Villa Grande is an unincorporated community in Monte Rio along the Russian River. How the name Villa Grande was born is a story unto itself. In the very beginning, there was “Big Flat”, a patch of land filled with redwoods and owned by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, which ran along present-day Moscow Road. The logging boom started to fizzle out by the beginning of the twentieth century, causing NWPR to sell lots in the Big Flat area. A fourth-class post office was established under the title of “Mesa Grande”, a name which adorned the train depot as well (far left photo). Unfortunately, there was another Mesa Grande located in the San Diego area, necessitating a change. The post office operated under the new moniker of “Grandville”, doing business out of a cubbyhole in the general store. However, due to confusion with Grandeville in Tulare County, there was yet another adjustment. With a bit of linguistic trickery, “Grandville” was turned inside out to become “Villa Grande” and has remained such since 1921.
Sidebar: In 1973, the post office (near left photo) was moved to the garage/workshop area of the general store owner’s private residence in order to create a private lobby and additional mailboxes. It has remained at this site ever since.
Vacationers from San Francisco would climb aboard the North Pacific Coast Railroad for the three-hour ride from Sausalito to their front door in Villa Grande. The community soon accommodated a hotel, firehouse, general store, post office, and numerous shingled cottages. 1910 was the first year that electricity arrived along with a windmill (near right photo), which supplied water to the cabins. It was dismantled in 1977 and given to a camp in Cazadero but the attached house still remains. With the revenue collected from their whist games, the good ladies of the village erected a sturdy windbreaker for the main beach each summer, which was located directly in front of the windmill. Across the river was the Sherman House (known today as “The Chocolate House”…far right photo), which served as a hotel for those visiting Monte Cristo. This tourist locale extended from the Sherman House to present-day Monte Cristo Avenue near the Monte Rio Elementary School. This was the most popular party venue for residents of Villa Grande as it rightly laid claim to hosting the largest dance floor along the lower reaches of the Russian River
It appears that the Russian River resorts reached a tipping point in the summer of 1910 when there was a jump in the number of visitors. It was the first season after the Northwestern Pacific (NWP) line finally joined with the narrow gauge railway coming up the coast. This meant someone in San Francisco could easily reach the popular resorts on the west end of the Russian River. No longer was it necessary to board the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad (SFNP) to Fulton near Santa Rosa and transfer to a slooooow connection that crawled as it made over a dozen stops along the way including Dell, Hilton, Eagle Nest, Guerneville, Montesano, and Camp Vacation near today’s Northwood. For a long time, this was the end of the line.
The coast route (far left photo) took you through Fairfax, Tomales Bay, Valley Ford, Freestone, Occidental, Camp Meeker and onto Monte Rio where it continued down today’s Moscow Road (near left photo). From there it stopped at Mesa Grande (Villa Grande) before going onto Duncans Mills and beyond.
Sidebar: This coastal trip was quite the adventure, rumbling through five different tunnels and over sixty-nine trestles. Two engines could pull as many as thirteen cars including open-end platform types, enclosed passenger coaches, smokers’ car, baggage and mail, second-class couches, picnic and hunters’ cars, students’ car, and a caboose.
On December 20, 1920 the Northwestern Pacific Railroad experienced its worse mishap in rural Sonoma County. After leaving the station in Monte Rio (upper right photo) and before crossing the bridge to Duncans Mills (lower right photo), engine No. 222 encountered a slide that buried the tracks near Mesa Grande (Villa Grande). No sooner would a steam shovel remove the debris when another load of muck took its place. A large locomotive, which could furnish 200 pounds of steam pressure, made its way up from Tiburon with a hydraulic pump. Even though the engine proceeded at 10 m.p.h., its weight broke fifteen rails along the way.
Upon arriving at the scene, the cleanup endeavor went smoothly until January 9, 1921 when another slide tipped the engine over and partly buried it along with the operator. Only one of his legs stuck out from the slime. Rescue efforts were unsuccessful. The operator suffocated to death while another lost his hand in the recovery attempt. It was decided to let the slide sit until spring. In the meantime, passengers would disembark, walk around the work zone and board a second train to resume their trip.
Sidebar: Railroad operations continued in the ensuing years peaking in 1923 when the July 4th weekend saw some thirty thousand persons boarding ferry boats from San Francisco’s Embarcadero to the train terminal in Sausalito for the ride to the Russian River.
After the logging had been exhausted in Mesa Grande (Villa Grande), the North Pacific Coast Railroad formed a subsidiary, the North Shore Land Company, to develop its properties. There was a lumberyard located here with half of its full-time residents working in construction. Riverfront lots were sold at seventy-five dollars each and the remainder at fifty. Wood shingles beautified the exterior while burlap lined the inside walls.< p/>
Built in 1905, the Lois Cottage at 21866 East St. (upper left photo) is typical of the early homes in Mesa Grande, costing roughly $200. Lois Tidball lived there while engaged to Captain Nelson, who sailed out of San Francisco. Legend states that the Captain took Lois and her daughter (from a previous marriage) on his ship for one last voyage and returned married to his fiance’s daughter. Captain Nelson supposedly buried valuables from his worldly travels on the River property for his bride’s financial security.
Present-day owners of Lois Cottage, Rich and Wanda Holmer, hired professional treasure hunters to explore the area with metal detectors, but no precious trove has been discovered at the time of this writing. Perhaps Lois Tidball had her revenge and lifted the booty from under her unfaithful lover’s eyes. Or perhaps the mother and daughter had schemed such an outcome all along. Oh, the drama!
Another example of a Craftsman cottage in Villa Grande is at 21894 Russian River Ave. (lower left photo), built in 1933. It features 1100 sq. ft., two bedrooms, two baths and recently sold for $1.1 million. How things have changed.
Sidebar:In those early days the lone phone in the hamlet resided at the General Store. Its number was 15-R.
Most of the activity in Villa Grande (upper right photo) during the 1950s centered around the General Store and the old hotel. It was a real treat for kids to gather some spare change after a barbecue dinner and head down to the store ( lower right photo) where they would load up on hard candy, root beer barrels, candy grab bags and RC Colas. Warren Payne recalls his failing ritual of purchasing a toy balsa wood airplane only to invariably lose it to the limbs of a nearby redwood. The post office was located here as well where a myna bird and a dog named Laddie would great patrons upon entering.
Since few homes had full kitchens back then, members of the community often took their meals at the old Villa Grande Hotel, which was built around 1920. In addition to the main building, ten tent-cabins on wooden platforms were built for summer visitors. Hearty Italian fares as well as delicate pastries awaited consumption.
Sidebar: The hotel at 21849 East St. was razed and replaced by a private residence.
San Francisco architect McLachlan built the Octagon House (upper left photo) that presently sits at 22292 Moscow Rd. near Villa Grande. Horticulturist John McClaren, a crony of McLachlan’s and best known as the man who created Golden Gate Park, designed the gardens. The McLachlans used the house as a summer getaway for approximately thirty-five years, hosting parties for their friends traveling from the City for galas along the Russian River. Sailing was always a popular amusement for guests and a boathouse was located on the property.
McLachlan designed a similar structure, the McElroy House on Gough Street in San Francisco, now a national historic site (lower left photo). The building is a bit of a time capsule of the city itself when Cow Hollow was way out in the country. It was on the cutting edge of innovation in 1861, even without indoor plumbing or a kitchen.
John King built a small stern-wheel steamboat in 1869 and sailed it along the Russian River. Named the Enterprise, there are no known photos of the vessel but it probably resembled the Montrio (upper right photo). King’s little ship was fifty feet long and sat high in the water, with a draft of only a foot, perfect for the shallow stream. He carried cargo from Heald and Guern Lumber Mill (near Guerneville’s Safeway today) to the mouth of the river at Jenner. On occasion he would promote excursions, towing two barges upon which revelers would dance to live music while under steam. After several failed attempts, the Enterprise sunk trying to reach Healdsburg.
Before the railroad line was extended west from Northwood, passengers would have to disembark and board the Sonoma (lower colored right photo), which would transport them downstream to connect with the North Pacific Coast R.R. in Monte Rio.
Small sailing skiffs were popular in the early days. The ones pictured on the extreme lower right were believed to belong to architect McLachlan of San Francisco who built a boathouse for his toys on the banks of his Octagon House.
Sidebar: When the dams go up in the summer, you can still witness a sailboat or two tacking through the wind between Guerneville and Vacation Beach to the west. With the right mixture of stupidity and liquid fortification, party animals can be seen on the back end of a ski rope as well.