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Sunday, February 07, 1982

John Lawley, area Pioneer

Ernest D. Wichels

During the past 18 years, this column has presented brief sketches of more than 80 Napa and Solano County pioneer families.

Most names are familiar to us today in present-day families, places or historical landmarks such as Chiles, Vaca, Pope, Mizner, Dillon, Coombs, Hilton, Frisbie, the Vallejos, Brownlies, Mankas, Morrill, and others.  This afternoon in Calistoga, the Napa County Historical-Society presents a pioneer name that seems to have been lost over the years, yet one that occupies an indelible place in local history. Past president John Wichels of the Napa Society will make the presentation.  John Lawley was that pioneer. And al-though upper Napa County is the setting, thousands of Vallejo and Solano families were (and are) familiar with his works.

In early days the only route to travel to the famous -Lake County resorts was via Calistoga and over the Lawley Toll Road on Mount St. Helena. The summit toll house is stilt there. Or today when you pass the historic Bale Mill near’ St. Helena, remember it was Lawley who helped to build it 130 years ago.  Author John Wichels has written a 6,000-word biographical. sketch on Lawley. Today’s column will attempt to condense it in one-tenth the space.  Lawley was born in Alabama on Dec. 6, 1815, reared on a farm, and was engaged in teaching and operating mills and marbleworks. In 1852 he set out for California, worked a short while in the gold mines, then came to St. Helen and farmed the Kellogg Ranch northwest of Calistoga. (Kellogg was the name for the post office in Knights Valley on the highway to Geyserville.)

In 1854 he established a grain business in Napa City, which he operated until 1872 his huge warehouse known as the “Banner” warehouse on the river.  In the meantime he purchased a large tract of land in Berryessa Valley, where he eventually moved and farmed until 1877. He then engaged in quicksilver mining in Pope Valley.  It was in 1866 that he began to construct a toll road over the Mount St. Helena gap into Lake County from Calistoga. He completed this in 1868.  While farming the Kellogg ranch, he met and married Cynthia Ann Williams, a niece of Florentine Kellogg.  One of their four children was Mary (or Molly), and after John Lawley’s death in 1906, she and the Lawley family operated the toll road until the state eventually purchased it. Many of our present readers will still re-member Molly Patton (her married name), who operated the toll house facilities for travelers.

Lawley was prominent in many Napa ventures. When Nathan Coombs Sr. laid out the plat map of Napa City in 1848, he reserved a block for a courthouse. Until the 1870s, when the courthouse was built (now the old courthouse on the same location), it was Lawley and Lafferts who operated a lumber yard on that site.  When the original corporation for a Napa Valley steam railroad was organized in 1864 (with such names as Goodman, Hartson, Brannan and Yount(, John Lawley was one of the first subscribers.  Incidentally, Lasley’s first warehouse on Napa River was about where Fifth Street and Main Street meetÂ? later the site of the Uncle Sam Winery, a huge brick building.

We might mention here that in acquiring land in Berryessa Valley in the 1860s, Lawley and his two associates paid $100,000 for 26,000 acres or less than $4 an acre!  It was Lawley and his farm workmen who built the first passable road between Berryessa Valley and Napa - now the scenic Monticello Road.  Lawley was civic-minded too; he served a term as coroner of Napa County. In the 1870s when Napa had but one hank, the James H. Goodman Bank, Lawley was one of the trustees who organized another bank- the Bank of Napa.

But it is the toll road that will forever remain as the monument to pioneer Lawley.  By 1862 Sam Brannan had opened his resort in Calistoga; he and Nathan Coombs then operated a stage line (horses, of course) from Napa, and Coombs operated an independent stage line from Benicia. to Napa, which’ serviced the town of Vallejo.  When Brannan et al decided on a railway, it was Lawley who saw the opportunity of cargo destined to Lake County being unloaded in Calistoga and needing trucks six- and eight-horse teams in some cases to cross the mountain on Lawley’s Toll Road, of course.

Later stage coaches made that road (now State Route 29) famous under the three decades that Bill Spiers had a monopoly on freight wagons and stages over Mt. St. Helena.  It was the Lawley Toll Road that made Middletown. and such spas as Adams, Seiglers, Anderson, Harbin and Caldwell.

It should be noted here that the Calistoga terminus for Spier’s stages was the Hotel Calistoga famous in itself to world travelers—whose owner and “mein host” was Owen Kenn. father of Vallejo’s own Arthur J. Kenny of the S&K Chevrolet.

Lawley has three contemporaries, pioneers of Napa who all lie buried within a stone’s throw of each other in the St. Helena Cemetery.

They are Chief Justice S.C. Hastings (for whom Hastings Law School is named), Charles Krug the landmark winery in Napa Valley), and Charles Beerstecher, first rail-road commissioner of the state of California.

History is all about us all we need to do is to recognize it.