Policy and Politics Betray the People: The Lake Berryessa Saga: 1958 - 2020

Policy and Politics Betray the People: 

The Lake Berryessa Saga: 1958 - 2020

Lake Berryessa Political History Timeline (Web Page)

Lake Berryessa Project Primary Document Index


Introduction: The Five Tragedies of the Berryessa Valley

Without THE LAKE BERRYESSA NEWS there would be no Lake Berryessa News…and finally there would be no definitive history of what happened at Lake Berryessa. Having participated directly for more than twenty years as an advocate for the lake in the fiasco that was the Bureau of Reclamation’s Visitor Services Plan, its farcical but tragic outcome, and the process of rebuilding, I have very strong views of the causes and results - supported by facts and data which were mostly obfuscated by the proponents of the destruction of the lake’s residential and business community.

A History of Heartbreak

As I stood with Brian Hackney of KPIX’s Eye on the Bay looking out at the fantastic view of Lake Berryessa from the site of the demolished Steele Park Resort’s Boathouse Restaurant (https://youtu.be/nP9K8Ai0Lkc), I was struck by the many levels of history we were witness to. And much of that history, unfortunately, was filled with heartbreak.

The First Tragedy: The Destruction of Native American Culture

Formerly known as Talahalusi (Beautiful Land), the Napa Valley is one of California's longest inhabited areas. Archaeological surveys indicate 10,000 years of uninterrupted habitation. "It was a paradise - a cultivated paradise where one only had to reach out their hand to eat. A place rich in beauty, water and food," stated the oral history of Native American Elder Jim Big Bear King.

Native Americans lived peacefully in pole houses, using clamshell beads and magnesite cylinders for money and jewelry. They processed obsidian into shafts, spears and arrowheads, which were used for hunting and export. Acorns, perennial grasses, wild berries, freshwater shellfish, salmon, fowl and game were their diet. These hunter-gatherers lived in a rich environment with a capacity for a dense, socially complex population of 35,000-40,000 people. They established large permanent villages with nearby seasonal resource and task-specific camps.

In 1976 an archaeological survey of lands slated for development for recreational purposes (Oak Shores) resulted in the discovery of a number of prehistoric artifacts along the shoreline of Lake Berryessa. Although the study area (Oakshores Park) is contiguous to Lake Berryessa and appears (at the present time) to be a favorable place for human occupance, prior to the construction of Monticello Dam it was a considerable distance from the principal stream draining the area (Putah Creek).

Spain claimed the land that included California in about 1530.  It stayed in Spanish hands until Mexican independence in 1821 when it became part of Mexico—Alta California as it was called by the Mexicans to distinguish it from Baja California.

After the Spanish and Mexican invasion in 1823, the tribes were nearly decimated by forced marches and smallpox. When forced to relocate to various missions for religious indoctrination, many fled to friendlier territory.

The Second Tragedy: The Destruction of Spanish Culture

Alta California stayed in Mexican hands until an infamous incident in 1846.  John C. Fremont led a group of American adventurers and earlier American immigrants in an uprising to try and free Alta California from Mexican hands.  On 14 June 1846 Fremont and company declared California to be an independent state:  the Bear Flag Republic. What so stains the Bear Flag Republic is the killing by some of Fremont’s men, lead by the famous Kit Carson, of three innocent Mexicans—Jose de los Reyes Berryessa and two of his nephews.

This “republic” only lasted until 7 July 1846.  The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American war and ceded northern Mexico to the U.S.  California, then, became a territory of the U.S.  In 1850 California was admitted to the Union as a state and stayed in the Union during the Civil War.

What, though, of the people of Alta California?  Who were they, where did they come from, and how did they change over time?  Particularly what of the people of Berryessa Valley?

The first people known to reside in the valley were American Indians from the Southern Wintun tribe.  Up until about 1800 members of the Southern Wintun tribe lived in a village in Berryessa Valley named Topai.  Their main diet was acorns which normally grew abundantly.  Unfortunately, no members of the Southern Wintun tribe survive. 

The next known inhabitants of the valley were two Mexican brothers, the Berryessas (Berryessa is a corruption of their actual name—Berelleza).  The Berryessa brothers, Sisto and Jose, received the valley as part of a land grant to them in 1843 from the newly independent Mexican government.  When California became a state in 1850 the Berryessas petitioned to have their land grant recognized by the United States government.

However, by the time Lincoln finalized the Berryessa brothers’ right to the land almost none of the land was still in Berryessa hands.  The Berryessas had sold the vast majority of the land in order to cover their plentiful debts, particularly gambling debts.  It seems that Sisto and Jose were overly fond of Three Card Monte and horse racing.  In 1879, the last Berryessa homesteader, Nicholosa Higuera, wife of Sisto Berryessa, died.  Her husband died the year before in 1878.  Both were buried in the valley.  Sisto’s body, unlike that of many of the other homesteaders, was not recovered when the cemetery in Monticello was relocated to Spanish Flat.  Sisto lies beneath the waters of Lake Berryessa even today.

The Third Tragedy: The Destruction of Rural Culture

The town of Monticello was born the next year, 1867, when B.F. Davis built a blacksmith shop.  It became the center of a prosperous agricultural community and was located somewhat in the middle of the valley, along Putah Creek.  The valley itself was flat and fertile and was considered to have some of the best soil in the country.

Monticello was always a fairly small town, usually two to three hundred residents.  The town at different times had a hotel, a school, two gas pumps, a general store, a community hall, and a bar (a roadside spot called “The Hub”).  McKenzie and Sons store (originally McKenzie and Cook) was a center point for much of the activity in the town.  Albert McKenzie, who ran the store for many years, was the grocery clerk, postmaster, community telephone switchboard operator, notary public, crop insurance man as well as the person to go to for free farming and income tax advice.  He was a man who wore many hats.  Monticello became a popular venue for rodeos, baseball games, and “cow roasts” drawing people from miles around. 

The town enjoyed the distinction of being the first community in the state to have a telephone system installed (around 1905).  In 1896 the famous Monticello Bridge over Putah Creek, was built.  It was considered the grandest stone masonry bridge ever built in California, consisting of three 70 foot spans.  Some claim it was the largest stone bridge in the Western United States.  The Bridge is the only thing that remains of Monticello beneath the waters of Lake Berryessa—everything else was either burnt to the ground or carted off. 

The Solano County Irrigation District was formed in 1948 to obtain irrigation water from a proposed multiple-purpose Solano Project and included the damming of Berryessa Valley at Devil’s Gate.  Shortly thereafter Bureau of Reclamation included the Solano Project as part of its plan to develop water resources in the Central Valley Basin of California.

In 1953 construction began on Monticello Dam.  The rest of the Solano Project includes a diversion dam on lower Putah Creek (creating Lake Solano) and an open waterway stretching 33 miles named the Putah South Canal.

By 1956 all the trees, homes, barns, and other structures were dismantled, burned, or removed from the valley in preparation for its inundation.  Because the land was condemned, compensation for people’s property was minimal. 

The Dam was completed in 1957 and the former valley, now a reservoir, filled within two years leaving no clues that Monticello and Berryessa Valley were once populated.

The Fourth Tragedy: Destruction of  Lake Berryessa Family Recreation

The Bureau of Reclamation and their supporters destroyed family recreation at Lake Berryessa for a generation of families, children, and friends. Many people ask me about the history of the process that led to the present situation at Lake Berryessa. When I explain what happened most become incredulous and can't believe the government could have done something so stupid. "How could they have gotten away with that?" they exclaim.


The Fifth Tragedy: Opportunity, Irony, Tragedy, Recovery - A Lake Berryessa Cycle?

On August 18, 2020 the LNU Lightning Complex fire, the largest in California history burned much of Lake Berryessa and the surrounding region. The Spanish Flat residential community had become an inferno of burning rubble. The fire soon raced around the lower part of the lake sped up Steele Canyon Road and burned down about 100 of the 300 homes in the Berryessa Highlands.

A week after they began the wildfires were extinguished or contained. The region had no electricity due to hundreds of wooden power poles being burned and wires melted. Roads in and out of the region were closed for a week after that to allow Napa County, PG&E, AT&T, and others to clear the roads of downed trees and debris. PG&E crews swarmed the area installing hundreds of new power poles in less than a week. Power was finally restored to the Berryessa Highland residential area on September 2, about two weeks after it was lost in the original lightning storm, but other areas took several more weeks to be restored.

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The goal of my new  book is to provide the history and the context within which such an incredibly destructive course of action took place. The book is dedicated to documenting this final tragedy - and, hopefully, the promised revitalization.

Here's an interview I did in 2010, three years after the interview below with Pat Monaghan and just after Pensus had been given the contract for 5 resorts. As we all know Pensus was subsequently kicked out in 2012.    

Here's a 2007 TV interview with Pat Monaghan, cofounder of Task Force 7 at Lake Berryessa, to give you some historical insight. Those of you who remember Pete Lucero will recognize his description of what we called "The Big Lie" - which turned into the "Epic Fail”.




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How It All Began: The Origins of the “Big Lie”

Oakland Trib 1971

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The City of Winters Fights Back


pKilkus@gmail.com                       © Peter Kilkus 2021