Smith: History sleuths seek the real story behind Wolf House fire

  • 4/29/2011: D11:
    PC: (l to r) Miles and Lily Streb, 10 months, and Athena Karavolos of Sonoma walk from the ruins of the Wolf house while walking their dogs in Jack London State Park. California State Parks officials are considering closing parks that don't generate enough money including Jack London State Park.

On this day 100 years ago, Jack London, then America's most acclaimed author/adventurer, and his wife, Charmian, contemplated the big move.

After two years of construction on the couple's Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen and the spending of about $80,000 — a million or more in today's dollars — the gorgeous, 26-room, redwood-and-stone Wolf House was nearly completed.

But late the night of Aug. 22, 1913, Wolf House burned.

London, then 37, vowed to rebuild. But he died three years later without having begun the daunting and costly task.

Today the ruins stand as the imposing, heartbreaking centerpiece of Jack London State Historical Park, one of Sonoma County's greatest treasures.

So what, or who, sparked the great fire a century ago?

The spontaneous combustion of rags soaked in turpentine and linseed oil and carelessly heaped by workmen is the generally accepted cause. Jonah Raskin and Gaye LeBaron will offer their perspective on more insidious possibilities Thursday at the Sonoma County Museum.

"To say that the rags in Wolf House caught fire and burned the place down is a cop-out," said Raskin, the author-sleuth and SSU professor emeritus.

In his 7 p.m. talk, he'll share his research into the likelihood the blaze was intentional. Gaye, widely admired for her PD columns and books on local history, will introduce him and offer her own insights.

Raskin vowed the two of them "will open the eyes of even those who insist on keeping them shut tight and not looking at the truths of the matter.

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