Most people who visit Calistoga -- a town in the Napa Valley -- come for the wine and the spa treatments; few come for the literary history. But they could: one of the most romantic honeymoon getaways ever written about happened one hundred and thirty five years ago.
Instead of mud baths and geysers, picture an abandoned mining shack infested with snakes, poison oak, and rusty nails. Now picture a sickly writer and his new wife spending their first two months of married life living there. Sounds crazy, right? But that’s exactly what Robert Louis Stevenson — author of the famous children's book Treasure Island — did.
It all started with a dark-haired American beauty named Fanny Osborne. Before he met Fanny, Robert Louis Stevenson – or Louis, as his friends called him – was just a rebellious young boy trying, and failing, to make it as a writer while living on his parents’ dole. In the spring of 1876, he went vacationing in a small French town with friends. There is a married American woman there with her two children, and it turns out that this is Fanny Osborne; the woman with whom Stevenson falls in love. Fanny lives in San Francisco, and when she goes back, Stevenson drops everything to follow her to America. On the journey he gets sick -- scholars think he had either tuberculosis or a genetic disorder – and develops a skin condition he calls “the Itch”.
Marissa Schleicher, Executive Director at the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena, says Stevenson was in bad shape when he arrived in San Francisco.
“He looked like he was about to fall dead”, Schleicher says. “He lost so much weight, he was about 80 pounds, his clothes were falling off his body, and…his entire skin had been rubbed raw because of the Itch, that…it looked like he had been flayed, almost.”
Finally, Fanny gets a divorce, moves Stevenson into her house, and nurses him back from the brink of death. They get married in the summer of 1880, as soon as he can make it to the church.
With Fanny’s 10-year-old son, Lloyd, in tow, the newlyweds make their way by ferry and stagecoach to Calistoga for their honeymoon - a town, they’re told by friends, with less fog and lots of restorative sunshine. When they get there, they hear about this place called the old Silverado mine. As the name suggests, it had once been a promising silver mine, but boom and bust had left it decrepit and abandoned. But Stevenson had a good feeling about the place.
“As from every point in Calistoga, Mount Saint Helena could be seen towering in the air,” Stevenson wrote in his journal. “There…just where the eastern foothills joined the mountain…was Silverado. The name had already pleased me; the high station pleased me still more.”
Silverado definitely has quirks. The wooden shack is built right up against the mountain so that all three rooms have to be entered through separate doors on top of each other. A layer of dirt covers the rusty mining equipment strewn all over the house. Worse, there’s poison oak sprouting up through the floorboards.
Once Fanny gets the house in order, Stevenson begins to recover from his illness. He spends his time sunbathing, hiking, and playing with Fanny’s son Lloyd. Lloyd is delighted when Stevenson makes up adventure stories – especially stories about pirates.
After months of pirate games on Mount Saint Helena, Stevenson starts hatching an idea for a book -- a book that changes his family’s fortunes forever: Treasure Island. It’s a story of buccaneers and buried gold, told from the point of view of a young boy who comes of age through a swashbuckling adventure.
All his life, Stevenson has written unsuccessful personal travelogues and essays – but this new book is different. Schleicher says his stay at the Silverado mine is a big part of the reason why.
“He sees this beautiful landscape, he wants to create these tales to entertain his new family,” Schleicher says. “It really helps evolve his writing…to being an author who takes the world around him and synthesizes it into an enjoyable romp for everyone.”
When it’s published in 1883, Treasure Island is an instant hit, and Stevenson becomes an international celebrity. And at the height of his stardom, he publishes the journal from his honeymoon on Mount Saint Helena, which he calls The Silverado Squatters. And it flies off the shelves.
“Really, Louis was the first one to bring this neck of the woods out to the world,” Schleicher says. “during the entire time he’s here he’s writing about the people he meets, and keeping a very specific journal that he plans to turn into a book. So that by the time it gets published it’s kind of the first international PR for the region.”
Stevenson writes about Schramsberg, a local winery, in the Silverado Squatters. The winemakers were quick to capitalize on his work once he became famous. And it wasn’t just Schramsberg. All of Napa Valley received a publicity boost from Silverado Squatters – the welcome sign still features a quote from Louis, who once described Napa’s wine as “bottled poetry.”
In 1911, long after Stevenson and his wife were gone, a women’s organization in Napa County erected the stone tablet that marks the spot where their honeymoon shack once stood.
The mouth of the mine shaft is on a hill overlooking the spot where the mining shack used to be, and where the stone table is erected. It’s cool and dark, covered in powdery red stones - no silver to be seen. There’s something peaceful about it, though.
An old wooden miner’s cabin. Convertible double bunk beds in a room with a view. Fog-free weather. Endless pirate games. Come to think of it, that sounds like the perfect honeymoon.