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Sunday, April 10, 1983

Forgotten Tales

Ernest D. Wichels

There have been, literally, scores of historic items connected with our city and nearby counties which have been forgotten by our “seasoned” citizens and are completely unknown to most of the present generation.

For instance, few of our readers know that the current town of Crockett, even into this century, bore three names: Crockett, Valona and Vallejo Junction. The, latter two were justwest of the Carquinez Bridge.  Vallejo Junction was where the Southern Pacific Ferries from South and North Vallejo Wharves - and from Mare Island during World War I met the mainline trains.  Also “Vallejo Niles” has a fascinating historical tale.

Most readers, even though some of the younger set may not have seen a Charlie Chaplin movie, recognize the name of this world-famous star.

But how many know that, beginning in January 1915. The Essanay Movie Studios were located in Niles, Alameda County. And that the first five of , Chaplin’s movies were made there, including the famous “The Tramp,” that set the tempo kit. his future costumes.  What has this to do with local history? Early in the 1850s, Jose Vallejo, a brother of Mariano Vallejo, established a flour mill and the community was named “Vallejo Mills.”

Some years later the railroad obtained a right-of-way from Stockton to Oakland through this canyon, and built a depot at the mills. They named it “Niles” after the president of the railroad company.  One of the Vallejo ranch houses, now called the “Vallejo Adobe” is, we believe, still standing on the grounds of the California Nursery Co.

Another story concerns the eventual establishment of the world-famous Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, outside of San Jose.

Indirectly, we were a part of the original search by James Lick for a site for an observatory.  The Vallejo Evening Chronicle of July 13, 1875, tells us; “The astronomical observatory to be erected on this coast by Mr. James Lick, which was first contemplated to be built on a mountain near Lake Tahoe, is likely to be built on Mount St. Helena. Mr. Lick, now sojourning at the Vallejo White. Sulphur Springs ( Blue Rock ), has visited Mount St. Helena and thinks it-a favorable location.

What changed his mind?  A more recent item, which seems to be totally forgotten, concerns Vallejo’s one-time daily hydroplane service between here and the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

In the late 1920s, for many months, there was hydroplane passenger service between the foot of the Virginia Street wharf and San Francisco. It was an attraction for many local residents to go down to the waterfront and watch the planes land in Mare Island Strait, and then take off.  Musical historians know of the wondrous Jersey Lily, the internationally famous operatic star who came from the English Channel isle of Jersey and during the 1880s was the pet of America’s grand opera fans. Her name was Lily Langtry.

It was while appearing as the star of the San Francisco Opera Co’s season in the early 1890s that the Jersey Lily decided to leave the stage and take up stock raising and become a-rural “queen.”  She purchased several thousand acres in Lake County a few miles southeast of Middletown on the Butts Canyon Road which leads into Pope Valley erected a home (which still stands), stock barns and a race track.

She had her own palatial railway car which she parked on the Southern Pacific spur tracks in Calistoga. When she decided to go to “The City” (San Francisco) she would take this passenger car (attached to the regular steam train) to South Vallejo and board a sternwheeler.  Few of our present-day choral and opera buffs are aware that the famous Lily Langtry made regular trips through our city for four years.  Likewise, few readers are aware that the first - - “blockhouse” ever built in California was constructed in 1836 two miles northeast of Yountville by George Yount on his 11,000-acre Rancho Caymus.

Yount, who came here from North Carolina with the Wolfskill party, built this 18-foot square tower, with lower room portholes for defense. Nearby, in 1837, he built his adobe house and, on the banks of the Napa River, his grist and saw mills. California State Historical Marker No. 564 - identifies this location today, since all of the buildings have disappeared.