Discovering Jack London in the Sonoma Valley
During his event-filled life, acclaimed writer Jack London traveled around the world. But when it came time to put down roots he chose the lush green hillsides, moss-covered charter oaks and serenity of the Glen Ellen area in California’s Sonoma Valley.
Born in 1876 in San Francisco, California, London, who lived a hard-scrabble early life and attended but did not graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, sold his first story while still in high school.
By the early 20th century, London had written numerous short stories as well as several extremely popular novels, including “Call of the Wild” (in 1903) and “The Sea Wolf” (1904) and was already being considered one of America’s most successful writers.
In 1905, he discovered the Sonoma Valley and purchased a 130-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, a village located about 10 miles west of Sonoma. He named the spread, Beauty Ranch.
London, an avowed socialist, soon began expanding and developing the ranch, which he envisioned as a model for a cooperative, agrarian society.
At the same time, he also began work on “The Snark,” his prized sailing ship that was to take he and second wife Charmain on a seven-year cruise around the world. The trip only lasted 27 months (although they made it to the South Pacific and Australia) because London started experiencing health problems.
The Londons returned to the ranch, which Jack continued to grow (he ultimately owned 1,800 acres in Glen Ellen). He also began planning the “Wolf House,” a massive grand stone home in the foothills.
From 1910 to 1913, London spent more than $80,000 (in pre-World War I dollars) designing and constructing this rustic palace. Unfortunately, on the day the Londons were to move into their dream castle, the building mysteriously caught on fire (the source of the fire has never been determined) and was destroyed.
The destruction of the house and the resulting financial setback were harsh blows to London. He continued to write and made small improvements to a small ranch house that he’d previously been living in on the ranch but dreamed of trying to rebuild the Wolf House.
In 1916, however, despite being only 40 years old, London died of gastrointestinal uremic poisoning — a result of his rough-and-ready lifestyle, manic work habits, diet and heavy alcohol consumption. The Wolf House was never rebuilt.
Today, visitors can tour the impressive ruins of the Wolf House as well as the ranch house where he died while sleeping on the front porch, the grave sites of both London and his wife, and a small museum.
The latter is housed in a beautiful stone structure, called “The House of Happy Walls,” built from 1916-22 by his widow. It served as her home for more than 30 years and it was her wish to have it made into a museum after her death.
Inside, visitors can find first editions of many of London’s works, displays describing his adventures, historic photographs, personal artifacts and effects, furniture and manuscripts. Naturally, it’s also a good place to purchase books by and about London.
The former London property is now part of the Jack London State Historic Park, which encompasses about 1,400 acres of the Beauty Ranch and includes orchards, barns, silos, a manmade lake constructed by London and, of course, the ruins of the Wolf House.
Interpretive trails lead through the park and up into the slopes of Sonoma Mountain and the surrounding countryside.
The Jack London State Historic Park is located at 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442. For more information call 707-938-5216 or go to http://www.jacklondonpark.com/.
Rich Moreno is taking a break from Nevada and takes his Silver State readers to California this week.