History of the Depot

N.W. Griswold

Doug Offenbacher

We’ve learned much about the historic panorama surrounding our Kenwood Depot and about the rich and powerful men of the early railroad era, without whose grand scheme our depot would not exist. We’ve come to see our humble community center in a whole new light – a surviving cast member in perhaps California’s greatest of all dramas.

We’ve learned much about noteworthy individuals and events, chronicled faithfully by historians, newspapers and then-emerging government agencies. In nineteenth-century California, however, lesser persons and things were considered neither worthy of note nor even mention. Consequently, a wealth of invaluable information was never recorded and is possibly lost forever.

In other words, we know much of the big names surrounding our depot and our community but far less about those closer to home. As in most land development deals of the era, the railroad was behind it, but not without members of the local business community in conspicuous leadership roles. It was the style of the railroad to give a local feel to new endeavors – not a bad idea since the “robber barons” did not enjoy the highest of regard. Familiar names lent credibility and trust. So it was with Los Guilicos (now Kenwood) and its “founder,” 44-year-old N. W. Griswold.

San Francisco native, Norman W. Griswold was a man of ideas and great ambition. Accounts of his pursuits are scattered across newspapers from New Orleans to Honolulu, always involving new corporations and proposals, most often to do with electricity generation and electric railroad companies. Noticeably missing, however, are follow-up accounts of these proposals ever coming to fruition.

It’s unclear at this point in my research what brought Griswold to Sonoma Valley in 1887. His interest in railroading would suggest he kept abreast of new developments, particularly those of monolithic Central Pacific. Also unclear is where the Los Guilicos development concept originated. Its strong similarity to the San Carlos project and identical timing favors Los Guilicos being conceived by N. T. Smith, Treasurer of the Central Pacific and advocate for San Carlos, possibly working with Sonoma Valley rail advocate, Mark McDonald of Santa Rosa, a close associate of the Big Four.

Whatever circumstances put N.W. Griswold at the helm of Los Guilicos, he moved quickly to secure development land from the extensive Decker & Jewett Ranch.* Here, the newly incorporated Sonoma County Land & Improvement Company, in partnership with the North Pacific Land & Improvement Company (Central Pacific Railroad), surveyed, subdivided and prepared to market their wine country “boom town.”

Photo courtesy of Dee Sand’s book, Kenwood Yesterday and Today. This map was made by the founders of Kenwood in 1887. The darkened lots had been sold, including the depot, church and N.W. Griswold’s “castle” in the lower right corner.

Apparently unnoticed by Griswold was the fact that California was in the grip of a slumping real estate economy. The boom towns of San Carlos and Los Guilicos were instead a bust, leaving N.W. Griswold still in search of greatness. Adding to the loss, his stone “castle” perched above town at the end of Griswold Avenue, was later completely destroyed by fire.
Still, N.W. Griswold was and should be remembered as a man of vision who inspired many. Consider raising your next glass of wine in his memory.

Today, Norman W. and Anna McChesney Griswold rest peacefully in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

  • *Marysville bankers, Peter Decker and John Jewett, purchased 7,300 acres of the Los Guilicos Rancho when owner William Hood fell upon hard times. They continued to operate the property as a ranch. The Decker-Jewett Bank listed among its clients, Sonoma County Land & Improvement Company and the Central Pacific Railroad Company.