Ghost Towns of the Capay Valley

A Little Look at Local History

by Ann F. Scheuring

The northwestern corner of Yolo County holds the little Capay Valley, known today largely for its organic farms and the Cache Creek Casino Resort, a tribal business. The valley is  pretty and very rural. Along its main artery, Highway 16, the village of Capay at the entry and the three small post offices at Brooks, Guinda, and Rumsey, are local nodes for activity.

Scattered along the length of this 20-mile-long valley in the shadow of the coast range, however, there were once other communities: Dogtown, Cadenasso, and Tancred.  Some maps still show these places, but they no longer exist in living memory. Even Capay, Brooks, Guinda, and Rumsey are much diminished from earlier days.

The first settlement in the valley was today’s Capay, known briefly in the 1860s as Munchville. In 1874 this spot became a planned town called Langville after John Lang who developed a saloon and hotel for early travelers. By 1880 Langvville was a busy place, with two blacksmiths and a stable besides a general store, brickyard, Grangers’ hall, drugstore, and school.

A second, rougher place known as Dogtown lay a few miles further along the road up the valley. Dogtown too had a blacksmith, stable, store, saloon, and even a lodging place, but this was a place where men got drunk on cheap whiskey and at least two murders were committed. It did not flourish.

Settlers arrived throughout the 1860s and 70s, but life was meager for many, and some did not stay long. As in much of California, land development in the valley really came with the railroad. In 1877 the Vaca Valley and Clear Lake Railroad Company was incorporated to extend a rail line north from Winters to Cache Creek and through the Capay Valley up to Clear Lake. But it was not until May 1888 that the 24-mile line from Madison to Rumsey was begun, after the consolidation of the Vaca Valley line and several other small lines into a holding company of the giant Southern Pacific. Directors of the S. P. formed the Capay Valley Land Company to purchase land through which the new railroad would pass, expecting that profitable settlement would follow. Investors promoted some thousands of acres divided into 5-, 10-, and 20-acre tracts for fruit orchards. Stations were sited along the line at intervals through the valley, beginning with Esperanza (now called Esparto) just to the east.

In June 1888 the railroad reached Langville, where landowners helped underwrite the costs of a depot there, and the town’s name was changed to Capay in 1889. Capay was a bustling community for some years.  Today it remains a settlement of homes on small lots but the only commercial activities are an old saloon and a recent bar and grill. The old rail depot has become a private home.

Four miles west of Capay, just beyond the site of the earlier Dogtown, the railroad established a station called Cadenasso after the landowners there. Lanes serving small farming parcels were laid out from the junction of today’s Road 79 and Highway 16, and six blocks of town lots were platted. But Cadenasso never became a functioning town. Today’s landowners continue to farm, but nothing remains of the railroad or any commercial enterprise.

A few miles further north, Brooks was established in 1883 not as a rail station but as a post office probably named after a county official. Brooks had a blacksmith shop and large watering trough near  the crossroads where the old 1870s mountain toll road leading west into the Berryessa Valley intersected with the county road up the valley toward Clear Lake. Later there would be a gas station and auto repair shop, now closed.  The toll road has long been abandoned, though Road 78 still winds back into the hills. Brooks today is the site of the Cache Creek Casino-Resort with its mini-mart, gas station, and well-staffed fire station. The Brooks post office lies between the casino and a state forest fire station.

Six miles above Cadenasso was a planned colony named Tancred after a knight in the First Crusade. The plan was for about 40 Bay Area families to pool their resources  to plant fruit trees, hire a caretaker, build a colony house, and develop a nursery and park. Two substantial houses were built in the 1890s, one holding a small store and post office that operated from 1892 through 1932, but hard frosts during the early years killed many of the trees, forcing the colony into bankruptcy. Subsequent landowners planted grain and hardier trees like almonds, but Tancred never prospered. First Street and Park Place signs still hang over a narrow gravel lane ending on Road 70, but Tancred today consists of only the two old houses, modest outbuildings, and the remains of a truck scale along the highway.

Five miles northwest of Tancred was the Guinda tract, laid out in 1887 to include a 500-lot town site. (Guinda was the Spanish name for the choke cherry tree that grew at the site.) Settlers soon made Guinda an active town, including some African-American families who bought properties in the district called Summit to the northeast. A general store was built in 1891, a two-story school in 1892, and a hotel with saloon in 1893. A Methodist church was established in 1895. With its packing shed by the depot Guinda became a relatively stable community with about 500 residents. Guinda today contains a post office, volunteer fire station, Grange hall, church, and the old store still serving the community. A tiny cafe operates out of an old gas station, while another small diner has long been closed. The hotel, which ran a popular bar for years after it no longer offered lodging, was torn down in the 1990s.

Rumsey, five miles northwest of Guinda, was the terminus of the railroad at its completion on July 1, 1888. The depot was named for DeWitt Rumsey, an early settler. Here the rail company planned a 925-acre townsite with a  station, sidings and manually operated turntable, and a section house plus a 23-room hotel. The 1878 postal delivery spot of Rock became the Rumsey post office in 1888. A Rumsey School was built in 1891 and a community hall in 1903, complete with stage and hand-painted curtains.  Here too was a packing shed for local fruit.

Rumsey remained the end of the line because high costs of construction through the mountains precluded extension westward. In May 1906, shortly after the San Francisco earthquake, a huge landslide up in the canyon brought a two-foot wave of water rushing across the Rumsey railroad tracks and through nearby structures, but the facilities were repaired and rail service resumed for nearly 30 years more.

In 1900 the entire population of the Capay Valley amounted to about 1,380 persons. This number gradually began to decline. Fruit orchards did not prosper because of the variable soils and climate, and farm fields were sometimes too small and irregular to be profitable. Truck and automobile traffic along expanding public roads diminished the importance of the railroad, and the line from Rumsey to Capay was closed in 1934 after 46 years of service. Today Rumsey consists of a few houses, a tiny post office, a volunteer fire station, and the 1903 hall recently renovated by volunteer labor. The old railroad depot was moved and turned into a private home.

With rails removed and rights-of-way reverting to landowners, few traces of the valley’s old railroad remain, and some of yesterday’s communities are only memories. Newcomers since World War II, however, have reshaped much of the valley landscape, and by 2000 nearly doubled the 1900 population. The ghosts of former towns may linger, but their faded faces now look toward a new century.

Sources:

Ada Merhoff, Capay Valley: The Land, The People, 1846-1900  (1984)

Joanne Larkey and Shipley Walters, Yolo County: Land of Changing Patterns (1987)


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