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Old Calistoga Depot photo

Samuel Brannan & The Calistoga Depot

The renovation and revival of the Calistoga Depot, the historical heart of the town, is placed firmly between the iconic bookends of Sam Brannan and Jean-Charles Boisset, the perpetuation of a dream that has spanned more than 170 years of vision and innovation.

Photo of Samuel Brannan



Samuel Brannan had chartered a boat from New York to the West Coast. After a six-month voyage around the tip of South America, Sam was determined to seize Mexican California for his own uses. But to Sam's dismay, the US Navy had already occupied California three weeks earlier because of the actions of the Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma.

Brannon 1848 outside his store


Sam walked down Montgomery Street with a vial of gold flakes yelling, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" Almost everyone left immediately for the gold fields, and waiting for the newly-minted miners was all the mining equipment they needed.  Sam had already bought every pick, shovel, and pan he could find before he made his announcement; pans he had acquired for 20 cents a piece were sold for $15.

Drawing of white sulphur springs


Sam vacations at the recently opened White Sulphur Springs Resort at St. Helena, and was intrigued to discover Hot Springs Township ten miles to the north with even more hot springs and geysers.

Drawing of the area of Hot Springs Township circa 1857


Sam launched his plan to buy land in the Hot Springs Township with the goal of building the finest hot springs resort on the West Coast. Eventually he owned 2,000 acres of valley land and on the southeast corner built "Sam Brannan's Hot Springs Resort."

Drawing of a grape processing plant


Sam purchased 20,000 grapevine cuttings on a trip to France for his nursery in Calistoga. He formed another enterprise, a winery/distillery whose brandy was soon declared equal to the finest French Cognac. Sam's distillery was immense - 25 grape growers in the surrounding fertile valley did nothing but grow grapes for his distillery.

Grand Opening Celebration of Sam Brannan’s Hot Springs Resort


Sam threw a three-day Grand Opening Celebration of Sam Brannan's Hot Spring's Resort. While at the banquet, he raised a glass of Champagne to toast his new resort by comparing it to the famous Saratoga Springs in New York. He intended to say, "To the Saratoga of California," but given his pleasant state of inebriation, the words came out, "To the Calistoga of Sarafornia!" And it has been called Calistoga ever since.

Napa Valley Railroad Company train engine


Sam founded the Napa Valley Railroad Company in 1864 with Napa businessmen and tracks were laid the same year. Napa Valley Railroad reaches Calistoga on July 31, 1868.

Drawing of the hot springs resort


Sam had succeeded in creating the most spectacular hot springs resort on the West Coast, but it was too small to finance his extravagance. Sam's railroad had certainly encouraged agricultural production and the increase in property of Napa Valley. The Napa Valley Railroad failed to meet the interest on its construction loan and was sold to the California Pacific Railroad.

Large house nestled in trees


In May, Sam's wife Eliza sued him for divorce alleging that her husband was "addicted to open and notorious intemperance." By November, Eliza had won her divorce and Sam was ordered to pay her half of their holdings - $500,000 in cash. Most of their fortune was in real estate and Sam was forced to sell his properties during a recession as prices were falling daily. In the end, Sam was left with nothing.

Drawing of Calistoga


Sam's Calistoga Distillery is sold - the last piece of Calistoga still in Brannan's possession - it had always been his most consistently profitable business.

Men and a stagecoach outside Calistoga Depot around 1887


Sam sells pencils on the streets of Nogales, Arizona to finance one last trip to Calistoga. Arriving in San Francisco, Sam traveled to Calistoga on the train tracks that he had built. And for the last time is greeted in Calistoga by old friends. He would live for two more years until his death in 1889.

Southern Pacific train engine and coal car


The California Pacific Railroad was leased to the Southern Pacific Railroad. But with the arrival of the automobile, the days of railroad prominence were numbered.

Passenger train car at Calistoga depot


The Southern Pacific Railroad discontinued passenger service to Calistoga; its last passenger car departed in July.  California State Highway 29 provided a more direct automobile link through Napa Valley instead.

Black and white photo of Calistoga Depot


Freight traffic eventually declined and the Southern Pacific Railroad finally decided to end its freight service for Calistoga Depot.

Jean-Charles Boisset outside the newly re-opened Calistoga Depot


Today, the Calistoga Depot is a welcoming center for discovering not only Calistoga’s rich history but, is the center piece for the Calistoga Depot Spirits Collection where guests and the community can imbibe in tasting flights, cocktails and more.

Photographs are courtesy of
Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History