Jack London Lake
Jack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen, CA
I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate. — Jack London
Photos courtesy Huntington Library, the Jack London Collection.
In 1905 legendary adventurer and author Jack London purchased a small 129-acre ranch in northern California’s Sonoma Valley (known romantically by locals as the Valley of the Moon after London’s 1913 novel of the same name). Located in Glen Ellen, six miles north of Sonoma, London’s “Beauty Ranch” encompassed 1,400 acres of gently rolling terrain by 1913. The temperate landscape included oak, redwood, madrone and bay forests with open meadows, hayfields, and a working farm.
A central and much loved feature of the ranch was a small lake, bathhouse and dock which London designed about half a mile up the mountain from his cottage in 1913. Sketches, telegrams, and letters from Jack London to Eliza Shepard, his ranch manager, detail how London envisioned every aspect of the Lake project and, in a letter to his publisher in 1914, London stated “My first big dam on the place is just finished so that on these poor, old, worked out, eroded hillsides I shall be able to harvest two crops a year and turn one crop under; in place of the old meager crop that could be taken off only once in several years.”
London’s design for the lake included a curved stone dam, wood dock and simple log bathhouse. Ranch laborers constructed the dam using native stone and a combination of Chinese and Italian style masonry. The dam and battered interior wall, create a strong and lasting structure, and are considered prime examples of fine small dam building. Melding utility and beauty, the project transformed a low meadow into an oasis on the slope of Sonoma Mountain.
Photo courtesy Elisa Stancil Levine.
Originally five acres of fresh water, stocked with catfish, and later bass, the lake was used for downslope irrigation projects employing a clever diverter mechanism that could irrigate and also release water during severe storms. London’s early experiments with what is now known as biodynamic (organic) farming included efforts to improve the soil and yields, breed prize livestock, and manage resources. The landscape was the site of the first water rights legal battle in Northern California when London’s right to water piped seasonally from a creek up the mountain was contested leading to a lawsuit and trial which London won.
London had guests at his ranch year round and the lake became a frequent destination for casual gatherings, picnics, swimming, and the exercising of horses. Following his death in 1916, the ranch continued to be a popular destination for many writers, artists, and influential leaders of the day. In 1945 delegates of fifty nations came to the San Francisco Conference seeking to form the United Nations. During the talks four hundred of the delegates met at Jack London Ranch for an open air lunch and a visit to the lake. London’s wife Charmian continued to live at Beauty Ranch until her death in 1955. Per her bequest, 39 acres of the ranch were used to create Jack London State Historic Park, in memory of London’s life and work.