Black Canyon AZ / Arizona Territory Stagecoach Routes

Exploring the old Black Canyon Stage Route is a unique Arizona trip into history. Black Canyon AZ is all about the wild west days of the Arizona Territory. Stagecoach routes, stage coach robberies by the highwaymen, gold mining and frontier settlements. These are all about Black Canyon Arizona and the stage coach’s that traveled this important trail.

concord stagecoach

The Concord Coach

Black Canyon AZ was in the area of the Arizona stage coach line between Prescott and Phoenix Arizona. The Black Canyon Route offered plenty of challenges for the Concord Stagecoach drivers, often referred to as “whips“, in addition to avoid being robbed. The change in elevation going from Phoenix to Prescott is some 4,000 feet. This meant starting out in a desert climate and traveling north into a mountainous climate with the expected changes in weather. This was the time of Arizona Territorial days. Prescott, being the Territorial Capital, was a busy place and transportation to it was essential. The best known trail was named the Black Canyon wagon road and stage route which was established years earlier. Starting in 1872, a stage stop on the Agua Fria River, north of Phoenix and the Swilling Ranch further north were a few of the stops serving the stage route. Remarkably, the Arizona stage coach service between Phoenix and Prescott continued until 1917. This was one of the longest running stage routes in the west. Long after Henry Ford developed his Model T.

first arizona territorial capital in prescott

First Capital of Arizona in Prescott

One of the best books you’ll find on this subject is Arizona Trails and Tales: True Adventures in Arizona’s Old West, by author Charles D. Lauer. Lauer describes just how dangerous this stage trail was resulting in the Wells Fargo Express Company to halt shipments over the route. The portion of the trail around the now ghost town of Gillette Arizona, south of Prescott, saw holdups on a fairly regular basis. The trail was surrounded by boulders and scrub that made it easy for the highwaymen, the term used at that time, to hide and ambush the stagecoach. It was the kind of route where old west legends were made.

The Two Routes From Phoenix to Prescott

Interestingly enough, the Black Canyon route was a secondary route between Phoenix and Prescott during the Arizona Territory days. The regular route went northwest from Phoenix through Wickenburg. Wickenburg was a busy town being closer to California and the ports along the Colorado River. This route ran to Prescott west of the Black Canyon Route. The primary route through Wickenburg was preferred by most freighters because it was much flatter than the Black Canyon Route. The Wickenburg route also had a few less, although still some, old western outlaws lurking around.

old prescott arizona courthouse

Prescott Arizona Courthouse, circa 1885

The Black Canyon route really grew in prominence when gold and silver mining hit it big in the now ghost town of Tip Top. The town of Gillette, just east of Tip Top actually came into being because of the mining at Tip Top. This became a busy stage route and had many interesting passengers travel on it. Some say that the Earp brothers and Bat Masterson were one time visitors. In addition to this, there was a need for transportation between the old Fort Whipple, located in present day Prescott, and Phoenix. Two additional articles you’ll enjoy from our Western Trips site is the First Yuma Territorial Prison Female Inmate and the story of California’s famous female stagecoach driver Charley Parker.

Viewing the Old Black Canyon Stagecoach Route Today

One of the more interesting things about the old Black Canyon AZ stage route is how it follows many of today’s modern highways and because of this is relatively easy to explore, at least some of it. In the above mentioned book, Charles D. Lauer states that the old Black Canyon stage trail can be seen in many places along present day Interstate- 17 north of Phoenix. In fact, Interstate-17 is often called “The Black Canyon Freeway“. When the Interstate passes New River Arizona bridge, the old stage station can be seen as part of an old service station along the dry creek bed. At this point, the trail has come from Phoenix to Cave Creek and from there on to this New River station.

agua fria national monument cactusFrom the New River area this Arizona Territory stage route ran north to Black Canyon City which was then called “Canon“. The photo at left is of the Agua Fria National Monument just northeast of Black Canyon City and about forty miles north of Phoenix. This is the general route of Interstate-17.

About twelve miles north of Black Canyon City the old trail can be spotted to the west as it wound it’s way up to Bumble Bee, another ghost town. You can actually see the site of the Bumble Bee ghost town to the west from the Interstate’s Sunset Point rest stop. The stage route made it’s way further north to near present day Mayer Arizona. Mayer is about ten miles west of the Interstate on Highway 69. From Mayer to Prescott, the old stagecoach route follows closely this highway all the way northwest to Prescott. From Interstate-17 you can access Highway 69 at Cordes Junction. There are segments of the old trail that go on and off the present Highway 69.

While driving Interstate-17 north of Phoenix to Cordes Junction and then northwest on Highway 69 allows you many opportunities to observe this historic stage route, it is possible for the most adventurous of explorers to actually travel over the trail itself. Because of trail conditions that are basically unpaved one lane ruts in many places, experiencing this would likely require a four wheel drive truck. You’d also have to be on the lookout for any possible traffic coming from the opposite direction, especially around bends in the road. Nevertheless, taking this route would certainly be an historic experience and a real trip into the history of the Arizona Territory.

(Photo of Concord Coach is from author’s collection. Remaining photos are in the public domain)

Things To Do In Sonoma / History and Wineries

Sonoma California is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the San Francisco Bay area. Today, it represents a fun stop while touring the northern California wine country in both Sonoma and Napa Counties. There’s plenty of things to do in Sonoma. The Sonoma plaza is laid out in the normal way similar to other Mexican towns. The plaza is large, some eight acres, and represents the largest town plaza in California. Several very historic buildings line the plaza including the military barracks and the Sonoma Mission itself. Sonoma is all about California history, wineries and great dining choices.

sonoma mission

Sonoma Mission

Mexico’s Northernmost Outpost in Alta California

The history of this town is quite interesting and goes all the way back to the origins of settlement in California. One of the most visited sites in Sonoma is the Mission San Francisco Solano. In fact, the entire town of Sonoma is a National Historic Site.

The Sonoma Mission has a unique distinction among the famous California missions. The San Francisco Solano Mission was built by the Mexican government after the Mexican Revolution expelled the Spaniards from North America. As many know, the Mexican government secularized the mission system and confiscated a good amount of their land. In the case of Sonoma, the mission erected there by the Mexicans was used as much as a military encampment as it was a religious center. The Russians had long been involved in fur trapping and trading to the north of San Francisco Bay and the mission established in Sonoma was thought to be a good location to keep an eye on any Russian movement. At one time there was even the idea of establishing a mission further north in what is today Santa Rosa California but those plans never materialized.

sonoma barracks

Sonoma Barracks

The Mexican military garrison stationed at Sonoma was led by the famous General Mariano Vallejo. In 1834, Vallejo was sent to secularize Mission San Francisco Solano for the relatively new Mexican government. When you learn more about General Vallejo, the relationship he had with the Russians to the north is quite interesting. Vallejo’s Russian counterpart was a man named Rotchef. The two leaders had a polite but guarded relationship. Vallejo always insisted that the Russians were technically on Mexican soil. At the same time, he officially tolerated the existence of their Fort Ross and Bodega Bay settlements to the north and west. As more Americans entered California coupled with Mexico’s loss of the province and 1850 U.S. statehood, Vallejo attempted to gain favor with the new government of California. He had lost most of his property and was even imprisoned for some time during the Mexican American War. Incredibly, despite this, Vallejo actually supported California’s quest for statehood and went on to be one of eight Californios that were members of California’s Constitutional Convention. He was eventually appointed the Indian Agent for Northern California. In spite of all the earlier turmoil, Vallejo went on to play a constructive role in the new California government..

On a historical note, today’s city of Vallejo California to the southeast of Sonoma and adjacent to Mare Island is named after the general.

sonoma mission bell

Historic Sonoma Mission Bell

Sonoma California was also the center of the Bear Flag Revolt. This was when Americans who had been living in Mexican ruled California revolted against the government and declared the territory as being American.. This occurred in the Sonoma town plaza and it was here that the first Bear Flag was raised in June of 1846. The men involved in the revolt claimed to be acting on the direct orders of Colonel John C. Fremont. The rebels had named the region the California Republic, similar to what had transpired a decade earlier in Texas. The rebellion was fairly short lived since by 1848 the United States took control of California and raised the Stars and Stripes.

Sonoma and California’s First Winery

Sonoma California is also home to the first commercial winery established north of the San Francisco Bay area. In fact, grapes and wine were produced in Sonoma first by the Franciscan Friars at the mission. It’s also reported that General Vallejo himself had an interest in wine making.

buena vista winery in sonoma county california

Buena Vista Winery

The famous and much visited Buena Vista Winery is located just about a few miles northeast of the Sonoma town plaza. The winery was founded in 1857, just seven years after California statehood and at a time when California’s population was growing greatly due in large part to the goldfields in the Sierra Nevada’s.

The founder was a European immigrant by the name of Agoston Haraszthy who had previously experimented with grapes in southern California. Agoston was referred to as “The Count” and by all measures is considered the father of California’s wine industry. A committed farmer, an experimental innovator and vintner, a respected author, a shrewd businessman and a very talented promoter. If this wasn’t enough, the Count had been Sheriff of San Diego, founder of a city in Wisconsin, ferryboat owner and member of the Hungarian Royal Guard. Count Haraszthy brought back thousands of vine cuttings from Europe and published an account of his journey. There is no other person who helped to bring California’s wine industry more into the world spotlight than Agoston Haraszthy.

The Count is considered California’s most acclaimed and flamboyant vinicultural pioneer. Many of his experiments and findings are still a part of text books today. He is recognized by many as having been the number one authority on wine producing.

buena vista winery

Buena Vista Winery grounds

By the year 1863, Haraszthy had financial backers out of San Francisco and was producing about 2 million gallons of wine per year. This was an enormous amount in that era. Agoston was affected by national financial depressions and weak wine prices and resigned from winery management in 1866 and subsequently the partnership put together in 1863 dissolved by 1880 after putting out only 100,000 gallons per year during the 1870’s. Beginning in 1880 Buena Vista Winery was owned by a California businessman.

Two additional articles with photos you’ll find interesting are the Jack London Historic Park on our Western Trips site and the Juan de Anza Expedition and the founding of San Francisco on Trips Into History.

Visiting Wine Country

Today, the output estimate at Buena Vista Winery is about 500,000 cases per year produced from 900 acres of vineyards. The winery you visit today is on the same site as the original. The hand dug caves are still visible but are off limits to tourists. The grounds of Buena Vista are quite attractive with great views and an ample picnic area. The Buena Vista Winery, although very historic in it’s own right, is just one of many in Sonoma and Napa Counties and an exploration of the wine country can certainly be a week long visit if you’re so inclined. When you stop by the town of Sonoma you will want to pick up the latest winery map at the Chamber of Commerce to help plan your tour route. There are some 300 or so wineries, large and small, in Sonoma County. Sonoma offers tourists a wealth of opportunities to expand their vinous horizons against the backdrop of one of the world’s most dynamic wine regions.

bear flag

Photo of First Bear Flag, from the public domain

Another very interesting stop just a few miles northwest of Sonoma California is the Jack London State Historic Park. The park grounds are part of what were London’s estate including the cottage residence where he wrote books, short stories, articles and letters while he oversaw various agricultural enterprises. London was also a friend of Luther Burbank whose home and gardens were just to the north in Santa Rosa. Jack London’s wife, Charmian, continued to live in the cottage until she passed away in 1955. It was her wish that the ranch be preserved in memory of Jack London and the California Parks system now administers the site.

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of history in the Sonoma California area both in terms of wine production and also with the origins of California itself. It’s a fun area to visit as part of a northern California or San Francisco vacation.

(Sonoma and Buena Vista Winery photos are from author’s private collection. Bear Flag photo from the public domain)

The Buffalo Bill Show / Cody Tours Europe

Buffalo Bills Wild West Goes To Europe

Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West was probably the greatest show on earth. During the latter part of the 1800’s the majority of the population was east of the Mississippi River. Newspaper accounts of course supplied the eastern populace with news stories of the Indian Wars and the ongoing westward migration. Mostly because of the news accounts, people in the East were eager to learn more about the American West. What was it really like? Who were these mountain men and Native American warriors we heard so much about? What was it like to be under attack by hostiles? These questions and more were answered by William Cody and his performers. When you look at old pictures of the Wild West you can see how William Cody was a promotional genius in his era.

annie oakley photo

Sharpshooter Annie Oakley

The Wild West shows played to packed audiences in the United States before venturing overseas to Europe. The Europeans, some might say, even more than some Americans were absolutely captivated by stories of the American West. Books and dime novels were quite popular in Europe. One of the most popular acts in the Wild West was the sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Annie and her husband and business manager, sharpshooter Frank Butler, toured all the venues in Europe and thrilled the crowds.

England in 1887

In 1887 the Wild West toured England to sell out crowds. Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and many other society figures came out to see the Wild West. The show played in London, Birmingham and Manchester England. The story of the wild west was just as the English anticipated and they loved the show. Among the features were real Indians attacking a stagecoach and driven off. A reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was performed with a bit of a different outcome. Most historians seem to agree that Wild Bill Cody embellished some of the scenes for entertainment value. Nevertheless, it was enthusiastically accepted by the audience. When Europeans wanted to see the wild west Buffalo Bill Cody brought it to their doorstep.

cody's wild west in 1890

Cody's Wild West, 1890

Wild West in Italy

In 1889 Cody’s show returned to Europe including a tour in Italy. While in Rome where they were invited to the Vatican to attend the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the coronation of Pope Leo XIII. A very publicized event while the Wild West was in Italy was a bronco-busting challenge between Buffalo Bill’s cowboys and true working cowhands from the Maremma region in central Italy. These men spent much of their time working with the Cajetan breed of horse, the wildest most untamed in Italy. The Prince of Teano challenged Cody’s men to break the Cajetans. Twenty thousand spectators saw the contest. There were mixed reports on the contest’s outcome. Most reports however were that the Maremma cowboys were only marginally to moderately successful at trying to duplicate that feat on Cody’s horses.

Many people assume that the Wild West was performed in Rome’s historic Coliseum. The fact was that there were too many stones and debris in the arena and the Wild West simply posed at the Coliseum for pictures. Tents were erected there but because of the debris and lack of sufficient space the performances couldn’t be staged at the very historic site.

william cody and sitting bull

Studio photo of William Cody and Chief Sitting Bull

The Wild West performed for eight days in Bologna. In Bologna there were congested streets and oversold arenas. It was in Bologna that American popcorn was introduced to audiences giving them a good sample of American culture. It’s interesting to observe that during 1890 the Indian Wars had subsided but had not disappeared entirely. The Wounded Knee Massacre of Sioux in 1890 is an example. In 1890 the Census Bureau officially declared the end of the frontier. That was somewhat true and the Indian Wars died down but there were still many Native American issues unresolved.

Nobody in Italy considered the Wild West show to be merely a circus. It was more of a display of current events in a way. At least that was the feelings of both William Cody and his Italian audiences. A good example of the realness of the Wild West were the Indians themselves. These were not professional actors.They were real Native Americans and some of them were believed to have participated in the Battle of the Little Big Horn against Custer.  

Some of Cody’s warriors had actually been in custody because of earlier uprisings and only released to Buffalo Bill to tour with his troupe. For the people of today who became acquainted with the 1800’s wild west via movies and television, they would have a hard time understanding what it was like for Europeans, including the Italians, to see a live display of this kind.There has been nothing like it since and probably never will be. Bear in mind that in the late 1800’s, media was nothing like it was now. People attained their knowledge of current events through printed means such as newspapers, books and magazines. Live plays typically didn’t involve current or somewhat recent events. Buffalo Bill brought the live action to the audiences with authentic performers and it was hugely successful. Many people believe that the 20th century movie makers drew their interpretation of the wild west from William Cody’s productions.

wilhelm II of germany

The Wild West played in Germany with Wilhelm II in attendance

When the Wild West show went to Florence for a three day engagement, the reception was the same. The whole town turned out. An estimated 10,000 people daily attended the performances. Newspapers at the time reported that the act the Florentines enjoyed the best was the Indian attack on the Deadwood stagecoach. The Indians looked like they had the upper hand but at the last minute the cavalry appeared to rescue the stage and it’s passengers. Ironically, it wasn’t that many years since these events actually happened in real life. This is just another reason why the show was regarded as much as a news event rather than only entertainment.

Two additional articles with photos you’ll be interested in are Annie Oakley and Frank Butler and the story of the Wild West Touring Paris.

The Wild West Remains Popular

Stories of Buffalo Bill were popular many European countries in the early 20th century, The Nerbini publishing company in Florence started publishing in an illustrated format the adventures of “Buffalo Bill, The Hero of the Wild West“. Historians have long debated and discussed the meaning of the Wild West performances, especially the enormous drawing power they enjoyed. As an example, a newspaper in Florence while the show was performing there, pointed out that the Wild West really was a story of a dying race. The paper further pointed out to history students in the area to make certain to meet the Indian performers since they represented a people who would vanish from the earth. The paper was pointing out that the story of the disappearing Native American was actually a side theme of most of the acts.

Historians can and have debated this issue and I feel they are partly right. Right or wrong wasn’t part of the performance. That wasn’t the intent of Cody’s show. The show did an excellent job chronicling the old wild west and it accomplished that with flair. There’s no question that some acts were embellished but such is the norm in show business. News accounts at the time stated that many Florentines wandered the show grounds particularly interested in seeing the Indians close up. The audiences loved the show despite what some single critic might have had to say. The Florentines were awed by the sight of the warriors, especially when they had their war paint and headdresses on and shouted a war cry.

buffalo bill cody in 1903

William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, 1903

Buffalo Bill Cody made a fortune with his Wild West. He didn’t use or like the word “show’, possibly because he thought it had the connotation of being phony or fake. That is the reason the performances were called the “Wild West” without using the word “show” although you do see the word “show” used in some research pieces. Every indication from the research I have seen is that William Cody believed he was presenting a piece of very unique history. William Buffalo Bill Cody died in January 1917 in Denver Colorado. When word of Cody’s passing reached overseas, tributes came in from European leaders all over the continent. That was testament to the lasting mark he made to people from all over the world.

(Photos from the public domain)


The Frontier America / Soldier Life

The Frontier Soldier in the Old West

Many times when we consider the frontier America we see pictures of the frontier infantry soldiers and cavalry soldiers fighting the Indians of the plains. The military certainly was involved with Indian Wars for decades in the 1800’s which, as most historians believe, finally ended in 1890 at Wounded Knee. What really hasn’t had the same publicity as the Indian Wars was what the other duties the rank and file soldier was involved in, and there were many.

frontier army mail pouch

Army Mail Pouch on display at Fort Stockton Texas

A lot can be learned by visiting some of the old west forts that today are National Historical Sites. Some of the best include Fort Stockton in southwest Texas, Fort Union in northeastern New Mexico and Fort Concho in San Angelo Texas. These are just a few, but they are fascinating to visit. Everyone of these former frontier forts feature great artifacts of the old west military days and you can really get a good feel for what the duties and everyday life was for a soldier in frontier America.

When settlers moved west in earnest, and alot of this was during the time of the California Gold Rush, two army forts were critical in aiding overland travelers. Those were forts on the Platte Road, Kearney in Nebraska and Laramie in Wyoming. Kearney stood as the first well provisioned fort after the journeys were begun, mostly from towns in western Missouri. Laramie stood further west at the junction of the Bozeman Trail which ran northwest to Montana. To be sure, both forts were established to provide a degree of security for the emigrants and that meant to protect them against Indian raids. Many cavalry soldier battles were fought in the Powder River region of Montana and further south into Wyoming. The most well known being the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fetterman Massacre. Those were two which seemed to receive the most publicity. The Little Bighorn Battle probably the most. There were many others that occurred from Arizona to Montana to Idaho.

cavalry saddle

Cavarly saddle at Ft. Stockton TX

Aside from engaging Indians, what some may not realize was that the frontier America soldier also was a common laborer, helping to construct forts and keeping the trails open physically. That meant moving stones and boulders and cutting down trees. It also meant constructing bridges and repairing trails after floods. This was all in addition to protecting settlers.

Settling Civilian Disputes

Although it could get complicated and not relished by the military brass, the frontier soldier  became involved in civilian matters on the trail. One example was an officer serving as judge during a dispute on the Platte Road between two groups of emigrants. The group wanted to split up but couldn’t agree whose property and provisions were who’s. The cavalry officer made the decision and the groups traveled on. Both Kearney and Laramie were well provisioned to sell supplies to the travelers but there were times when the soldiers had to find supplies in emergencies when people found themselves stranded without food. It’s thought that a good many of the settlers provided poorly for a 2,000 mile journey in a lot of cases. Many purchased mules that weren’t fit for the trip. In general, many left on the journey ill equipped. A lot of things can go wrong on a long journey through an unforgiving land.

1875 army battery gun

1875 Army Battery Gun, on display at California State Military Museum, Sacramento CA

Both forts, Kearney and Laramie provided medical care. In many cases for serious conditions such as gunshot wounds, broken legs and contagious diseases. The forts and it’s cavalry soldiers obviously provided a sort of oasis in an otherwise desolate and dangerous land. These forts and all frontier forts actually served a dual purpose. One charge was to try and protect the settlers and at the same time help facilitate their westward advance.The government wanted people to settle the west.

The Soldier as a Lawman

The cavalry soldier also became a quasi lawman when the military was called upon by the locals to hunt down outlaws. The new small settlements typically had inadequate law enforcement short of vigilante groups.  Mostly the army became involved if there was a high profile crime such as a train robbery. The train carried U.S. mail and from that a case could be made for legal military involvement.

Soldiers Involvement in Labor Strikes

The soldier being used as a strikebreaker was probably the most controversial use of troops. In the late 1800’s there were several labor disputes at western mining camps. Many times violence and bloodshed ensued and when either the local militia or the private detective agencies hired by the mine owners couldn’t restore order, the President was asked to send in the military Serving in this manner however was a no win situation. Either side would accuse the army of being at service to the other, usually the army being accused of aiding the mine owners.

Probably the biggest involvement of U.S. Army troops in a labor strike was the one involving the Pullman Company in Chicago, manufacturer of the famous Pullman Rail Car. Pullman had essentially a company town outside Chicago where workers lived and worked. The town was owned by the company. The strike occurred in the summer of 1994 during a time of national economic depression. Eventually the strike spread across the U.S. and virtually shut down the railroads as other workers sided with the strikers. Violenec Nelson ensued and President Cleveland called in the army with about 12,000 troops under the command of the famous frontier cavalry soldier, General Nelson Miles. Miles made a name for himself during the Indian Wars of the prior decades.

pullman company in chicago illinois

The Pullman Company, Chicago, circa 1900

This was a delicate situation because of the Posse Comitatus Act which restricted civilian involvement by the military. What’s ironic about this situation is that the rank and file army soldier probably had much more in common with the striker. Many of the frontier soldiers were immigrants just as many of the strikers were. Intervening in labor disputes was probably the army’s most trying of assignments both tactically and legally.

While the Indian engagements were certainly a big part of what the U,.S. Army was involved in, it should be noted that there was much more a soldier had to contend with.

Three additional articles and photos on Trips Into History you’ll find interesting are the Surrender of Crazy Horse and how it all came about…the Mountain Howitzer, one of the most powerful cavalry weapons on the western plains and The Resting Place of the Alamo Defenders.

Some of the best old west forts that today have large exhibits of the old west and how it related to the frontier American soldier include...Fort Sill in Oklahoma which is still a busy military base.

old infantry Barracks at fort sill oklahoma

Old infantry barracks at Fort Sill Oklahoma

Fort Sill has the best collection of military weaponry found anywhere. Fort Stockton in southwest Texas has great exhibits including stone buildings that include a realistic showcase of a frontier army barrack. Fort Concho in San Angelo Texas was a large frontier fort where today you can see many of the medical supplies and instruments used during the 1800’s. Fort Union in northeast New Mexico happened to be built where two routes of the old Santa Fe Trail intersected. The fort buildings are now adobe ruins which are a popular attraction on a walking tour. Fort Union also displays authentic wagon ruts from the Santa Fe Trail days. Another good one is the old Fort Union on the Missouri River at the North Dakota / Montana border. This fort was originally a trading post for the American Fur Company.

Pullman Company and Fort Sill photos are in the public domain. Remainder of photos from author’s private collection)

The Bohemian Club

A Long Standing Exclusive Club

Most people who have lived in the northern California region, particularly Sonoma County, just a short drive north of San Francisco, have heard of the Bohemian Club. Chances are, many people not residing in the area may never have heard of it. It’s been in existence for well over a century but it’s mystique remains. The mystique really centers around two things. The membership of the Bohemian Club might be considered the elite of the elite. It really depends what your personal definition of elite is.

california redwood trees

California Redwoods

The other element of mystique is how closely the gatherings each year, in the middle of a beautiful redwood forest, are so guarded.

A Beautiful Yet Very Remote Location

In the middle of the coastal redwood forests of Sonoma County California is one of the oldest and most private of members only clubs you’ll find on the face of the earth. The Bohemian Grove’s 2,700 acre campground is located at 20601 Bohemian Avenue, in Monte Rio, California. Monte Rio is a very small settlement along the Russian River, in the middle of a beautiful recreation area enjoyed by river rafters, campers, hikers and Sonoma wine country tourists. This heavily redwood forested area is one of Sonoma County’s busiest during the summer vacation months. The area is also very near the Pacific coast and it’s summer temperatures are quite moderate because of this.

The Bohemian Club was founded in 1872 although not at it’s present location. The first summer camp out occurred in 1878 when members held a going away party for it’s founding member, Henry Edwards, a stage actor, who announced that he was relocating to New York City. The group got together again the next summer even without Edwards and the summer camp out continued ever since. In 1878, members first gathered for the camp outing in Marin County just north of the San Francisco Bay entrance. By 1882 the members of the Club camped together at different sites in both Marin and Sonoma Counties which included the popular tourist site of Muir Woods in Marin and a site near Duncan Mills in Sonoma County which is between Monte Rio and the Pacific Ocean.

russian river

Beautiful Russian River near Bohemian Grove

One thing for sure is that this area of western Sonoma County is a great place to spend a few weeks during the summer. The Russian River which flows through it is a big attraction.

The Bohemian Grove site in Monte Rio California was rented by the Bohemian Club in 1893 and it’s influential and wealthy members finally purchased that land and more from a successful Sonoma County logger named Melvin Cyrus Meeker.

Keeping the Journalists at Bay

Unfortunately for tourists, the Bohemian Grove was and still is off limits to anyone not a member. Not to be denied, some journalists over the years have penetrated the club gatherings. To give you some perspective of the membership of this highly elite, all-male club, it’s members over the years have included every Republican president since Calvin Coolidge, Luther Burbank, Jack London and CEO’s of industry. More recent members have included Walter Cronkite, both George Bush’s, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, James Baker and David Rockefeller, Bill Clinton and they say Barack Obama. There are many others in addition to these. The Bohemian Club membership is filled with many names you’re familiar with and many you’re not.

russian river mouth

Mouth of Russian River at Pacific Ocean

An ironic story concerning one journalist’s alleged infiltration of this gathering occurred in 1991 when the People Magazine San Francisco bureau chief did get into the club and did write a story of his experience. The problem was that when he tried to publish the story it was held back by upper management. It seems that among the membership of the Bohemian Club was the upper management of Time Warner who owned the publication. The official stance from the Bohemian Club is simply that this annual event is merely a time for private fun among it’s membership and guests. Many non-members have long maintained that official business is indeed conducted there. They contend that policy speeches are regularly made by both members and guests. There have also been long time rumors that Bohemian Club members had bragged that the Manhatten Project itself was actually conceived at it’s annual camp site. I’m not sure this will ever be known for certain. The Manhatten Project occurred too long ago. When the “powerful” and let’s say “influential” conduct secret meetings shielded from the press, any rumor can emerge.

There are so many alleged instances of non-members getting into the Bohemian Grove during it’s annual summer event that they are almost too many to list. Supposedly, reporters, who are officially admitted as guests, pledge not to print what they see and hear. There are so many media owners and CEO’s attending that it’s not difficult to extract a pledge. Some people alleged to witnessed the meetings, however, went on to report on what they saw and heard. To give you another perspective on the exclusiveness of this club, President Richard Nixon was quoted as saying, “Anybody can be President of the United States, but very few can ever have any hope of becoming President of the Bohemian Club.” – President Richard Nixon, 1972.

monte rio california

Monte Rio California sign on River Road

Author Mike Hanson wrote a book on the Bohemian Club entitled “Bohemian Grove: Cult of Conspiracy“. Hanson points out…”They secretly meet for seventeen days each July in a remote “sacred grove” of ancient redwood trees in the deep forests surrounding San Francisco. Some 1,500 in number, their membership roll is kept secret, but includes the super-rich, blood dynasty member families of the Illuminati; heavy-hitting corporate chieftains and high government officials”. Hanson’s book further states that…”Now the truth can finally be revealed. Mike Hanson is a first-hand eyewitness who has been inside the Bohemian Grove. In the summer of 2000, Mike secretly “infiltrated” the Grove with radio talk show host Alex Jones. They filmed several hours of footage, including the entire “Cremation of Care” ritual, which will be published in full here for the first time”.

There were several other stories published concerning the activities at Bohemian Grove. One of the most active publications on this subject was the old “Spy” magazine which was in business for a relatively short time, 1986-1998. The publication claimed to have also infiltrated the camp outs.

Some of the Activities

In addition to the so-called secret meetings among the elite, there are a few things that go on each year at he Bohemian Grove which can be considered entertainment for the attendees. Since the year 1902 the Grove has featured a full theatrical play production. During the Second World War years the plays were suspended but started up again in 1946.

jack london winery cottage

Old Winery Cottage where Jack London passed away in 1916, Sonoma County California

Another well known activity held once each summer is the “Cremation of Care” ceremony. This event began all the way back in 1881. The Cremation of Care at first was part of the play production and then became a separate event starting in 1913. This event includes a 40 foot hollow owl (reported by one source to have the voice of the late Walter Cronkite), the exorcising of a Demon and a High Priest. While probably not something practiced at most summer camps, it does sound like a sensible and worthwhile endeavor and something perhaps the lesser elite of society might wish to adopt at their summer camp outings.

The Protesters Take Note

It goes without saying, a private club of this nature that gathers behind closed doors each summer, draws it’s share of protesters. Being this close to San Francisco doesn’t hurt either. As an example, the Press Democrat newspaper, located in nearby Santa Rosa California, reported in 2011 that about 45 protesters, not exactly an “Occupy” crowd, gathered at the entrance to the Bohemian Grove on July 13th. The paper mentioned the possible connection to a You Tube video calling for a peaceful protest. The You Tube video supposedly named the gathering “Operation Bohemian Grove“. Nevertheless, a few sheriff’s department deputies were stationed there to make sure it was peaceful.

guerneville california

Guerneville California on the Russian River

Back in 2005, the Sonoma County Free Press, reported that July of that year would mark twenty five years of protest at the exclusive mens only club in Monte Rio on the Russian River. Going back even further, the same Sonoma County Free Press pointed out that in 1981 a network of peace, environmental and justice groups had formed a coalition named Bohemian Grove Action Network (BGAN) formed to call attention to what they referred to as the “good old boys” club. Apparently, one of their top issues were the “Lakeside Talks” which have over the decades included presidents, CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, the head of the World Bank as well as military leaders. BGAN considers these public policy talks given without public scrutiny.

On the more bizarre side of stories, the November 1989 edition of the now defunct Spy Magazine featured photos it claimed were Bohemian Grove men dancing around dressed up as women.The magazine went on with other very weird details which push the imagination to the limit. I think you might want to check the sources on this one before accepting as fact. Nevertheless, this 1989 story probably helped sell magazines.

Not sure that private talks at closed gatherings like the Bohemian Club are necessarily illegal, In fact they’re not, but they certainly give conspiracy theorists food for fodder. What policy direction emerges from these annual summer gatherings in a redwood forest, if any, is pure speculation and because there virtually is no press coverage, other than reporting the gathering itself had taken place, the speculation for sure will continue.

Unfortunately the Bohemian Grove isn’t a Sonoma County California tourist destination, although at times a very scenic protester destination, however there are other nearby wine country vacation spots you’ll certainly enjoy such as Monte Rio, Guerneville, Sebastopol, not to mention the many wineries located throughout Sonoma County.

Two additional articles from Trips Into History you’ll find interesting are Sonoma County Getaways and the historic Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Farm site in Sebastopol California.

(Phootos from author’s private collection. Jack London old Winery Cottage is in the public domain)