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Sunday, August 21, 1983

The Many Firsts in Napa County

Ernest D. Wichels

In 1926 two able historians, Marguerite Hunt and Harry L. Gunn, co-authored the “History of Solano and Napa Counties” in two volumes. It is an excellent source of information about the early days and the biographies of pioneers.

Hunt was then executive secretary of the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce and she was active in many Vallejo organizations.  Gunn, a native of Minnesota (1850), came to Calfiornia at the age of 19 and lived in Santa Clara; he then graduated from the College of the Pacific. After teaching for several years at West Point, Calif., he moved to Napa in 1878 and established the commercial department of the Napa College.

In 1893 he established the Napa Business College and was its president for 15 years. Coincidentally, he was chief deputy of the Napa County Clerk’s office for eight years. In 1902 he was elected County Recorder, a position he served in for 16 years.At the end of his public service he went into the fruit-raising business in the valley.  In 1880 he was married to Della Ercanbrack of Watsonville. The Gunns were parents of five children.

Beginning about 1908 the Napa Business College was operated by J.H. Janson, and it was under the latter’s presidency that your columnist was graduated.

Harry Gunn and Marguerite Hunt teamed up about 1925 to write the history of our two counties and did a superlative job.  Naturally, both were loyal to their resident counties. Gunn begins one essay by describing Napa Valley as one of the “most beautiful and healthful spots on this sun-kissed globe.”  Gunn wrote some four pages describing Napa County’s many “firsts.”  Within the limits of this column, we shall list just about half of them.

The first white man to settle in the valley was George C. Yount, on a Mexican Land Grant in 1836 where the town of Yountville stands.  The first church, known as the Old White Church, was built in the Tucker district above St. Helena.  The first log house was erected by Yount in 1836. It was 18 feet square on the ground floor and 20-by-22 feet on the second floor, with portholes for defense. This is now State Historical Marker No. 564. Next door was the first flour mill in Napa Valley, and it is said, in California, built by Yount.  In the 1860s these properties were purchased by another pioneer, Frederick William Ellis, who operated the flour mill until Vallejo’s Starr Sperry Mills began operations.

A great-granddaughter of Ellis is well-known to many of our readers: Mrs. Jack Hussey of Napa.  Napa’s first schoolhouse was built by William Nash near Tucker Creek in 1849 in the upper valley; it was a private school.  The first store was opened in 1848 by J.P. Thompson, in a building at the foot of Main Street. This site was later the United States Winery, on the riverfront.  Napa’s first courthouse, a brick building, was built in 1855, and the first blacksmith shop by A.W. Norton in the same year.  The first bank was organized by James H. Goodman and Co. in 1858, long before Vallejo’s first bank some 11 years later.

The first newspaper and Napa has had at least a dozen was the Napa County Reporter, issued July 4, 1856, by A.J. Cox who also operated newspapers in Sonoma and Vallejo. The first steamboat, the Dolphin, arrived in 1850, with Capt. Turner G. Baxter commanding.  For the first railroad, ground was broken in November 1864 and the first train passed over the tracks into the city of Napa on July 11, 1865. Its terminus was Thompson’s Gardens (foot of Suscol Creek, now the Kaiser plant). Later, about 1870, when the Napa Vallejo Steam Railroad went into bankruptcy and was purchased by Vallejo’s California Pacific (South Vallejo), the Napa line was joined between the current airport station and Napa Junction.

The first townsite for the city of Napa was laid out by the Hon. Nathan Coombs in 1849. He was assisted by a Mr. McGimsey. McGimsey’s grandson, Charles McGimsey, will be remembered as one of Dixon’s leading citizens for many years and president of the Dixon Agricultural Fair for numerous terms.

The. first telegraph line was run from Napa to Vallejo in 1858.  The city of Napa was first lighted with gas, as was Vallejo, in October 1867.  The first electric railroad, beginning from Vallejo’s Maine Street Wharf in 1904 reached Napa in 1905, and continued on to Calistoga by 1910.  The first automobile to run on the streets of Napa was manufactured in 1903 by Fred S. Jacks.

The first stock automobile, a single-cylinder Oldsmobile as bought by George Powers in 1903.

The first marriage license was recorded June 2, 1850, to William Munroe and Nancy Morgan.  In 1851 a toll bridge was built across Napa River above the Vernon Mills north of First Street.  The first adobe house was built by Cayetano Juarez. It still stands at the junction of state Route 29 and Silverado Trail.  Napa’s first telephone service was in the fall of 1883. 

Writing today, author Gunn might have said: “Napa is first in the production of premium table wines in the nation.”