For more than 150 years, the location along the Napa River — what is now the bustling wine-country town of Napa — has served as a center of commerce and government for the valley. Founded in 1847 by Nathan Coombs, Napa boasts more pre-1906 structures than any other Bay Area city. Many of Napa’s historic structures grace the Downtown area adding character and charm through Italianate, Victorian Gothic, Spanish Colonial, Classical Revival, and Art Deco styles.

Nathan Coombs laid out the original town site of Napa City in 1847. The initial survey included the land lying between what is now Brown Street and the Napa River, extending 600 yards from Napa Creek to the steamboat landing. The spot was a natural location for the town since it was at the uppermost point of river navigation, necessitating a change in transportation mode and thus a natural trade and transportation center for travelers and agricultural, commercial and industrial goods. The new town harbored an assortment of people from Europe and Asia, including native Americans, who established themselves in the area, while gold miners spent their winters in Napa.

Napa’s first building was a saloon on the corner of Third Street near the river, followed by a general store at the foot of Main Street. Other small temporary buildings began to appear in the fall of 1848, many made of canvas or Napa Valley lumber.

The river ferry marked the beginning of boat, stage and rail service that greatly influenced the growth of Napa. The first steamboat navigated the Napa River from San Francisco in 1850. Perishable freight and passenger traffic were carried by steamboats until the railroad was established in 1868. A series of steamboats connected Napa with San Francisco between 1850 and 1870. The Amelia, a 147-foot vessel was the pride of the Napa River.

The most important transportation development came in the 1860s with the Napa Valley Railroad. The railroad was mainly a result of the efforts of Sam Brannan to support his new Calistoga Hot Springs Resort. Napa Valley Farmers and Napa townspeople opposed the railroad as an attempt to bypass Napa. In fact, the railroad provided very favorable to Napa as it brought more people into the area, increased land value and drew greater attention to Napa. Napa grew, and soon controlled trade of the northern county.

The formation of a county government system in 1850 brought about the building of the first courthouse at the corner of Coombs and Second Streets. The City was slowly becoming established: by 1854 the town had forty buildings, mostly primitive and made of wood. The streets were dirt. The town was busy, with a theater, a company of minstrels and musicians, a jockey club and other urban offerings. As the county’s population approached 7,000 by the early 1870s, plans were prepared for the third courthouse, which is still in use today.

Several schools and a library system were established in Napa. A weekly newspaper, the Napa Register, appeared in 1856 and still serves the community. Gas and electrical service and a telegraph line were brought in during the 1850s and 1860s.

From Napa County: An Historical Overview

by Norton L. King, 1967

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