Local History - Old Lawley Toll Road


"In 1868, occurred what may be the single, most influential event ever to hit Mount St. Helena.

It was in this year that John Lawley completed the toll road that today bears his name."


- Ken Stanton, author - Mount St. Helena - Robert Louis Stevenson State Park - A History and Guide


Old Lawley Toll Road is a hidden historic gem in Northern Napa Valley that originates at Silverado Trail on the south side, and after winding up the mountain for 4 miles, ends today at Route 29 to the north. Our home is located near the north end of this amazing little historic wagon road at an elevation of over 1100 feet. 


1850's: Volunteers built the Old Bull Trail.

The trail ran from what is today the City of Calistoga over Mount St. Helena in Napa County to what is today Middletown in Lake County.


1866: The Legislature authorized John Lawley to construct a private toll road.
Lawley was a local businessman, owning the Phoenix quicksilver mine was one of his many ventures. He partnered as a trustee in the Napa Valley railroad which eventually managed to lay tracks to Calistoga. Aware of the potential for a rail head here, he applied for a permit to build a toll road between Calistoga and Lake County. Due to grades exceeding 35 percent along the Old Bull Trail, which prevented wagon travel, the Legislature, in 1866, authorized John Lawley to construct a private toll road to replace most of the Old Bull Trail starting approximately 1.5 miles north of downtown Calistoga. 


1868: Lawley Toll Road completed for a cost of $15,300 with grades of just 12 percent.

The original toll road followed the same route as the current road for the first 4 miles. It continued along current day Route 29 to the north and terminated at the "gap" on Mount St. Helena near what is now Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Back in the day, this toll road was the only route for gold, silver and quicksilver (mercury) to reach the railhead in downtown Calistoga. 


1872: John Lawley and partners found historic Silverado.

John Lawley, along with William Montgomery and William Patterson, founded the Monitor Ledge Mine on Mount St.Helena just off the Old Toll Road and later renamed that mine and the surrounding community "Silverado". During one point in its short three-year life, the mining town of Silverado housed over 1,000 people. Many more people came and went during that time in search of fortunes, every one of whom traveled the toll road and the 1.5 mile remnant of the Old Bull that connected that toll road to Calistoga and to the rest of the Napa Valley.


1880: Robert Louis Stevenson honeymoons in the abandoned mine at Silverado.

In the summer of 1880, a young author, running low on cash, and his new bride left their honeymoon suite in the resort town of Calistoga to become squatters in the mining town of Silverado, which had been abandoned five years earlier. One hundred twenty-five years ago, Robert Louis Stevenson' s The Silverado Squatters, a travelogue detailing the young author's trip to Napa Valley, was published for the first time. In The Silverado Squatters, the best-selling author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde introduced the world to the beauty of the Napa Valley and the quality of its wine, famously describing it as "bottled poetry". (See below to read an excerpt from The Silverado Squatters where Stevenson writes about the toll road.)


1880: Lawley buys the original toll house (known as the Toll House Inn).  Built around 1873 by William Montgomery (a sea captain), Lawley purchase the toll house in 1880. 1881: Lawley’s daughter Mollie joins the family business. Mollie and her husband Daniel Patten (owner of the Aetna Mine) moved in to help run the toll road and inn. 


1883: The original toll house is lost in a fire. 

1884: Silverado Hotel relocated to replace original toll house. Mollie and Daniel Patten owned much of the old Silverado town site. In 1884, the Silverado Hotel (from the then mining ghost town of Silverado) was moved to the site of the original toll house and renamed the Mt. St. Helena Inn.

1906: John Lawley dies - daughter Mollie becomes proprietress of the Toll House. ​

​1924: The private Toll Road becomes a public road. 

1950’s: The Mt. St. Helena Inn, neglected and vandalized over the years, is torn down.  


​Excerpt from The Silverado Squatters

Robert Louis Stevenson evokes Napa Valley beautifully in his book. The book is based on his experiences while honeymooning with Bay Area native Frances Osbourne and her son in the summer of 1880. The new family spent nine weeks in Calistoga and the Napa Valley, residing in a bunkhouse of an abandoned silver mine, on the shoulder of Mount St Helena. They did what visitors to the area do today; lived graciously (given the constraints of their rustic home), admiring the region's serene beauty, and sipping samples of the local wines.  Today, you can hike to the location where Stevenson stayed in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park – there is a memorial at the site (see below).

​If you’ve ridden up or down the Old Lawley Toll Rd to the shoulder of Mt St Helena during your visit, you’ll know exactly what Stevenson was talking about here. If you haven’t ridden it, maybe this will inspire you!

​ “For some two miles we rattled through the valley, skirting the eastern foothills; then we struck off to the right, through haugh-land, and presently, crossing a dry water- course, entered the Toll Road, or, to be more local, entered on "the grade.” The road mounts the near shoulder of Mount Saint Helena, bound northward into Lake County. In one place it skirts along the edge of a narrow and deep canyon, filled with trees, and I was glad, indeed, not to be driven at this point by the dashing Foss. Kelmar, with his unvarying smile, jogging to the motion of the trap, drove for all the world like a good, plain, country clergyman at home; and I profess I blessed him unawares for his timidity. Vineyards and deep meadows, islanded and framed with thicket, gave place more and more as we ascended to woods of oak and madrona, dotted with enormous pines. It was these pines, as they shot above the lower wood that produced that penciling of single trees I had so often remarked from the valley. Thence, looking up and from however far, each fir stands separate against the sky no bigger than an eyelash; and all together lend a quaint, fringed aspect to the hills. The oak is no baby; even the madrona, upon these spurs of Mount Saint Helena, comes to a fine bulk and ranks with forest trees - but the pines look down upon the rest for underwood. As Mount Saint Helena among her foothills, so these dark giants out-top their fellow-vegetables. Alas, if they had left the redwoods, the pines, in turn, would have been dwarfed. But the redwoods, fallen from their high estate, are serving as family bedsteads, or yet more humbly as field fences, along all Napa Valley. “A rough smack of resin was in the air, and a crystal mountain purity. It came pouring over these green slopes by the oceanful. The woods sang aloud, and gave largely of their healthful breath. Gladness seemed to inhabit these upper zones, and we had left indifference behind us in the valley. "I to the hills lift mine eyes!” There are days in a life when thus to climb out of the lowlands, seems like scaling heaven. “As we continued to ascend, the wind fell upon us with increasing strength before us leaves were thickly strewn, and boughs had fallen, large enough to make the passage difficult. But now we were hard by the summit. The road crosses the ridge, just in the nick that Kelmar showed me from below, and then, without pause, plunges down a deep, thickly wooded glen on the farther side. At the highest point a trail strikes up the main hill to the leftward; and that leads to Silverado. A hundred yards beyond, and in a kind of elbow of the glen, stands the Toll House Hotel. We came up the one side, were caught upon the summit by the whole weight of the wind as it poured over into Napa Valley, and a minute after had drawn up in shelter, but all buffeted and breathless, at the Toll House door.” 

The old toll road inn