St. Helena History
Learning about the history of St. Helena sheds some light on this unique Napa Valley destination, known both for its gorgeous countryside and charming small-town feel. Though not far from major urban areas, St. Helena remains strikingly pristine. Part of that can be explained geographically; in the days of stagecoaches and bad roads, the valley was relatively remote and hard to reach through the hills. But in modern times, preserving St. Helena’s character and countryside was a conscious act. In the 1960s, Napa County adopted one of the first major agricultural land protection policies in the United States, setting in motion a tradition of preservation.
Today, that fierce love of the land and strong sense of community live on. You see it in historic downtown, where multi-generational family businesses still thrive, and in the vineyards themselves, 95% of which are family owned. The unique character of the town is evident in annual activities such as the Easter egg hunt, Harvest Festival pet parade, free summer concerts and even the annual wine auction hosted by the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Whether a visitor or a resident, we hope you’ll enjoy learning about this one-of-a-kind city.
The site that is now the city of St. Helena was once part of the range of a Native American people who called themselves the Onastis, the “outspoken ones.” When Spanish (and later, Mexican) soldiers claimed the region as part of their northernmost outpost, they dubbed these warlike folk the “Wappo,” from a word meaning “brave,” or “handsome.”
The Mexican administrator of the territory granted most of the upper part of the Napa Valley to an English doctor with a penchant for drink, Edward T. Bale, in 1841. Dr. Bale bartered off portions of his huge land grant to American pioneers, who began arriving in 1844. Others followed, and in 1846, the area’s hearty émigrés participated in the Bear Flag Revolt, an attack on the Mexican headquarters in Sonoma that resulted in California being claimed for the United States, as part of the Mexican-American War. After successful adventures in the Gold Rush, two of these “Bear Flaggers,” David Hudson and John York, discovered hot mineral springs in a secluded glade in the foothills just west of the present town. They sold the property to two developers who established California’s first resort there, White Sulphur Springs, in 1852. On May 16, 1854, an Englishman, J. Henry Still, in partnership with a Mr. Walters, purchased from the Bale family 126 acres not far from the resort. Still built a small wooden home, added a general store to it, and offered to donate lots to anyone willing to help him start a town. There were takers, and soon homes and small businesses sprouted up around what is now the intersection of Pope, Main, and Spring Streets. Ironically, 1854 also saw the organization of the local chapter of the Sons of Temperance, an organization wary of the effects of drink. They called themselves the “St. Helena Chapter” of the Sons of Temperance, after the mountain at the head of the Valley, which is how some say St. Helena got its name.
Most of the first settlers were farmers. By 1860, a few of these early St. Helenans had discovered that the soil was spectacularly suited to growing grapes. Dr. George Beldon Crane and Charles Krug pioneered the Napa Valley wine industry, which quickly made a major contribution to the town’s coffers.
Battling an infestation of vine-destroying bugs and sharp economic downturns in the nation at large, the wine industry and St. Helena developed together. Wealthy lovers of good food and drink discovered the spa White Sulphur Springs and the pleasant little town nearby. Some built elaborate homes and stole away to their Napa Valley retreats on weekends. German, Swiss and French families also came in relatively large numbers. Some of these newcomers had winemaking and viticulture expertise; others were master stonemasons and quarried the nearby lava deposits to build structures reminiscent of the architecture of their homeland. By 1915, St. Helena was a popular tourist attraction: Europe, the easy way.
St. Helena still drew tourists after January 17, 1920, the day the 18th Amendment became law in the United States, ushering in 13 years of Prohibition. So many people came to St. Helena to purchase bootlegged brandy and wine that Highway 29 became known as the state’s second-most traveled route.
The wine industry slowly rebuilt itself after the repeal of Prohibition, but the demand for premium wine receded during the Great Depression, and St. Helena dropped into the quiet, comfortable repose of a rural community, where everyone knows or is related to everyone else, and no heavy industry pollutes the environment.
St. Helena awakened from its slumber in the early 1970’s, when Americans rediscovered the merits of good wine, clean air and untrammeled landscape. Thanks to rigorous efforts by its civic leadership, it preserves its historic blend: landscape a Wappo would still recognize, simplicity to warm the heart of a pioneer, elegant architecture to delight the European in anyone, and a small-town coziness so American it should be bottled and sold.