"Picnickers Out in Force"
Tourism's rowdy beginnings
Sonoma Valley’s world-class wine and restaurants, rural scenery and small communities attract people from all over the world. Those of us who make our homes here know that there are two sides to living in a tourist destination. Traffic along the Highway 12 corridor is getting worse and the number of winery events has been rising at a frightening pace. Crime Watch reports in the Kenwood Press like “a lot of noise from drunk people yelling at 3 a.m.” seem to be getting more common. Meanwhile, local renters and home buyers are being squeezed out by high-prices and Airbnb.
This is not the first time our community has faced these kinds of issues. The arrival of the first train in Glen Ellen in 1882 heralded the beginnings of tourism here. Before that, getting from San Francisco to Glen Ellen required riding a ferry to Lakeville on the Petaluma River, catching a stagecoach to Sonoma and then another to Glen Ellen. It took most of the day, one way.
Once the railroad arrived, the roundtrip could be made in a single day. The area became known for its charm and natural beauty, and tourists began pouring in. Kenwood sprang up when a second track came through in 1887, connecting Glen Ellen to Santa Rosa. In May 1890, the Daily Alta California newspaper reported that 2,000 people had attended a picnic for the Young Men’s Catholic Union in Glen Ellen. It was a “great success socially and financially. Picnickers arrived at noon, and from that time until about 5:30 o’clock dancing was indulged in.” It took four separate trains to bring that crowd from San Francisco.
Similar events happened almost daily in the warmer months. Sunday excursion trains arrived at noon, disgorging their passengers like cruise ships docked in an exotic port. It was the 19th-century equivalent of a flash mob. In May 1891 it was reported that there would be a picnic in Glen Ellen “every day this week.” Three years later, a headline proclaimed, “Picnickers Out in Force Everywhere; Jams at the Ferry Landings; Crowds Return with Wild Flowers from the Fields and Fish from the Streams.”
It wasn’t just the environment that was being trashed. Just like today, some visitors behaved themselves, some didn’t. The Daily Alta told of “a party of hoodlums who went along with a San Francisco Sunday picnic to Glen Ellen. When the train reached Sonoma, fifty roughs raided and virtually wrecked Lanx’s railroad saloon.”
“You just had a lot of people here during the summer,” recalled Milo Shepard, Jack London’s great-grand nephew, born in Glen Ellen in 1925. “Glen Ellen had about eight hotels and a dozen bars,” he said. Milo’s mother “wouldn’t allow the girls downtown by themselves; they always had to have an adult with them. So much drinking – those fraternal clubs would come up for the day. Come up on the train and go back on the train.“
The early tourism boom was good for the economy and helped grow the town we know today. But it also gave Glen Ellen a reputation. It was that tarnished reputation that sparked the sentiment behind an 1897 story titled “Sonoma People Up in Arms: Aroused Against Making the Town a Sunday Resort – Attempt of the Railroad to Lease the Vallejo Place for Picnics.” The article mentions the long-term railroad lease on the Glen Ellen picnic grounds and how Vallejo’s daughter turned down the railroad’s offer.
Vacation rentals were a huge business. Some of the most venerable homes in the area rented out rooms by the week or month. Full meal plans were available too. A newspaper ad promised visitors to Glen Oaks Ranch: “Old Oak trees surrounding house. Romantic canyon close to ranch. Large, airy rooms. Can accommodate 20. Adults $7 a week, children under 12, $4.” Ten other places in Glen Ellen were advertised on the same page. Many locals depended on the income from renting their homes to make ends meet.
Prohibition followed by the Great Depression ended that first tourism boom. Eventually things picked up again. In the 1960s the Hell’s Angels were the rowdies, drinking and carousing at the Rustic Inn, which sat where the Glen Ellen Village Market is now. Another road house operated a half-mile out of town on Warm Springs Road. In the 1970s, we adopted the label ‘Wine Country,’ and tourism has been growing steadily ever since.
Tourism has its issues, but it has also given us some of our most beloved and illustrious citizens. Jack London was a tourist on his early visits to Glen Ellen. Former Fire Chief Bill Murray first came up with his family from San Francisco in the early 1930s. “We were summer people,” he said. After a career as a San Francisco fireman, he built a house and moved to Waldruhe Heights on Sonoma Mountain.
Nobody I know is hoping our tourism issues will be solved by another Prohibition or Great Depression. A hundred years ago, the tourist season was limited to half the year. Today it lasts nearly 12 months. What is the right balance between accommodating visitors and quality-of-life for residents? It’s a complicated question that will only be answered through creativity and persistence, by many people, a little at a time.