Saving the Jonesville Hotel
How a small community came together to preserve the last hotel on the historic Humboldt Road
The mountain community of Jonesville, eight miles above Butte Meadows, came into being as a result of one of Gen. John Bidwell’s greatest failures as a businessman: his ill-fated construction of a toll road from Chico to the silver mines of northern Nevada and southwestern Idaho.
Bidwell’s plan was for freight to come up the Sacramento River on barges, be off-loaded at Chico Landing, brought to the Junction (now the corner of Ninth Street and Oroville Avenue) and loaded onto wagons and pack animals for the trip over the Sierra Nevada on what was called the Chico and Humboldt Wagon Road.
Bidwell and others invested heavily in the road, and for a couple of years, 1866 and ’67, as Michael Magliari and the late Michael Gillis write in their 2004 book John Bidwell & California, travel on the road was brisk. But the Central Pacific Railroad’s expansion to the mining region spelled doom for the toll road, and by April 1867 the Humboldt Road had become a strictly local highway between Chico and Susanville.
Traffic remained sufficient, however, to support a series of way stations, 14 altogether, with half having hotels, along the route. Heading east from Chico, there were hotels at 10 Mile House, 14 Mile House, Forest Ranch, West Branch, Lomo, Butte Meadows, Jonesville, Ruffa Ranch (on the eastern side of the Humboldt Summit), Faniani Meadows and Prattville (near Chester in Big Meadows, which eventually was flooded by Lake Almanor).
Of those hotels and way stations, only one remains: the historic Jonesville Hotel, which sits just off Humboldt Road, nestled next to pine trees on the edge of a large meadow. Two stories high, it’s painted fire-engine red with white trim and has a welcoming porch in front. Just across the road is a historic stage-stop barn, and a small stream, Jones Creek, runs past the hotel on its easterly side.
The building is more than a century old and in need of considerable repair, but structurally it’s sound. The people who own the 47 cabins in Jonesville are determined to keep it that way. They collectively own the hotel and barn and the 115 acres surrounding them, and this year, in a remarkable example of community-sponsored historic preservation, they have taken significant steps toward making sure the Jonesville Hotel is around for at least another century.
Jonesville is one of three settlements in the area set amidst meadows, streams and forests. The others are the more populated Butte Meadows, down the road toward Chico, and Chico Meadows, which is just a mile north of what is now the Bambi Inn in Butte Meadows. There are no permanent cabins in Chico Meadows, which for many years was a hub for logging in the area, but many families from Chico and Durham had outdoor summer camps there. In the 1930s it became the home of Camp Lassen, the regional Boy and Girl Scouts camp.
There’s a beautifully made coffee-table book about these three settlements called A Small Corner of the West. Begun “in 1987 on a cabin deck in Jonesville,” according to a flap note, the book initially was conceived as a pamphlet describing the history and lore of the area. After “ten years of immense volunteer effort,” this “labor of love” resulted in an elegant 248-page volume written collaboratively by 15 members of the Butte Meadows-Jonesville Community Association’s History Committee and published in 1998.
Now in its third printing, the book is filled with stories about the area, profiles of many of the people who owned cabins there, detailed maps of each settlement complete with cabin sites, and historical photos dating back to the 19th century. The late Dorothy Morehead Hill, one of Chico’s foremost amateur historians, did a great deal of the research. (Much of the material in this article comes from this book and, thus, from her efforts.)
The opening of Humboldt Road was a boon for those Sacramento Valley dwellers with a hankering for a summertime getaway and the resources to build a cabin. Not only were Butte Meadows and Jonesville relatively close by, they were at sufficient elevation (4,300 and 5,000 feet, respectively) to be comfortably above the valley’s blistering heat in an era before the advent of electricity, much less air conditioning.
The authors cite a letter dating back to August 1896, when Rosa Miser wrote to her niece Jenny Jones, “I tell you Jenny, this is a pretty place, and only 35 miles from Chico. … Here the mountains are so close to the valley.”
Jonesville is named after George F. Jones, a prominent Chicoan who owned a mercantile store at First and Broadway. In 1870 the family built a cabin on the hillside back of the hotel, where they began to spend their summers. Jones himself would come up on the weekends, a trip that took seven hours.
Other families began to build cabins in the area, exercising squatter’s rights. “The building of many summer residences … is creating a new ‘city’ in a setting of quietude with the absence of business care,” the Northern Enterprise reported on June 12, 1869.
That same year 40 people celebrated the Fourth of July in “Camp Jones” with firecrackers, Roman candles and pinwheels. Later that month, a masquerade ball was held, with mostly Chicoans, who described the occasion as one of the jolliest parties ever, according to the July 24 issue of the Northern Enterprise.
The following July, John and Annie Bidwell and her mother, who was visiting from Washington, D.C., stayed at Jonesville, bunking in the small schoolhouse that had been constructed behind the hotel.
It wasn’t until 1884 that anyone actually owned the land the hotel was on. That’s when a 54-year-old man named Jacob Franklin Sims obtained a homestead certification for 160 acres, paying a fee of $16 in January when he filed and another $6 on June 9 when he took possession of the certificate.
Mystery surrounds the early history of the hotel. It began as a one-story building, but when it became two stories is unclear. One clue was the discovery in recent years, when the old shake roof was removed and replaced with a metal roof, of a San Francisco newspaper dated 1887 under the shakes. That would seem to indicate the main building had two stories at that time.
In addition to the main building, the hotel has a one-story service wing in the rear containing a lavatory, a water closet and bath rooms, as well as the sitting and dining rooms, kitchen and cook’s quarters. The hotel’s main building has seven bedrooms, four upstairs and three downstairs.
There were several outbuildings, including a milkhouse that later became a storage shed, a wood shed, an ice and cooling sunken room, a tack room, a guest house and the schoolhouse. Today only the walls of the schoolhouse and former milkhouse are standing.
Over the years, the hotel was at the center of a lively summertime community, hosting Fourth of July celebrations, Saturday-night dances, weddings and birthday parties. Every day, campers and cabin residents would converge on the hotel to meet the motor stages that went up and down to Susanville or Westwood “to get mail and newspapers and see who was having lunch [at the hotel] that day. Several paths and ladder bridges across Jones Creek were used to reach the hotel.” (A Small Corner of the West, page 123.)
Jonesville was a magical place, especially for children. For them it was an idyll of fishing, swimming, hunting, horseback riding and camping out against a backdrop of tall pines, flower-filled meadows and sparkling creeks in air that was clear and crisp.
Over time, the residents of the Jonesville area formed two friendly but separate camps, those who owned or leased cabins on land located around the hotel, and those who built cabins on leased U.S. Forest Service land farther up the road.
In 1993 the Jonesville cabin users got together to form the group Jonesville Cabin Owners Inc., with the goal of purchasing the 115 acres their land was on, including the hotel, from the current owners and then operating more or less as a condominium association. After much negotiation, they made the purchase for $700,000.
As a result, they are able to address issues—repairing roads, removing fire-prone undergrowth, upgrading the hotel—collectively while continuing to be responsible individually for their own cabins.
Barbara Mann is the current president of JCO Inc. Like many Jonesville residents, she has been spending summers in the area for many years, since she was a 6-month-old baby, in fact (she’s now in her 70s). Her Chico-based family owned a cabin in Butte Meadows, and purely by happenstance she ended up marrying a man, the late Doug Mann, whose family had a cabin in Jonesville, so her ties run deep.
A number of the members of JCO, including Mann, were part of the team that wrote and produced A Small Corner of the West, so their interest in preserving the hotel is motivated as much by a passion to preserve an iconic representation of the history of the area as it is by a desire to create a lasting community center for JCO members.
Work began this summer. I arranged to meet Mann at the hotel a few weeks ago so she could show me what had been done so far. Also present was Andy Neumann, the project foreman, who lives in Paradise.
Like most buildings of its era, the hotel had no foundation, and instead was perched on pier blocks and stacked rocks. Over time these settled to varying extents, and the building was no longer level.
Another problem was that snow tended to bank up against its outdoor siding, especially on the west side, and the wood closest to the ground had rotted.
The only solution was to put the hotel on a cement foundation. At an estimated cost of $200,000, it was an expensive project, but it was also necessary and something the members knew in their hearts was the right thing to do, so they were determined to come up with the money, Mann said.
Between gifts, donations, fundraising events and bequests—“passion money,” Mann called it—the group was able to raise sufficient funds to move construction forward this summer.
Adding a foundation to an existing building is tricky work. The structure has to be raised high enough to allow workers to get beneath it to frame and then pour the foundation. And, Neumann explained, because the hotel’s electrical and plumbing systems had been jury-rigged over the years, the JCO members wanted to upgrade and hide them, which also required sufficient access to the underside of the hotel.
The JCO hired an Anderson-based house-moving company, Stotts & Sons, to lift the building. The family-owned company had three generations’ worth of experience, and had raised other historic buildings, including the Constable’s House in Dunsmuir, Neumann said.
Using a combination of hydraulic and hand-operated jacks, the company raised the building about five feet and slid several long steel girders under it. These were supported by 8-by-8 timbers arranged in sturdy four-sided, criss-crossed frames.
One of the pleasant surprises discovered when the building was raised, Neumann said, was that, away from the edges, its flooring wood was in good condition.
When I visited, the foundation had been poured and dried and its frame removed, but the building was still raised. The following week, the hotel was gently lowered onto its new base. It fit perfectly.
I revisited the site last weekend. There’s no question that the hotel looks different now that it’s on a foundation and higher off the ground. The porch has gotten a new floor and railings, but steps remain to be built. Otherwise the hotel looks unchanged, and by next summer it will have new siding and paint, and will look spiffier than ever.
And, now that it’s firmly settled on its new foundation, the JCO can begin upgrading the interior. Members want to make it as functional as possible—the kitchen will have modern appliances, for example—while decorating the community rooms and bedrooms with décor reminiscent of the 19th century.
In addition to celebrations such as the Fourth of July that will be open to the public, Mann said, use of the hotel will be available to JCO members for such events as birthday parties, weddings and family reunions at minimal cost, based on a sign-up schedule.
For the rest of us, it will be enough that a significant part of Butte County’s history has been lovingly preserved, thanks to the dedication and foresight of the people of Jonesville.