A History of Grizzly Hunters, Healing Springs, Mining Towns and Electricity
As you drive up Pine Flat Road, along the last and most challenging miles of the Geysers Recharge Project pipeline, it is not hard to imagine the 1870’s stagecoach driver, Clark Foss, charging his team of horses up the unpaved, narrow and steeply winding road. His breathtaking and often terrifying trips from the floor of the Alexander Valley to the burgeoning mining town of Pine Flat and on to The Geysers, left his passengers alternately weak at the knees, begging for more, or both.
The Geysers region is rich in history - from the early Native American tribes that inhabited the area, to the circa 1850’s grizzly bear hunter who first reported the menacing fumaroles and bubbling hot springs, mistakenly identifying them as “Geysers,” in a misnomer that remains to this day.
From the first adventure seekers and curious souls who came to see the natural wonders for themselves, to the bustling tourism trade offering fashionable hotels and spas for guests to take advantage of the steamfields’ famed healing powers.
From the mining town of Pine Flat that sprang forth in 1873 on the promised riches of mercury ore and almost as quickly disappeared two years later when the price of quicksilver rapidly declined, to the energy companies who first began harnessing the Geysers steam to generate electricity in the 1920’s.
Through the years and the region’s myriad incarnations, many notable people visited The Geysers area including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Jack London and Luther Burbank. After the town of Pine Flat met its decline, Robert Louis Stevenson considered moving into one of the abandoned homes with his bride. But on advice to stay closer to Calistoga, he eventually took up housekeeping in another old mining town a few miles from Pine Flat; an experience he recounted in “The Silverado Squatters.”
“It was with an eye on one of these deserted places, Pine Flat, on the Geysers road, that we had come first to Calistoga. There is something singularly enticing in the idea of going, rent-free, into a ready-made house. …Food, however, has yet to be considered. Fresh meat must be had on an occasion. It is true that the great Foss, driving by … wooden-faced, but glorified with legend, might have been induced to bring us meat, but the great Foss could hardly bring us milk. To take a cow would have involved taking a field of grass and a milkmaid; after which it would have been hardly worthwhile to pause, and we might have added to our colony a flock of sheep and an experienced butcher.” – Robert Lewis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters, Published 1883, Chattus and Windus, London
Pine Flat Yesterday and Today
Hordes of fortune seekers flocked to The Geysers area in a quicksilver mining rush that began in 1873. Clark Foss erected the first building—a stage station—in what would become the town of Pine Flat, located about 11 miles northeast of Healdsburg on a 12 acre plateau in the midst of a mountainous area. In little more than six months the town had a store, livery stable, hotel, post office and reservoir. At its peak in 1875, Pine Flat had more than 60 houses, at least three hotels, several saloons, and just about every kind of business needed to serve its over 200 inhabitants and the 1,000 or more men that worked in the surrounding mines.
But faster than anyone could have imagined, the quicksilver boom turned to bust when the price of the ore began a steady and rapid decline. People left the area in droves and by 1876 only a few remained in Pine Flat.
Eleven years later, a fire swept through the virtual ghost town consuming all but a handful of its buildings. A few years after that, another fire destroyed anything left standing. Today, a few ranches are located along the now paved Pine Flat Road but the passage of time has all but erased any evidence that a mining town once thrived on the little plateau that was once the road’s destination.