Sign post (hero image)

photo by: Angela Frucci

October 29, 2015

What’s Next for Two Historic Places Ravaged by California Wildfires

  • By: Jenna Sauber

It has not been California’s year. An enduring drought and dozens of wildfires have wreaked havoc across a state rich with agriculture, diverse landscapes of coast, desert, and mountains, and precious state and national parks. For many residents, it’s a seemingly endless state of emergency.

In September alone, the Valley Fire and the Butte Fire in Northern California destroyed more than 1,400 homes and structures and were responsible for six deaths, making the fires two of the worst in California history, according to Cal Fire. Among the damage were two places that serve as significant markers of and keepers of history: Harbin Hot Springs, a retreat and workshop center in Middletown; and the American Museum of Telephony in Mountain Ranch.

Harbin area, damaged by fire (1)

photo by: Angela Frucci

The Valley Fire destroyed nearly every significant building on the Harbin property.

For more than 100 years, visitors have been traveling by stagecoach and train, car and plane to the hot springs west of Sacramento and north of Napa Valley. The long-time resort destination of 1,700 acres of woodland and its historic communal soaking pools provided a sense of privacy and relaxation for thousands of people each year.

But in September, the Valley Fire destroyed nearly every significant building on the Harbin property, including hotels, workshop rooms, residences, and more.

“All of the landmarks are flattened,” says Human Resources Manager Eric Richardson, who has been at Harbin for the last 16 years. “It’s disorienting.”

“Our connection as a group was probably the strongest thing that motivated us.”

Eric Richardson, Human Resources Manager, Harbin Hot Springs

More than just a retreat for individuals looking for time and space away from their normal lives, Harbin was home for around 70 staff members (one-third of the total staff), and now those people are without jobs and without a permanent home.

Richardson says that within 24 hours of the evacuation, the team procured two rental spaces in Calistoga for a temporary office. Their immediate goals were to find out who was safe and which employees had lost homes, and to keep payroll going.

The challenge was two-fold: staff scattered as all of Middletown was engulfed by the fires, and because many didn’t have cell phones, collecting and disseminating information was difficult. As security staff helped to evacuate people on site, Richardson told as many people as he could to use Facebook to post updates and help track people down.

“Our connection as a group was probably the strongest thing that motivated us,” Richardson says. “Many of the people who were saving the day were now homeless, but they were turning their stress into work.”

While rebuilding is the ultimate goal, the team at Harbin has a lot to sift through in the coming months before they can think about a plan. Since the evacuation, they have worked tirelessly to support their staff, salvage their digital history on the servers they were able to recover, and manage inventory and insurance issues.

Harbin guests and Middletown residents have been eager to help, stopping Harbin employees in the street and offering food, shelter, and money.

“They want to pick up a sledgehammer and start rebuilding tomorrow,” says Richardson. “It’s really touching.”

Considering the impact Harbin has had on the community over the years, this isn’t surprising to Richardson.

“The number one attraction to Harbin aside from the natural beauty and the pools is the quality of the people that visited,” he says. “It brought out a lot of what was good in people…it did that for a really long time. It was literally a sanctuary.”

Harbin fire sign post (2)

photo by: Angela Frucci

A fire-damaged sign on the Harbin property.

Harbin Post Fire, suriving Buddha statue

photo by: Angela Frucci

A wooden Buddha statue survives the damage.

Southeast of Harbin, just west of a long stretch of national parks and forests including Yosemite, lies the little town of Mountain Ranch, and within, the American Museum of Telephony. The museum was established in 1998 to showcase the history of the telephone, featuring the largest historical collection of telephones in the U.S., with some 2,000 pieces.

In September, the Butte Fire completely destroyed the building, and with it, a huge piece of communications and technological history. The museum receives about 400-500 visitors a year by appointment only.

Former curator and vice president of the museum board, Wayne Merit, shared how the museum team (made mostly of volunteers) escaped a nearby fire in the early 2000s in plenty of time, moving nearly all of the collection in trailers and trucks to safety, and afterwards, creating a defensive buffer in the woods.

This time, it was different.

“At eight at night, we were told the fire was eight miles away, and we shouldn’t worry,” Merit says. “At 11, people could see the flames in the distance. They did their best to get the high-end things out of there, but then they were forced to leave.”

The fire moved eight miles in six hours. Ultimately, the museum staff was only able to remove a “half of a percent” of the collection. Fortunately, a storage warehouse on the property did not burn, so the salvaged parts are being housed there as they work to recreate the collection. But the collection isn’t the only thing lost; the curator’s home, also on the property, was destroyed.

“As much as I’ll miss the artifacts, that pales in respect to the people that lost their homes,” says Merit.

JKL Museum of Telephony after the fire

photo by: JKL Museum of Telephony

The JKL Museum of Telephony after the fire.

One thing is for certain—the plan is to rebuild the museum. Merit says they’re reviewing their options and hope to have it figured out within the next couple of months. They have already started reaching out to collectors and have been receiving donations.

“It’s pretty neat the number of people who have contacted us; it’s very uplifting for us,” he says.

In the meantime, they’re documenting their losses, a task with which Merit says they’re anxious to be done. “It’s not a lot of fun. We want to move on to where we’re going, not where we’ve been.”

Learn more about these historic locations and their plans to rebuild at Harbin Hot Springs and the American Museum of Telephony.

Jenna Sauber is a freelance writer and nonprofit communications consultant in Washington, D.C. She blogs about literature, family, and more at


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