In April, 1847, that intrepid bear-killer, William Bell Elliott, who had crowded many adventures into nearly half a century of living, received the surprise of his life. Hunting grizzlies in the mountains of Sonoma County between Cloverdale and Calistoga, he came upon a narrow canyon which he thought surely must be the Gate of Hades. Packed between the barren, many-hued banks of the narrow gorge for a distance of a quarter mile were a number of hot springs, fumaroles, and steam vents, all appearing to smoke “like the ruins of a recently burned city.” The Geysers which were not geysers after all, but gave our town its name, had been discovered.
News of these phenomena did not arouse more than local curiosity until 1851, when a thin stream of sightseers began to trickle through the trackless wilderness to view the hot springs. A man named Levy saw an opportunity here and built a house on a level plateau – described as a “leafy dell” in the later promotional literature – overlooking The Geysers. In 1854 a Major Ewing opened a crude canvas hotel near Levy, and the two men joined forces to cater to the tourists. Twenty visitors signed the register that year. During 1856-1858 the tent was replaced by a two-story hotel made from planks sawed on the spot.
The hotel did not prosper during its first decade. A succession of operators suffered “great pecuniary” losses, so much so that the place had already had its day. Yet at that moment The Geysers stood on the threshold of a boom.
By 1860, Sonoma County had become the sixth most populous county in the state – out numbering Los Angeles County. The natural springs and the geysers in the hills surrounding the settlement, first known as Clairville Station, and later as Geyserville. The real turning point came in 1863, when the celebrated Knight of the Whip, Clark Foss, opened a second stage coach line from Healdsburg to The Geysers. Calistoga, to the southeast, had become the terminus of a railroad in 1868, and the next year Foss opened a second stage line from that point to the resort. From that time, until his accidental death in 1885, “Old Foss” dominated transportation to The Geysers, and as he did so, the hotel prospered.
Agriculture became an important part of the life of the new community. Occasionally, squatters’ battles would flare up over possession of the land. Cattle grazed free, grain crops and orchards were planted, and the rich gravelly soil was found to be ideal for viticulture. Crop followed crop, with pears and prunes playing a major role until the “wine boom” of the 1970’s, when the grapes took over, undulating in glowing green lines across the valley. Wineries, previously providing bulk product to major operations throughout the state, proudly put their own labels on the bottles and invited visitors to taste and compare.
Now a dozen or so wineries, many more than a century old, ring the town of Geyserville. Family-run restaurants and charming bed and breakfast inns provide comfortable and tempting additional reasons for spending a day or a week in the area.