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Sunday, August 24, 2003

City straddled Solano-Napa border

Jerry Bowen

Riverboat lost steam in 1850s

The subject of this column strays a little outside of Solano County, but the history of the area of the Soscol Grant that included the area designated as the “City of Soscol” covered portions of both Napa and Solano County. Our subject area is located just off of the Napa-Vallejo Highway at the junction of Soscol Road and Highway 29.

The original inhabitants of the valley were the Wappo with several sub-groups including the Patwin. The name Wappo was given by the Spanish and probably derived from the Spanish word “guapo,” meaning “handsome.” The natives were here at least 4,000 years before the Spaniards arrived. In 1831 there were an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 living in the valley.

During the early 19th century, on the site where the Soscol House is located today, was a small Patwin Indian village. The site was ideal in that it was close to the Napa River with its abundant fish supply and next to the old Indian trading route that likely followed today’s Highway 29. The Indians also used the Napa River as a trade and transportation route.

Sometime in the 1830’s General Vallejo, George Yount, (Yountville’s founder) and “Chief” Solano, combined forces in the “Battle of Soscol” against a group of invading Central Valley Indians. This clash resulted in about 100 casualties and took place a short distance across Soscol Creek west of the location of the Soscol House today. After the battle, 34 of the Indian dead were dragged to a nearby tidewater creek ravine formed by Soscol Creek and the Napa River and buried in a mass grave. It is not certain whether the Soscol Patwins aided Vallejo in this particular battle or in another minor skirmish that also took place at Soscol.

Apparently the site was in continuous use up until the late 1830s when cholera and smallpox epidemics wiped out most of the native population in the area.

Development of Soscol City began when General M.G. Vallejo gradually sold off portions of the Rancho Soscol, marking the transition from the Mexican era to the Anglo period. (1848-1869)

Sometime after receiving his Rancho Soscol grant from the Mexican government, General Vallejo laid out and surveyed a town site about a mile square. This site was in the general area of the future community at Soscol as shown on the Soscol Grant Map.

No one knows for sure what General Vallejo had planned for this community, but potential business opportunities in fast-growing Napa City were better than those in an unpopulated Soscol, so in 1848 he built the second general merchandise store in that city. He apparently saw no future in the Soscol land and gradually disposed of it through various grants and sales.

Among those who obtained portions of the rancho were brothers, William and Simpson Thompson, from Pennsylvania.

William Thompson arrived in San Francisco in 1849 and formed a partnership in a lumber business. In 1850 the business supplied material for California’s first State House built in Vallejo at General Vallejo’s expense. Vallejo paid for the lumber by giving William Thompson 320 acres of Rancho Soscol that included the town site of Soscol.

William Thompson’s brother, Simpson, arrived in San Francisco in 1852 and bought about 300 acres from General Vallejo that same year. He then set out to construct new buildings in the area.

This land was predominately tule-covered Napa River tidelands. Simpson Thompson dammed the waters of Soscol Creek and planted orchards on the rich reclaimed land. He became well-known in the region for his expertise in fruit cultivation and was the first farmer on the West Coast to introduce orchards which did not need irrigation. He also held the distinction of being the first permanent Anglo settler in Soscol.

Soscol was located near the only point on the Napa River where landings could be accomplished during low tides. Although Soscol had a strategic location in terms of transportation, its growth was limited due to the rapid economic expansion of nearby Napa City.

The Napa area grew rapidly after the winter storms of 1848 brought great numbers of unsuccessful gold-seekers to the Napa Valley where there was plenty of work. Cattle ranches were expanding, and the lumber industry was mushrooming. Agriculture was growing and there were goods to be traded and transported.

The village of Soscol began to grow as a transportation center for goods and passengers in and out of Napa County. It was a logical hub of transportation activities because it could support many modes of transport including stagecoaches, wagons, horseback and small steamboats. The future was looking up for the budding young community in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s.

In 1851-1852, the first improved county road between Vallejo and Napa City was built, passing close to Soscol City. In 1851, the United States government began to subsidize any stage operators who would carry U.S. mail. The result was an expansion in the number of stagecoach lines that also benefited the new town. Today we think of a stagecoach in terms of the type popularly depicted as the Wells Fargo style. The truth of the matter is that anything with wheels was used in those early days. One such local “stagecoach” was nothing more than a freight wagon with boards nailed across the back for seats that was used to introduce a line from San Francisco to Sacramento. Many of these local stage lines used the county road (today’s Highway 29) and stopped at Soscol.

Soscol City would continue to grow with the increased river and land traffic, even as Napa City grew. But events that always make or break any community began to foreshadow what the future of Soscol City would be. In 1850 the first steamboat navigated the Napa River to Napa City, eliminating the need to stop at Soscol to transfer cargo for land transport. In 1851, three additional steamers were added and by 1854 five more steamers of less than 50 tons each in size began to serve Napa City.

In my next column I’ll describe the continued growth and then decline of Soscol City and what survives today.