By Marie Bowen
Tracing the California Pacific Railroad (later Southern Pacific) tracks across the 1876 and 1895 “Official Map of Napa County,” one often encounters railroad depots named for nearby residents, past or present: Buchli, Thompson, Trubody, Bale, and others, depending on which map you’re viewing. But names of other stations whose origins long since forgotten are worthy of research. One of those is Creston, a station located in the southeasterly portion of Napa County and found on both official maps. The station, in fact, lay along part of what we know as Jameson Canyon Road, with the next westerly stop being Napa Junction.
The 1876 and 1895 maps show the station to be near or within acreage owned by a R. A. Brownlie. After some digging I discovered him to be Robert A. Brownlee. Slocum & Bowen’s 1881 book History of Napa and Lake Counties devoted several pages to Mr. Brownlee, a Scottish stonemason born in 1813. He arrived in New York in 1836 and from there went to Arkansas, where he helped build what are now several historic landmarks in Pulaski County. After arriving in California during the Gold Rush, he mined for a time in Mariposa County and subsequently married Annie Lamont. By 1857 the family had settled “fourteen miles north of Vallejo” on an 1,100-acre wheat and barley farm. Slocum & Bowen also noted that “The line of railroad to Sacramento from South Vallejo passes his gate.” Could this be Creston Station? I did more research online and found a few references to Creston Station as an unincorporated area in Napa County and Creston Station Ranch along Jameson Canyon Road – over which the Land Trust received from the ranch’s owners an easement in 2003.
Referring back to Brownlee family trees at Ancestry.com, I learned that his home, described by Slocum & Bowen as a “magnificent two-storied building,” was called Sunnyside Farm and was, indeed, Creston. He and Annie’s seven children were born there. One of Robert and Annie’s sons-in-law, Thomas Urquhart, was a Southern Pacific dispatcher who was buried at Tulocay Cemetery after his death on November 19, 1897. Additionally, various mentions of the Brownlee family were found in the Napa Register, including one entry on August 31, 1937, which noted that the sister of George Brownlee was visiting the family home at Creston. And, foretelling Creston’s semi-anonymous future, a front-page article in the Register’s January 5, 1943, edition stated, “The Worswick Construction Company has stopped work on the state highway near Creston in the Jamison [sic] Canyon…until spring.”
I knew the property owners who had provided the 2003 Land Trust easement had names other than Brownlee. Could I find the link between those owners and the Brownlee family and thus feel sure that Creston Station Ranch was the former Sunnyside? Yes, and easily. Thanks to Napa County Recorder’s online Official Records-Public Index, I found the 1945 Deed from Robert Lamont Brownlee, surviving son of Robert and Annie, to one of the property owners named in the 2003 news article.
I have not, however, learned why California Pacific Railroad named the station “Creston” when its Vallejo-Suisun route was completed in June 1868. Ancestry.com records showed no families in the area with the surname Creston. The Brownlee family owned the surrounding land pre-railroad, and, had the station been named “Brownlee,” this entire search would have been considerably shorter. Bill Bryson’s book Made in America provides an entire chapter on sources of place names, noting that a vice president of Milwaukee Railroad had the task of naming communities to be built along the Milwaukee line, including Othello, Ralston, and Purina. It is possible that Creston was intended to become a community, which it did to a small extent, and that someone, somewhere, within the California Pacific Railroad hierarchy bestowed the name.
Bryson, Bill. MADE IN AMERICA. New York: Perennial/HarperCollins Publishers, 2001
Delaplane, Kristin. “Railroad brings Solano on track in 1860s.” Historical Articles of Solano County Online Database, January 7, 1996
Etter, Patricia A. “Robert Brownlee.” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture (online), January 3, 2007
Napa Register, August 31, 1937, and January 5, 1943
Napa Valley Register, February 3, 2003, “Land Trust Holdings Spread,” and September 7, 2006, “Land Trust Donors are Neighbors”
Official Maps of the County of Napa, 1876 and 1895
Slocum, Bowen & Co. HISTORY OF NAPA & LAKE COUNTIES. San Francisco: Slocum, Bowen & Co., 1881