heavy preparations for handling next season’s business, and among other things will give special attention to its Sunday travel. The section which this road traverses is more than attractive for short Sunday trips, but many families fear to take them owing to the dread of coming in contact with Sunday picnics. While it is true this road has had no trouble on this score, it is determined to eliminate from the minds of the public all idea of this contact. Although the picnics up the road to Mirabel Park, etc., have in the past been kept separate from the regular travel, there will be none whatever this coming year, and those attending Schuetzen Park will be run on separate boats and trains. In the future, therefore, no one traveling on the California Northwestern Railway on Sundays will come in contact with Sunday picnics.

– SF Call, November 11, 1900


I hear that box ball in the bowling alley at Eaglenest has been a fascinating pastime for a number of our society women who have been spending a portion of their vacation there during the past few weeks. So interested did they become, some of them, in the sport, that quite a little good-natured rivalry was aroused as to who could make the highest score. I know one lady who made a record score, but social excommunication is threatened if the newspaper divulges the name. Some of the best players, however, are members of the Irene Club and some of them have been guests of Mrs. Charles A. Wright at her bungalow at Eaglenest.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, August 9, 1909


Colonel and Mrs. Oates, Mrs. Dorothy Farmer and Miss Hazel Farmer were included in a house party at Rule Ranch as the guests of Charles H. Rule. Colonel Oates will return the first of the week, but the ladies will remain for several days longer. The hospitality of Rule Ranch is always very cordial.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, September 19, 1909


Camp Vacation Will be Known as Rio Campo

Camp Vacation  as the name of a railroad station on the Northwestern Pacific is a thing of the past. In future the place will be known as Rio Campo and unless the name of the popular resport which was created by Lewis C. Cnopius is maintained, the name of Camp Vacation  will disappear forever. To the efforts of Mr. Cnopius and the late Mrs. Cnopius Camp Vacation  owes its great popularity as a resort and its wide reputation over the state.

With the changes that come and go. the railroad company has determined to call the station at the place Rio Campo, and with the completion of the bridge near that place there will be no other stops on this side of the river for the trains will continue their journey across the bridge and on down to Monte Rio.

With the coming summer season the loop completed by this bridge will make the redwoods section even more popular than it has been heretofore. Annually thousands of visitors spend their vacations in this delightful section.

The rails are laid on the Monte Rio side of the river, and everything is in readiness to connect the same when the officials give orders for the same.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 21, 1909

Read More


There were two really good parties in 1905 Santa Rosa, and you weren’t invited to either of them.

Not a week passed without the papers describing a party or three. There seemed to be no end to the social clubs that apparently existed for no other reasons than to throw parties. Mattie Oates was a prominent member of “The Bunch,” which rented a hall at least a couple of times a year for a big shindig, including one on New Year’s Night, 1906. More common were ad-hoc clubs that were an excuse to get together and play cards at a member’s home. One such ladies’ group was the Fork Club, which awarded the best player a silver fork, and was actually a spinoff from the Cup and Saucer Club, which gave away… wait for it… cups and saucers.

If the house party was thrown by a family, it seems that there was an unwritten rule that there had to be an associated theme, such as the “Dutch Colonial” prizes given out at the housewarming at Comstock House. Cute, but despite the effusive praise always doled out by the society editor, these events sound pretty bland; you sit with your friends around card tables and play “500” (or another variation of Euchre) until someone scores high enough to win the fork. Play you next month for the dishware?

One party stood out far away from the others: The women’s Ghost Party on Monroe street. Here the house was tricked out with glow-in-the-dark effects (this is 1905, remember) and guests were expected to dress as ghosts, devils, or demons. None of the guests were allowed to speak or unmask until two games of dominoes were played. No giveaway of trinkets here. The whole affair sounds as if it was quite novel, interesting, and, well, Goth.

But the big social event of 1905 was the coming of Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Teddy.

Alice Roosevelt was the 20th century’s first true celebrity — someone famous for the sake of being famous. She was the darling of her age, adored and reviled in equal measure. With an annual allowance more than her father’s salary as President of the United States (coming from separate trusts established by her late mother’s parents), she lived a life of luxury among the super-wealthy Newport set; “I care for nothing except to amuse myself in a charmingly expensive way,” she wrote in her diary.

She smoked cigarettes, drove an automobile, stayed out late unescorted, gambled with bookies, and smuggled booze into a formal dinner where alcohol was not served. A family friend remarked that Alice was like a “young wild animal that had been put into good clothes.”

Newspapers were always eager to print the latest true-or-no reports of “scandalous” behavior by the First Daughter, and now that Alice was 21, it was decided that she would be sent tagging along with Secretary of War William Howard Taft on a four month junket to Asia. The train caravan loaded with the Roosevelt-Taft entourage arrived in San Francisco July 4, and Alice celebrated Independence Day by shooting at telephone poles with her revolver (!) and slipping away from her chaperones for a visit to the city’s notorious Chinatown. But the day before the boat sailed, she was the guest of honor at that all-male bastion of power, Bohemian Grove.

This was not a Sonoma County party or even a San Francisco gala society luncheon, but a West Coast reception for Alice as ambassador to the White House. There were at least 140 guests, including the California Governor, elected officials at the national and state levels, European nobility, Cabinet members, judges, military leaders, noted scholars, and even Mrs. Phoebe Hearst. But the only three invited guests from this area were Rep. McKinlay of Santa Rosa and his wife, plus Luther Burbank.

In her autobiography she mentioned the banquet in passing (“we lunched at the Bohemian Club Grove, where the Bohemian Club, one of the most famous organizations in the country, holds its annual ‘jinks,’ in the sun-flecked gloom of the great redwood trees…”) but as described in the Press Democrat article below, there was more to it than a lunch in the woods: “As the guests alighted from the train they were greeted by music from a male chorus concealed on the mountainside,” and apparently it only got more luxe from there.

Alice married a few months later, and newspapers predictably had a field day over her White House wedding, many publishing special supplements with pictures suitable for framing (the PD offered a large front page spread with photographs). Valuable gifts poured in from world governments, as if it were the wedding for President Teddy himself. King Edward VII gave her a gold snuffbox with his portrait in diamonds; the Kaiser sent a bracelet with his portrait in diamonds. The Cuban government had to be talked out of giving her an entire bedroom suite studded with jewels. So many presents were sent that many went directly to storage, and over sixty years later, an inventory found stacks of wedding gifts that were never opened.

After the ceremony was over, Alice embraced her stepmother and thanked her for the wedding. Edith, who had been at loggerheads for a decade or more with the willful daughter of Teddy’s first wife, reportedly said, “I want you to know that I’m glad to see you go. You’ve never been anything but trouble.”

(This 1902 photo of Alice gazing into the camera is one of the few to show the full effect of her eyes, which were much commented upon. The Wikipedia entry is quite good for more about her life. All quotes and anecdotes found here, however, come from “Princess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth,” which I highly recommend, and her memoirs, “Crowded Hours,” which I do not.)




Great Hospitality Shown Distinguished People on Thursday–Elaborate Luncheon Served in Natural Amphitheatre While Sweet Music Steals Over the Woodland–Luther Burbank One of Guests

The special train bearing Secretary of War Taft, Miss Alice Roosevelt, and some two hundred other guests of President and Mrs. A. W. Foster of the California Northwestern railroad, arrived here on its way to Camp Bohemia Thursday morning at 10 o’clock.

A large crowd had gathered at the depot and when the train stopped to take on Luther Burbank, Judge and Mrs. Albert G. Burnett and Congressman and Mrs. D. E. McKinlay of this city, Miss Alice Roosevelt appeared on the rear platform and waved acknowledgement in the greetings extended by townspeople. Secretary Taft appeared at a car window, but did not come out.

All who saw Miss Roosevelt were charmed with her appearance. She was simply, yet elegantly gowned in lavender and white and wore a hat to match. Her intelligent face and winsome smiles reflected the sunny disposition which she is said to possess at all times, and she impresses one with the assurance that she is a hearty, unaffected American girl.

Camp Bohemia is in the redwoods, on the beautiful Russian river, about four miles from Guerneville. It has been made famous as annual meeting place of the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. On every hand forest giants tower to the skies, some being three or four hundred feet in height. As the guests alighted from the train they were greeted by music from a male chorus concealed on the mountainside and this proved to be only one of a series of pleasant surprises planned by the thoughtful host and hostess.

After spending something like an hour wandering through the giant grove enjoying its beauties, the attention of the guests was directed to the elaborate luncheon which had been prepared and which was spread on an immense circular table built beneath the redwoods in what is known as the amphitheatre. A beautiful fountain sprayed in the middle of the space surrounded by the table and ferns and choice California fruits were used for decoration.

The luncheon was served under the direction of the Bohemian Club’s famous chef and the orchestra under the direction of Prof. Vogt contributed the feast progressed, several of the selections having been composed especially for the occasion. The photographer accompanying the train took some fine pictures of the party at luncheon.

President Foster opened the speech-making by introducing Judge W. W. Morrow who was followed by Senator George C. Perkins, Governor George C. Pardee, Mr. Cheesebrough of San Francisco and Secretary Taft. The speeches consisted principally of felicitations. Secretary Taft ended his remarks by proposing a toast to “Our Alice.” At the table Secretary Taft sat next to Mrs. Foster and Miss Alice Roosevelt on the right of President Foster. Congressman “Nick” Longworth of Ohio sat next to Miss Foster.

After enjoying the elaborate menu, many of the guests rested on the lounging seats provided while others, including Miss Roosevelt, wandered through the grove again enjoying its beauty and grandeur…

…An entire carload of choice fruit was provided and four cars were required to transport the provisions and service. Fifty people were on hand to minister to the comfort and convenience of the guests. The luncheon menu was as follows: Oyster cocktail in grape fruit, consomme royale in cups, pecan nuts, ripe olives, roast squab, roast chicken, new peas, Roman salad, Parisienne potatoes, ice cream in own form with whipped cream, strawberries, fancy cakes, coffee, champagne, cordials, white rock water.


– Press Democrat, July 7, 1905



Many Fair Women Masquerade as “Ghosts” and the Party Scheme Was Very Cleverly Carried Out

Mrs. Edson C. Merritt and her sister, Miss Pauline Olson, were the hostesses at a “ghost party” last night at the Merritt residence on Monroe street at which a large number of their lady friends were guests and ghosts. The hostesses made the most elaborate preparations to have everything as realistically ghostly as possible. In face the scheme throughout was very cleverly conceived and carried out.

None but “ghosts” went to the party, as far as their outward appearance betrayed. The fair guests masked in most approved ghostly style, and in the array there were “hob goblins,” two or three impersonations of “his Satanic majesty,” and all kinds of ghosts.

The decorations of the handsome home were in accord with the general plan of the party. For instance when the guests passed into the house, they had to pass under portals of weeping willow. The creepy sensation that phosphorous in a dark room will produce was not forgotten and conveniently in view were several skulls and cross bones, numerous plicards and pictures, while ghostly colors were arranged so as to give the effect if was intended they should. In addition there were drapings of white sheets, etc.

It is somewhat hard to imagine such a state of affairs, but with all due respect to the ladies, quietness was preserved and in fact no one was allowed to speak during the first two games of dominoes. After that the “ghosts” were permitted to remove their masks and talk. Then they were the merriest of ghosts and a delightful time was passed and all present declared that it was the best planned and sustained party scheme they had ever witnessed. None but the fair sex were present at this party…A dainty supper was enjoyed and after midnight the ghosts “glided” to their own happy homes.

– Press Democrat, February 25, 1905

Read More