Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Retracing Jack London in Northern California

"I liked those hills up there. They were beautiful, as you see, and I wanted beauty . . . I bought beauty, and I was content with beauty." —Jack London

The picturesque valleys north of San Francisco have long fascinated and attracted writers. In fact, writer Jack London was so taken with the lush green hillsides, moss-covered charter oaks and serenity that he chose to live there.

Born in 1876 in Oakland, California, London discovered the Sonoma Valley in 1905 and purchased a 130-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, a village located about 10 miles west of Sonoma. He named the spread, Beauty Ranch.

Although only 29 years old at the time, London had already written "Call of the Wild" and "The Sea Wolf," and had become one of America’s most famous and successful writers. He soon began expanding and developing the ranch, which he envisioned as a model for a socialist, agrarian society.

At the same time, he also began work on "The Snark," his prize sailing ship that was to take he and wife Charmain on a seven year cruise around the world. The trip only lasted 27 months (although they made it to the South Pacific and Australia) after London began having health problems.

The Londons returned to the ranch, which Jack immediately began expanding (he ultimately owned 1,800 acres). He also began planning the "Wolf House," his massive grand home in the mountains.

From 1910 to 1913, London spent more than $80,000 (in pre-World War I dollars) designing and constructing this rustic palace. Unfortunately, on the day the Londons were to move into their dream castle, the building mysteriously caught on fire (the source of the fire has never been determined) and was destroyed.

The destruction of the house and the resulting financial setback were harsh blows to London. He continued to write and made small improvements to a small ranch house that he'd previously been living in on the ranch but planned to try to rebuild the Wolf House.

In 1916, however, despite being only 40 years old, London died of gastrointestinal uremic poisoning—a result of his rough and ready lifestyle, manic work habits, diet and heavy alcohol consumption. The Wolf House was never rebuilt.

Today, visitors can tour the impressive ruins of the Wolf House as well as his ranch house (he died while sleeping on the front porch there), a small museum and the grave sites of both London and his wife.

The latter is housed in a beautiful stone structure, called "The House of Happy Walls," built from 1916-22 by his widow. It served as her home for more than 30 years and it was her wish to have it made into a museum after her death.

Inside, visitors can find first editions of London's works, displays describing his adventures, historic photographs, personal artifacts and effects, furniture, manuscripts and can purchase books by and about London.

The former London property is all part of the Jack London State Historic Park, which encompasses about 1,400 acres of the Beauty Ranch and includes orchards, barns, the small farm house in which London died, silos, a manmade lake constructed by London and other ruins.

Interpretive trails lead through the park and up into the slopes of Sonoma Mountain and the surrounding countryside.

The Jack London State Historic Park is located at 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442. For more information call 707-938-5216 or go to

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