Honey Reveals The Truth About Jack London

Hits: 2338
March 1, 2014 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 



By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)

 Some of those fascinated by Jack London seem to see aspects of themselves in him.

Most of his readers think of his having an adventurous life, and he did.  One of his adventures started with the great earthquake of 1906, begging rather in his own backyard when he and his second wife Charmian Kittererdge London rode their horses to the top of Mt. Sonoma and looked down at the destruction in San Francisco and in Santa Rosa.  This is the journey Charmian was to call “Jack London’s magic trail,” but it was actually a trip to visit old friends, bathe in hot springs and enjoy riding through  the redwoods to the Pacific Coast.  The Londons were to follow much of the same journey in 1911, which he  described in “Four Horses and a Sailor.”

London inherited the travel story as a vehicle for making a little money from Charmian’s Aunt Netta, a travel writer.   Background for reading both Charmian’s and Jack’s writing about the magic trail is enhanced by getting to know a little about them.   Jack’s life was his greatest literary inventive contribution to California, and Charmian was his hardest working assistant.

The slow food movement claims Jack London as an organic food pioneer because he and Charmian grew some of the food they ate.   But then, most people who lived in rural California in the early twentieth century grew the food they ate, and all of it was organic.

The Huntington Library’s new permanent installation “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times” in the Main Exhibition Hall includes a copy of White Fang, a copy of Call of the Wild, and the charred manuscript of Sea Wolf  that burned in the cataclysmic fire that followed the 1906 earthquake.  Text within the glass case containing these objects reports that Jack London was an ecologist.



Charmian, Jack London’s hard working assistant and wife, is here in her sleeping porch in the wooden house where they lived before and after Wolf House burned down. Jack’s sleeping porch was next to hers but separated by stairs leading into the house. You can see  that she’s already aging but very feminine.  Still seductive. 


Ecologists are concerned with ecosystems as a whole, the abundance and distribution of people, plants, animals, and the relationships between organisms and their environment. London’s conflicted Darwinian ideas of wildness and his quest for “an abiding place” in which to live in harmony with the landscape provide some support for that claim, but John Muir’s writing was a much clearer call for a sustainablel approach to California development; moreover, London’s anti-Semitic and racist writing undercuts a serious claim to the author’s position as a pioneer in ecology. London’s import of Korean hillside terracing was a sound development but his water use was not innovative nor was it conservative.

Jack’s eucalyptus-growing enterprise cost him close to a million dollars.  Despite his careful research with scientists at University of California in Davis s, the 100,000 eucalyptus seedlings London planted  was not usable for building, for paper, or for much of anything.

London believed the wood would be ideal for replacing the pilings of wharves of Oakland and San Francisco that were subject to a worm infestation.  The eucalyptus oil content of the wood was indigestible to the worm, and in this London was correct. However when the wood cured it twisted and split and made it unsuitable for building. This entrepeneurial failure did not deter London, he turned instead to breeding prize livestock.

In seeking a new cattle feed London partnered with Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank o try the spineless cactus as an easy to grow, dry climate fodder.  However, the second generation of the cactus invariably grew spines.

All the planting and life stock meant he needed to get a lot of water.  He  wrote in 1913:

“My first big dam on the place is just finished so that on these poor, old, worked out, eroded hillsides I shall be able to harvest two crops a year and turn one crop under; in place of the old meager crop that could be taken off only once in several years.”

His daughters thought he should contribute to their support instead of planting trees.  His dam enfuriated downriver neighbors and they – and his in-laws Netta and Edward Payne – sued him.   The plaintiffs lost but Jack died soon after.

Socialists see London as a voice for working people. That’s partly correct.  London lived a California version of David Copperfield’s childhood.  His writing reflects sympathy for working people; he was accurate in his dismissal of Christian Socialism as premised on mediation of the problems of the status quo; he became an exemplar of success within the status quo; his writing – but not his personal relationships – exalted the supremacy of Anglo-Saxon right to dominate California.    In his very long-time relationship with the African-American woman who raised him, however, he showed affection and gratitude.

In 1909, he published Martin Eden, a partly autobiographical novel about a young proletarian autodidact who wants to write.  Unlike London, however, Eden rejects socialism, attacking it as “slave morality” and relies on a philosophy of Nietzschean individualism.   London described the novel as a parable of a man who had to die “not because of his lack of faith in God, but because of his lack of faith in men.” The book is actually a critique of the philosophy of individualism but suggests Jack had become conflicted about socialism.

Jack (Born John Chaney) London (1876-1916) became a famous author when he was 27 with his publication of Call of the Wild, which was based on stories he heard in the Klondike Gold Rush when he was 21, followed by The Sea Wolf (1904).  Millions of people have read his books.  His life was a California Horatio Alger story.

“Johnny” was illegitimate, the son of two San Francisco clairvoyants, born at 615 Third Street in San Francisco.   Flora Wellman thought of her son as a “badge of shame,” and had little interest in him, although Jack was not to learn John London wasn’t his father until he entered UC Berkeley.

An African-American woman who was born a slave — Daphna Virginia Prentiss — was his wet nurse after she gave birth to a stillborn child.  “Aunt Jenny” and her husband helped raise Jack, even after Flora married John London.  She took the young boy to services with her at Oakland’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was located at 15th Street between West and Market Streets, and Jack was to donate $15,000 – a large sum at the time – to the church.  In 1906, he purchased a home for Prentiss at 490 27th Street in Oakland.  After London’s death in 1916, Jenny Prentiss was cared for and buried in 1922 by the terms of the author’s will. Aunt Jenny took on the role of grandmother to his daughters.

Jack’s stepfather John London – a descendant of those Anglo-Saxon people Jack wrote about as the true inheritors of California – was a failure at everything he did.  He was a tenant farmer in San Mateo, Alameda and Livermore.  Jack worked in Hicamott’s Cannery stuffing pickles into jars for ten cents a day, 12 hours or more, six days a week.  Johnny dreamed of becoming an oyster pirate and asked his Aunt Jennie to buy a bought for him, and she did, out of her savings as a nurse – the “Razzle Dazzle.”

When Jack was ten years old, his stepsister Eliza London (later Shepard. 1866-1939) took him to the Oakland Free Library on 14th Street, the second public library in California.  The Oakland librarian was the poet Ina Coolbrith, who became the person he called “my literary mother.”  Ina introduced him to reading and to books that would influence him all of his life.  She was an honorary member of the otherwise almost-entirely male Bohemian Club.  Her history of California literature was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.  In 1917, she became California’s first Poet Laureate.

In 1893, he signed on to the seal-hunting schooner Sophie Sutherland, bound for the coast of Japan. When he returned, the country was in the grip of the panic of ’93 and Oakland was swept by labor unrest. After grueling jobs in a jute mill and a street-railway power plant, he joined Kelly’s Army and began his career as a tramp. In 1894, he spent 30 days for vagrancy in the Erie County Penitentiary at Buffalo, New York. In The Road, he wrote:

“Man-handling was merely one of the very minor unprintable horrors of the Erie County Pen. I say ‘unprintable’; and in justice I must also say indescribable. They were unthinkable to me until I saw them, and I was no spring chicken in the ways of the world and the awful abysses of human degradation. It would take a deep plummet to reach bottom in the Erie County Pen, and I do but skim lightly and facetiously the surface of things as I there saw them.”

He had published several stories and essays before his first story in the Overland Monthly, “To the Man on the Trail” in 1899.   Netta Eames, wife of the magazine’s accountant, agreed to pay Jack $7.50 per story.  He sometimes had to beg them to pay him.

Netta and Jack  introduced Jack to their niece Charmian in 1901, but he canceled his date with her to marry his math tutor Bess.   In 1905, after a passionate affair with Charmian, Jack left Bess and their children for her.  He married Charmian a day after his divorce was final, and they moved to Wake Robin lodge in Glen Ellen where   Netta, Roscoe Eames, and Netta’s lover Edward Biron Payne, lived (called “Trillium,” another name for the flowering plant called “Wake Robin” in London’s Valley of the Moon).  London referred to Netta as “Mother Mine,” but that was before she sued him.

When Netta wrote about Mendocino County – before she met Jack — A. O. Carpenter photographed landscapes to be published with her travel stories. Charmian became a close friend of the Carpente  twins Grace and Grant.  Gracewas to  become “the Painter Lady” who painted the Pomo Indians.  Her husband John Hudson was to leave his medical practice to study Indian stories and basket making. .

Edgar had been the first minister (1891) of the Berkeley Unitarian Universalist Church.  In 1894, he founded Altruria, a utopian community just outside Santa Rosa. The Altrurians kept orchards and gardens and sold their produce in a shop in San Francisco, whose manager was a young socialist attorney Job Harriman.  (Harriman later came close to winning the mayoral election in Los Angeles.  He lost after two of his clients pleaded guilty to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times on the eve of the election.  After that,, Harriman founded the cooperative community of Llano del Rio in the Antelope Valley.)  In 1898, Dr. W. B. Burke founded Burke’s Medical and Surgical Sanitarium in Altruria.

In 1901, Bessie gave birth to their first child, and Jack ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist Labor ticket.

In 1904, he took the steamer S.S. Siberia to cover the conflict between Russia and Japan.  London’s photographs from this period of his journalism are in the beautiful book Jack London, Photographer, by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Sara S. Hudson and Philip Adam.  (2010)

He bought Beauty Ranch in about 1907, very near Wake Robin, and settled there with Charmian.  His Wolf House – built at a cost that rivaled Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbank’s house in Beverly Hills – burned down the day before they were to move in, so the Londons continued to live in the wooden winery house until his death.   After that, his widow built the “House of Happy Walls” on the property.

Alcoholics see London as one of their own but he wasn’t an alcoholic, John Barleycorn notwithstanding.  At times, he drank too much.  In Adela Rogers St. John’s biography of her father Los Angeles attorney Earl Rogers describes an incident when Jack and Earl rode into the town of Sonoma to drink and were returned to Glen Ellen unconscious and draped over the backs of donkeys.  Charmian, Adela wrote, looked at her husband with “gimlet eyes.”

London also smoked hashish.  His childhood friend Frank Atherton reported London said,

“’To one who has never entered the land of hashish,’ he said, ‘an explanation would mean nothing. But to me, last night was like a thousand years. I was obsessed with indescribable sensations, alternative visions of excessive happiness and oppressive moods of extreme sorrow. I wandered for aeons through countless worlds, mingling with all types of humanity, from the most saintly persons down to the lowest type of abysmal brute.’”

Jack’s friend the  (really bad) poet George Sterling saw Jack as a suicide.  Sterling and his wife both committed suicide.

Jack, however,  didn’t commit suicide.  A photograph of Jack taken in 1913 in Bohemian Grove reveals that he was already swollen from the kidney failure that killed him.  He suffered from bleeding and swollen gums and joint pain, however, from 1896.  He had facial neuralgia, severe headaches, pleurisy, bronchitis and other symptoms that were probably symptoms of lupus erythematosus.

London biographer Russ Kingman  – at least after the 1970s – saw in Jack’s marriage to Charmian true connubial love.  Russ was happily married to Winnie.  No one knows if the Londons’ passion or need for each other lasted more than a few years.  Jack and Charmian, and Charmian’s aunt Netta, and Netta’s second husband Edward, invented and re-invented themselves and each other in fiction, “non-fiction” and correspondence.  The Huntington Library contains boxes of their correspondence and diaries, but all of them made up so much it is hard to tell where their fictions begin.

Charmian was born in 1871.   After her mother Dayelle (“Daisy”) Wiley Kittredge died when she was seven of consumption.  According to London biographer Earle Labor, Daisy was an indifferent mother and a maudlin minor poet and Netta Wiley Eames raised the child even before Daisy’s death.  Her father Captain Williard Kittredge – a “hotelier” according to Charmian but actually a saloon owner – sent her to live with her aunt Netta and Netta’s husband Roscoe Eames in Oakland.  Willard died Oakland in 1886 in the home of Roscoe Eames at 554 Thirty-fifth Street (That address is part of a freeway now) but buried in the Evergreen Cemetery back in Boyle Heights, where Charmian’s mother is also buried.

Netta had an iron will and once confessed she would have made a “good Inquisitionist.”   Charmian grew up without playmates and did not go to school.  Netta dominated the child’s live, but  she later attended Mills College, working her way through college with the stenography and typing skills she learned from her uncle Roscoe when she was 14.  Mills was a girl’s seminary in Oakland until it was chartered in 1885 as the first girls’ college west of the Rockies.  Assuming Charmian was 18 when she began her studies at Mills, she matriculated in 1888.

That was still the Victorian era, which  played out differently in California from how it played out in the eastern states.  California women got the right to vote in 1911, almost a decade before the rest of the country.  It was already legal by then for California women to practice medicine and law.  California’s divorce statutes made it relatively easy to obtain a divorce.

Netta and Roscoe Eames believed in the doctrine of free love.  Free love, the women’s movement and Spiritualism were strongly connected in the late nineteenth century.  Free love advocates viewed sexual freedom as a clear, direct expression of an individual’s self-ownership. Most 19th century sexual laws discriminated against women: for example, marriage laws and anti-birth control measures.   Netta’s and Roscoe’s  openness to sexual freedom was background to Charmian’s youth.   It also led to their later intimate  involvement with Edward Biron Payne.

Netta and Charmian’s friendship with the Carpenters and later the Hudsons – whom Jack and Charmian will visit on their 1906 Magic Trail – may have begun when published an article in the Ukiah Daily Journal in 1892, “Staging through Mendocino Redwoods.”   A.O. Carpenter took the photographs that Netta used in some of her northern California travel essays.

A.O.  had his photography studio on State Street in Ukiah, about a block from the court house, and next to the livery stable.   The Palace Building, also near his studio, still stands on State Street.

The California legislature in 1850 had  passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which institutionalized the enslavement of Indians.  The Act also prohibited Indians from testifying in court.  According to William Bauer, Jr. in  “We Were All Like Migrant Workers Here,” Western Historical Society Quarterly, 37 (Spring 2006), A.O. Carpenter apprenticed voluntarily several  Pomo people so that they could avoid removal to the Mendocino Reservation.

A.O.’s daughter Grace went to the California School of Design – the first art school west of the Rockies, now the San Francisco Art Institute – in the 1880s.  Grace illustrated Overland Monthly covers.  Grace’s mother Helen M. Carpenter’s wrote “The Diggers of Thirty Years Ago,”  (A remembrance of the Pomo people she met in Potter Valley when the Carpenters arrived as pioneers in 1863) in the February 1893 issue of the Overland Monthly.  In other words, the Carpenters and Charmian were once all part of Roscoe’s magazine days.

Hudson Museum Registrar Karen Holmes believes that young Charmian met Grace in the 1880s through Grace’s brother Frank Carpenter. Frank and Charmian both attended college in the Bay Area and documentary evidence in the Hudson collections suggests that the two likely were a couple.

Roscoe Eames within a couple of years was to manage the once well-reknowned journal into bankruptcy.   Bizarrely, in 1907, Jack was to hire Roscoe to captain the Snark through the south seas.   Roscoe’s qualifications on the sea were that he wrote shorthand and that he believed the earth was concave,  and that they sailed along its underside.

Charmian  was a successful single woman before she first met Jack, who was five years younger than she was.  She had a Swedish maid, bought two houses in Berkeley that she rented out,  owned a horse and paid to have him stabled.  She traveled through Europe.  She lived this well by working as a secretary for a shipping business and doing some of the editing and prefaces for the Overland Monthly.

Charmian in her The Book of Jack London sanitized her first meeting with Jack – she was a friend of his first wife Bess.  Jack was at least as much of a sexual adventurer as Charmian was.   He had  proposed marriage to Anna Strunsky when Bess was pregnant with their second child.  Strunsky could not shoulder the guilt of separating him from his family.  Charmian had no such compunction.

Professor Clarice Stasz in American Dreamers showed Charmian as a feminist but  Stasz’s more recent book, Jack London’s Women, presents a more complicated picture of Charmian: a sexually liberated woman who cozened up to men, had a string of relationships with prominent married and single men behind her when she met Jack and had intense physical relationships with magician Harry Houdini and travel writer Frederick O’Brien – both men married to other women, which did not slow down Charmian at all – and others, after Jack’s death.

The symptoms of renal failure include difficulty thinking and sexual dysfunction.  Jack’s addiction to tobacco – eight to ten packs of cigarettes a day – when he knew it could kill him may have been his way of sharpening his mind as it began its decline.  His typist and primary editor Charmian may have written and re-written passages in his later books, which could account for the sometimes two-dimensional, dull  writing.  Charmian camouflaged her unconventional personality in her public persona  to the detriment of her writing, as did Netta.

In 1906, the Londons were newly married,  Jack still relatively healthy, in the process still of happily peeling back the layers Victorian society had painted  – with morality, responsibility, class roles –  over whatever is beneath, before Jack  began to suspect there was nothing at all beneath the stifling social carapace he escaped with Charmian as his mate.

They took two modest journeys – one to San Francisco and after that on horseback through northern California.  They explored a landscape that suburbia would unevenly submerge, but which in some places remains forested or rural.  Charmian called the second of these trips “Jack London’s magic trail.”    This is Charmian cranking the London myth-making machine: the places they visited were places she had often been when she  was a young woman and accompanied her Aunt Netta on excursions into northern California so that Netta could gather material for her travel essays.

The magic trail began with the 1906 earthquake.  Charmian wrote, in The Book of Jack London (Volume II, 1926):

“A few minutes before five, on the morning of the 18th, upstairs at Wake Robin, my eyes flew open inexplicably, and I wondered what had stirred me so early. I curled down for a morning nap, when suddenly the earth began to heave, with a sickening onrush of motion for an eternity of seconds. An abrupt pause, and then it seemed as if some great force laid hold of the globe and shook it like a Gargantuan rat. It was the longest half -minute I ever lived through.” ….

“In half an hour after the shock, we were in our saddles, riding to the Ranch, from which height could be distinguished a mighty column of smoke in the direction of San Francisco, and another northward where lies Santa Rosa.  In the immediate foreground at our feet a prodigious dust obscured the buildings of the State Home for the Feeble- minded.”

“’Why, Mate Woman, ‘” Jack cried, his eyes big with surmise, “’I shouldn’t wonder if San Francisco had sunk. That was some earthquake. We don’t know but the Atlantic may be washing up at the feet of the Rocky Mountains!’” Charmian wrote that when they reached the top of the mountain, they saw smoke rising from both San Francisco and from Santa Rosa. Most of the buildings in San Francisco did not collapse in the earthquake: they burned when gas lines burst. Santa Rosa’s buildings collapsed, and the city burned.

Collier’s – a national weekly — telegraphed Jack and asked him to go to San Francisco to write an article.  Collier’s published the article on May 5, 1906

Charmian wrote.

“With no luggage except our smallest hand-bag, we left with the restaurant cashier of the last ferry-boat permitted to land passengers that night, we started afoot up old Broadway, and all night roamed the city of hills, prey to feelings that cannot be described. That night proved our closest to realizing a dream that came now and  again to Jack in sleep, that he and I were in at the finish  of all things standing or moving hand in hand through  chaos to its brink, looking upon the rest of mankind in the  process of dissolution.”

Following is an excerpt from Jack’s article for Collier’s:

“Wednesday night saw the destruction of the very heart of the city. Dynamite was lavishly used, and many of San Francisco proudest structures were crumbled by man himself into ruins, but there was no withstanding the onrush of the flames. Time and again successful stands were made by the fire-fighters, and every time the flames flanked around on either side or came up from the rear, and turned to defeat the hard-won victory.

“An enumeration of the buildings destroyed would be a directory of San Francisco. An enumeration of the buildings undestroyed would be a line and several addresses. An enumeration of the deeds of heroism would stock a library and bankrupt the Carnegie medal fund. An enumeration of the dead-will never be made. All vestiges of them were destroyed by the flames. The number of the victims of the earthquake will never be known. South of Market Street, where the loss of life was particularly heavy, was the first to catch fire.

“Remarkable as it may seem, Wednesday night while the whole city crashed and roared into ruin, was a quiet night. There were no crowds. There was no shouting and yelling. There was no hysteria, no disorder. I passed Wednesday night in the path of the advancing flames, and in all those terrible hours I saw not one woman who wept, not one man who was excited, not one person who was in the slightest degree panic stricken.

“Before the flames, throughout the night, fled tens of thousands of homeless ones. Some were wrapped in blankets. Others carried bundles of bedding and dear household treasures. Sometimes a whole family was harnessed to a carriage or delivery wagon that was weighted down with their possessions. Baby buggies, toy wagons, and go-carts were used as trucks, while every other person was dragging a trunk. Yet everybody was gracious. The most perfect courtesy obtained. Never in all San Francisco’s history, were her people so kind and courteous as on this night of terror.”

Jack and Charmian had intended to begin their travels to the South Seas. Their plan had been to follow the voyages of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny in 1888.  Only the keel of the Snark, built at Hunter’s Point, was complete.

Charmian: “Fifteen days after the Earthquake, we treated ourselves to a two-weeks holiday. Jack bestrode Ban. Belle, occupied with maternal prospects, I passed by in favor of the rabbity Fleet. Hatless, with toilet accessories and reading matter stowed in saddle-bags behind our Australian saddles, we set out northerly to see what the quake had wreaked upon rural California. At this and that resort, we would feel one or another of the many lighter temblors that followed the big shake, marking the subsidence of the  ‘Fault’ that is supposed to enter from the sea-bed at Fort Bragg, and zigzag southeasterly across the State….

“From Glen Ellen, by Rincon Valley road, through Petrified Forest, to Calistoga, in Napa Valley. Calistoga to The Geysers. Thence to Lakeport, on Clear Lake a little Geneva by way of Highland Springs. We sailed on Clear  Lake.  Lakeport to Ukiah, via Laurel Dell, Blue Lakes. Ukiah  to Willitts. Through grandeurs of mountain and red  wood forest, to logging camp ‘Alpine.’ Thence to Fort Bragg, on the Coast.   From Fort Bragg, down the coast, sleeping at lumber villages. Navarro, Albion, Greenwood. Thence to Boonville, with luncheon at Philo. Philo to Cloverdale ; thence  to Burke s Sanitarium. Thence to Santa Rosa, and on down to Glen Ellen.”

Jack and Charmian rode from Glen Ellen along the Rincon Valley Road to Calistoga on the Rincon Valley Road.  Rincon Valley Road meets the Calistoga Road, which leads to the Petrified Forest Road, passes the Petrified Forest, and reaches what is now Highway 128.

Robert Louis Stevenson and his bride Fanny Osborne honeymooned in an old miner’s nearby in 1880, and he described their visit to the Petrified Forest in Silverado Squatters.   About three million years ago, a volcano erupted and burned the redwoods, which immediately filled with lava. The Petrified Forest is still open to visitors.   There was, in 1987 when I followed the magic trail insofar as it was possible because roads had changed since 1906, a Rincon Valley Road, and no such road shows on the old maps kept in the Santa Rosa library collection. There is an area called Rincon Valley, and there was once a Rincon Valley school.

Stevenson wrote about the area as he saw it on his honeymoon with Fanny Osborne in Silverado Squatters (1886): “A rough smack of resin was in the air, and a crystal mountain purity. It came pouring over these green slopes by the oceanful. The woods sang aloud, and gave largely of their healthful breath. Gladness seemed to inhabit these upper zones, and we had left indifference behind us in the valley … There are days in a life when thus to climb out of the lowlands seems like scaling heaven.”

On their 1911 journey to Oregon, the Londons covered some of the same area as they had covered in 1906.  In “Four Horses and a Sailor,” published after his death in 1917, Jack wrote:

“And the country we’ve been over! The drives through Napa and Lake Counties! One, from Sonoma Valley, via Santa Rosa, we could not refrain from taking several ways, and on all the ways we found the roads excellent for machines as well as horses. One route, and a more delightful one for an automobile cannot be found, is out from Santa Rosa, past old Altruria and Mark West Springs, then to the right and across to Calistoga in Napa Valley. By keeping to the left, the drive holds on up the Russian River Valley, through the miles of the noted Asti Vineyards to Cloverdale, and then by way of Pieta, Witter, and Highland Springs to Lakeport…..

“Continuing up the Napa Valley, walled on either hand by great rock palisades and redwood forests and carpeted with endless vineyards, and crossing the many stone bridges for which the County is noted and which are a joy to the beauty-loving eyes as well as to the four-horse tyro driver, past Calistoga with its old mud-baths and chicken-soup springs, with St. Helena and its giant saddle ever towering before us, we climbed the mountains on a good grade and dropped down past the quicksilver mines to the canyon of the Geysers. After a stop over night and an exploration of the miniature-grand volcanic scene, we pulled on across the canyon and took the grade where the cicadas simmered audibly in the noon sunshine among the hillside manzanitas. Then, higher, came the big cattle-dotted upland pastures, and the rocky summit. And here on the summit, abruptly, we caught a vision, or what seemed a mirage. The ocean we had left long days before, yet far down and away shimmered a blue sea, framed on the farther shore by rugged mountains, on the near shore by fat and rolling farm lands. Clear Lake was before us, and like proper sailors we returned to our sea, going for a sail, a fish, and a swim ere the day was done and turning into tired Lakeport blankets in the early evening…And what can be more exquisite than the drive out from Clear Lake to Ukiah by way of the Blue Lakes chain!–every turn bringing into view a picture of breathless beauty; every glance backward revealing some perfect composition in line and colour, the intense blue of the water margined with splendid oaks, green fields, and swaths of orange poppies.,,, More valley from Ukiah to Willits, and then we turned westward through the virgin Sherwood Forest of magnificent redwood, stopping at Alpine for the night and continuing on through Mendocino County to Fort Bragg and  ‘salt water’”

On May 4, 1906, Jack and Charmian rode up from Healdsburg to The Geysers at the top of the Mayacamas range, where they experienced an after shock.

In the nineteenth century, stagecoach drivers had driven tourists up the precipitous road to a hotel at the top.   According to a travel article in the August 31, 1869 Boston Journal, the trip was “perilous” and the driver “General Foss” took the road descending from the summit with break neck speed.

East of the Geyser Peak range is a canyon more than a thousand feet deep. A sharp transverse ridge, just wide enough on its narrow crest to afford a carriage road, bridged the chasm. A Boston Journal writer observed:

“Trees fly past like the wind; bushes dash angrily against the wheels; the passengers hold on as if for dear life; the ladies shut their eyes and grasp the arm of some male passenger; and speed down the declivity with lightning rapidity, the horses on a life jump, and General Foss, whip in hand, cracking it about their heads to urge them on. At every lurch of the coach one feels an instinctive dread of being tossed high in air and landed far below in a gorge, or, perchance, spitted upon the top of a sharp pine.”

In Silverado Squatters (1888), Stevenson wrote: “Along the unfenced abominable mountain roads, he (Foss) launches his team with small regard for human life or the doctrine of probabilities. Flinching travelers, who behold themselves coasting eternity at every corner, look with natural admiration at the driver’s huge, impassive, fleshy countenance.”

In Jack London’s Valley of the Moon, the protagonists reach Healdsburg, where Billy hires on as a coach driver.

“Each day the train disgorged passengers for the geysers, and Billy, as if accustomed to it all his life, took the reins of six horses and drove a full load over the mountains in stage time. The second trip he had Saxon beside him on the high box-seat.”

The Calpine Corporation on-line history of The Geysers mentions that a landslide and fire destroyed the main building of the Resort Hotel in 1938.  It did not close, however, until 1978.  Jack and Charmian could have spent a night in the Resort Hotel.

Jack and Charmian stopped in Healdsburg and then went up Pine Valley Road, now a restricted road, to The Geysers, and probably stayed at the Geyser Resort Hotel, which was to exist until the 1950s.  Visitors took the stagecoach to the hotel from the 1860s and bathed in mineral water pools.

The geysers are actually fumaroles, openings in the earth’s crust often in the neighborhood of volcanoes, which emit steam and gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen sulfide. The steam is created when superheated water turns to steam as its pressure drops when it emerges from the ground.  Calpine hosts a visitor’s center in Middeltown and free tours.   According to  one of the ministers at Middletown’s The Rainbow Church of Living Light, Calpine’s Earth Day tour is the best of the tours.

After his 1911 trip,  Jack wrote about that route:

“….(W)ith St. Helena and its giant saddle ever towering before us, we climbed the mountains on a good grade and dropped down past the quicksilver mines to the canyon of the Geysers. After a stop over night and an exploration of the miniature-grand volcanic scene, we pulled on across the canyon and took the grade where the cicadas simmered audibly in the noon sunshine among the hillside manzanitas. Then, higher, came the big cattle-dotted upland pastures, and the rocky summit. And here on the summit, abruptly, we caught a vision, or what seemed a mirage. The ocean we had left long days before, yet far down and away shimmered a blue sea, framed on the farther shore by rugged mountains, on the near shore by fat and rolling farm lands.”

Laurel Dell was a post office designation, and may have been part of the pear, walnut and grape orchard farms; in 1906,  however, most farmers still grew wheat.  The Blue Lakes are connected lakes, and they look green, not blue.  The old road Jack and Charmian took merges in places with Highway 20 and disappears into brush in other places.

On the  1911 trip, the Londons saw:

“Every turn bringing into view a picture of breathless beauty; every glance backward revealing some perfect composition in line and colour, the intense blue of the water margined with splendid oaks, green fields, and swaths of orange poppies.”

Ukiah was largely spared in the 1906 earthquake.  According to the Ukiah Daily Journal on April 20, 1906:

“Mrs. W. D. White’s new building nearing completion on State street is totally ruined and is now being torn down. While the walls did not fall, they are out of plumb, badly cracked and would undoubtedly fall at the least disturbance.

“The McGlashan block lost a large section of its upper wall on the north side and is said to be quite badly cracked, the rear walls suffering the most…..

“It is probable that three-fourths of the buildings in town lost the top of one or more chimneys. The court house lost one and the grammar school parted with five. A chimney on the Masonic hall toppled off and fell through Donahoe & Ganter’s roof, crashed through the ceiling and did some damage to the stock.

“But little of the electric wiring in town was damaged. “

The Vichy Springs resort website claims  the Londons stayed in “the blue cottage” when they visited Grace and John Hudson, who lived downhill from the springs in Ukiah.

On the mantle in the Sun House (built in 1911), is the letter Charmian wrote to Grace to express condolences when Dr. John Hudson died in the 1930s.

In the letter, Charmian fondly recalls their youthful friendship and a gift from Grace —  a piece of fungus painted with the head of an Indian child: “It hangs still in my old room in the Ranch cottage and now I am moving to my stone house and shall delay hanging the small treasure of great worth to me. I delay because I wait for the exact place to flit suddenly into my mind. But it shall be an intimate place, Huddy.”

The next stop on the Magic Trail  after Ukiah was Willits –  now a half-hour drive north on the 101. Hiram Willits and pioneer ranchers settled the valley in the 1850s, sharing it with members of the Pomo nation.  By the 1860s, a stageline reached Willits from Ukiah.  In 1888, it became a lumber town, the “Gateway to the Redwoods.”   In 1906, the earthquake had destroyed many of its buildings.

A more current economic enterprise in the area between Willits and Ft. Bragg is marijuana cultivation.   T. C. Boyle’s Budding Prospects: A Pastoral (1986) tells the story of a young man decides to make his fortune growing weed in Willits.   “The bear” destroys his crop:

“For some seconds, I’d been filtering out a steady and distinctive background noise – a low wheezing ripple and snort of air, an asthmatic sound, like the hiss of a vacuum cleaner with the slightest obstruction in the wand…. The answer came like a fanfare: he was stoned, that’s why.  Obliterated, wasted, kayoed, down for the count, his great bruin’s belly swollen with the remains of forty pot plants….”

The Alpine Lumber Company Logging Camp no longer exists.  When Alpine was a thriving community it was the end of the  train line. Stagecoaches went there from Willits via a ridge route  – which may have been the route Jack and Charmian took in 1906 –  to transport passengers. It had a population of 1,200 was said to have been larger than Fort Bragg. The town included a tavern, a school and a post office. A fire in 1919 destroyed Alpine.

In his 1911 essay on that route, Jack wrote:

“At every stream, the road skirted dizzy cliff-edges, dived down into lush growths of forest and ferns and climbed out along the cliff-edges again. The way was lined with flowers–wild lilac, wild roses, poppies, and lupins. Such lupins!–giant clumps of them, of every lupin-shade and -colour. And it was along the Mendocino roads that Charmian caused many delays by insisting on getting out to pick the wild blackberries, strawberries, and thimble-berries which grew so profusely. And ever we caught peeps, far down, of steam schooners loading lumber in the rocky coves; ever we skirted the cliffs, day after day, crossing stretches of rolling farm lands and passing through thriving villages and saw-mill towns. Memorable was our launch- trip from Mendocino City up Big River, where the steering gears of the launches work the reverse of anywhere else in the world; where we saw a stream of logs, of six to twelve and fifteen feet in diameter, which filled the river bed for miles to the obliteration of any sign of water; and where we were told of a white or albino redwood tree. We did not see this last, so cannot vouch for it.”

“All the streams were filled with trout, and more than once we saw the side-hill salmon on the slopes. No, side-hill salmon is not a peripatetic fish; it is a deer out of season. But the trout! “

On the magic trail, Jack and Charmian rode from Ft. Bragg to Philo, about five miles north of Boonville in the Anderson Valley.  Boontling is an English-based jargon spoken in Boonville.  It originated when Boonville was an isolated farming, ranching and logging community.

The Anderson Valley Advertiser, located in Boonville, published letters written by a purported bag lady living under a bridge named Wanda Tinasky.  The editor Bruce Anderson believed the letters were actually written by Thomas Pynchon. Obscure Beat poet Tom Hawkins, however, may have written the letters.  Hawkins murdered his wife and committed suicide, and the Tinasky letters stopped.

Pynchon’s Vineland (1990) is set in a northern California rural town that some scholars believe is Boonville.

Burke’s Sanitarium, the Londons’ last step before they returned to Wake Robin, was built in Altruria, the site of Edward Payne’s earlier  communitarian experiment and the seed for Llano del Rio in the Antelope Valley.

The freedom of life for some people in California at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the 20th century – experiements with agriculture, with communitarian living, protection of native people, free love – was to gather in its thrall the 1930s to 1970s cooperative movement, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and the tsunami generation of hippies.



George Rowan Jr., “Jack London’s Love for Jennie Prentiss,” The Oakland Post Online, August 3, 2008, accessed February 25, 2011,

Valley of the Moon is available free on-line at http://www.readcentral.com/book/Jack-London/Read-The-Valley-of-the-Moon-Online.

Charmian London’s book is free online at


Jack London’s Collier essay about the earthquake in San Francisco is at: http://www.sfmuseum.net/hist5/jlondon.html. (Retrieved 2/1/2014)

His four horses article is at: http://www.jacklondons.net/four_horses.html. It is published in The Human Drift (1917) as “Four Horses and a Sailor.”

Philip Adam, http://www.philipadam.com/jacklondon.shtml.

Denko, Charles W., M.D., Ph.D., M.d., “Jack London: A Modern Analysis of His Mysterious Diseases,” The Journal of Rheumatolgy, 

20:10 (1993), 1760–63.


Stagecoach ride to The Geysers is described at: http://www.ourhealdsburg.com/history/foss.html.

Calpine timeline for The Geysers:  http://www.geysers.com/history.aspx.


http://www.fortbragg.com/history/museums/.   Visit the Guest House Museum.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jMz7s1AXt0.  YouTube of a visit to the Petrified Forest.

Adams, Charles C., Boontling: An American Lingo (1971)

Andersen, Varene, (1992) unpublished thesis submitted to the Sonoma State University, Shadows on the Land: Sonoma County’s Nineteenth Century Utopian Colonies

Boynton, Searles, The Painter lady: Grace Carpenter Hudson (1978)

Hine, Robert V. (1953). California’s Utopian Colonies. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library. pp. 101–11

Aurelius O. Carpenter, A History of Mendocino County (paperback 1977, first published in 1914.

Russ Kingman, Pictorial Life of Jack London (Crown Publishers NY 1979), p. 124. Jack’s hashish journey with Sterling occurred sometime after he left his first wife Bessie and moved in with Atherton in July 1903. Frank Atherton’s original account, “Jack London in Boyhood Adventurers,” appears in the Jack London Journal, Vol. 4 (1997).  Kingman owned a bookstore in Glen Ellen, “The London Bookstore,” until his death in 1993.  I visited the bookstore several times to ask questions.  Kingman had recipe boxes filled with index cards that contained the answers to every question I asked.

Labor, Earle, “A Biographical Hydra: The Myth of Jack London’s Suicide,” Jack London Foundation Quarterly Newsletter, vol. 23, Number 2, April 2011, pp 1-7.  Free, at http://www.jacklondons.net/not_suicide.html.

Stevenson, Robert, The Silverado Squatters (1883)

______, Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (1901)

Stasz, Clarice, American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London (1988).

____, http://london.sonoma.edu/Family/Charmian.html.

Stone, Irving, Sailor on Horseback (1938)



Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, California. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=478.

Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.  http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/ListedResources/Detail.aspx?num=710.

Petrified Forest:  http://www.petrifiedforest.org/geology.html.

Calpine Geothermal Visitor Center 15550 Central Park Rd., Middletown, CA 95461  866-GEYSERS; 707-987-4270

The Lakeport Historic Courthouse Museum.

Pomo Cultural Center, 1160 Mendocino Drive, Ukiah.

Grace Hudson Museum and the Hudson’s “Sun House” in Ukiah.

Held-Poage Memorial Home and Research Library, Ukiah.  http://www.pacificsites.com/~mchs/heldpoage.html.

Vichy Springs Resort, visited by Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and William Harrison, Teddy Roosevelt and daughter Alice, Mark Twain, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, bare fisted boxers Jim Corbett and John L. Sullivan.

The Lodge at Blue Lakes, 5135 West Highway 20, Upper Lake, CA  95485.


Guest House Museum in Ft. Bragg.

Hendy Woods State Park near Philo.



Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.