s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

The Old Foss Road.

It could be the title of a cowboy song. And, while it isn't exactly the Old Chisholm Trail, it does evoke much of the romance and adventure of the Old West.

This stagecoach road from Knight's Valley to the Big Geysers bears the name of Clark Foss, the daredevil driver who guided a six-horse team to the Geysers canyon from the 1860s to the '80s.

Clark Foss stories are a substantial part of the history of the rugged eastern edge of Sonoma County. They have been told and retold in these parts for 150 years or more. And they are being told again as artifacts from those 19th century adventures turn up along the Old Foss Road.

It was a toll road Foss built in 1865 starting at Foss's tavern and hostelry in Knight's Valley, a place he called Fossville and hoped to see become a real town. It wound along McDonnell Creek (named for William McDonnell, the first settler in the area) to Schoolhouse Flat in the quicksilver mining boom town of Pine Flat, then over Geyser Peak and dangerously steep ridges known as the Hog's Back and the Rattlesnake, into the Geysers canyon.

The trip was expensive, even by today's standards — $50 round-trip. But business was brisk. The Geysers had been a tourist attraction, believe it or not, since the 1850s, and Foss hauled many distinguished guests to the remote Geysers Hotel, making two trips a day, getting rich.

Almost four miles of that route are now part of two important nature preserves — The Modini Ingalls Ecological Preserve and the Mayacamas Mountain Audubon Sanctuary. Both are managed by Audubon Canyon Ranch, a Marin-based nonprofit. Bands of dedicated volunteers flock to it like the birds they watch around these spectacular properties.

One of them is Dennis Fujita, a retired chemistry instructor from Santa Rosa Junior College, who volunteers with the Habitat Preservation and Restoration team.

He wanted to be outdoors when he retired, Fujita said, and expected to work hard at eradicating non-native species, like the stubborn star thistle. What he didn't expect was to become the latest teller of tales from the Old Foss Road.

WHEN the late Jim Modini showed him the sights on his ranch and told him the stories, pointing out the location of Foss Basin, where the driver had a stable and blacksmith shop, Fujita, who has a historian's interest laid on a scientist's curiosity, was hooked.

He and biologist and preserve manager Sherry Adams, while attacking the invasive star thistles at Foss Basin, found bricks with markings identifying them as made in Scotland and England (likely used as ship's ballast). They came back with a metal detector.

Close to the surface they found horseshoes, a chisel, square nails, pieces of porcelain, part of a stove and several large, unidentifiable metal objects. Their search, Fujita says, was cursory. There's a lot more, left for archeologists to find.

And he began to read what had been written about Foss and his road. The result of Fujita's research is a dozen pages of information about the early travelers. He tells stories gleaned from many written and oral sources, including Jim Modini, who died last November at 94, and his wife, Shirley, who still lives on the ranch.

FUJITA has ironed out the wrinkles left by telling and retelling to make a neat package for the extended "family" that loves and tends these preserves.

He writes of the persona Foss created for himself after one of his notable passengers, P.T. Barnum's famed little person, known as Tom Thumb, encouraged him to be "more of a showman." Foss became "Col. Foss" and, sometimes, "Old Chieftain." He grew mutton-chop whiskers, wore a Stetson and duster, used his 14-foot whip more often and hollered at slower traffic to get out of his way.

Picking up passengers in downtown Healdsburg, he could turn his six-horse team around "at flat-out speed."

He became world-renowned. Robert Louis Stevenson met Foss once (and, incidentally, talked to him the first time he used a telephone). He wrote of him in "Silverado Squatters." Some said that Foss's trips became a greater wonder of the world than The Geysers themselves.

Stevenson never made the trip. Jim Modini said he was afraid. And for good reason. The precipitous two-mile downhill from the Hog's Back, with sheer drops on each side, had 35 sharp turns. Fujita wrote that Foss made it in nine and a half minutes, rendering passengers either "thrilled or terrified."

How steep was it? Fujita points out that it took an hour and a quarter to come back up.

How frightening was it? Shirley Modini often told people her Grandmother Dewey's stories of terrified women passengers who crouched on the floor of the stage and of embarrassing "accidents" of a personal nature caused by sheer terror.

Still, passengers lined up to make the trip, including the rich and famous. As Fujita points out, America's "Grand Tour," patterned on the must-see Grand Tour of Europe, required visits to Yellowstone, Yosemite and The Geysers.

Fujita lists the famous visitors to the Geysers Springs Hotel: J.P. Morgan, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, William Randolph Hearst (at age 15), former President Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, Horace Greeley, Lotta Crabtree, Mark Twain, future President Theodore Roosevelt, The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), William Jennings Bryan, writer Hilaire Belloc, painter Thomas Hill and pioneer photographers Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge.

To name a few.

THE DECLINE for Foss began in 1874 when his stage wrecked — ironically, not on the dreaded Hog's Back, but on the gentler slope of Murray Hill between Calistoga and Knight's Valley.

He was on his way back from Pine Flat when, according to a story in Healdsburg's Russian River Flag, "a line got under the tail of one of the horses and the team started to run. Foss put on the brake but a leather broke off, a wheel bursted (sic) Foss was thrown out and run over by the wagon and the team ran on down the hill."

A female passenger was killed, two children and a baby were injured, and Foss, the paper reported, "was hurt so badly as to be laid up in bed."

Foss drove seven more years but observers said he went at more moderate speeds.

Foss turned the reins over to his son Charlie in 1881. He died in 1885 and is buried in the St. Helena cemetery.

Charlie maintained the road until automobiles like the 12-passenger "Mountain Wagon" Stanley Steamers made the trip over better roads from Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

There is a dramatic ending to the Foss Road story.

Early in the 20th century, probably in the 'teens or '20s, adventuring "autoists" began to try the route, got stuck, scared the cattle and generally angered the ranchers.

That's when several of the property owners (no names, please) planted several sticks of dynamite in some rock outcroppings that narrowed the road below Pine Flat.

They lit the fuse and put an end to vehicle traffic for good and always.

But the stories linger. And people like Jim and Shirley Modini have kept them alive. Jim knew the route. Shirley knows the road was "built by the Chinese." They passed on tales told by their elders. Dennis Fujita writes that "after 60 years of careful stewardship," the Modinis asked "that the stories of those who passed through these lands not be forgotten."

He is honoring those wishes.

And Sherry Adams, the preserve manager, has been known to guide hikes up the Old Foss Road. If you are lucky enough to score one (email sherry@egret.org) you can count on hearing more of the Wild West adventures on The Old Foss Road.