Jack London Historic State Park: Legacy of a genius

Camille Bounds

Jack London State Historic Park was created in 1959 when a small portion – about 40 acres – of Jack London’s 1,400-acre Beauty Ranch was acquired by the state, partly through a gift from London’s nephew and an heir to the London estate.
Additional acreage has been added over the years so that today the park contains more than 800 acres, including many of the ranch buildings and the cottage where London wrote much of his later work.
Jack London was a great hulk of a man known to be passionate, high strung and compassionate, with a great sense of humor. He describes himself in a letter written to a friend better than anything anyone could write about him.
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
“I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot.
“I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.
“I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
And use his time he did. In the 40 years he walked the earth, he propelled himself from a poor childhood in the factories and waterfront dives of West Oakland. He did not stop or look back. Between 1900 and 1916, he completed more than 50 books, hundreds of short stories and numerous articles on a range of subjects.
Several of the books and many of the short stories are classics and have been translated into 70 different languages. He was a sought after lecturer and acted as his own negotiator with his agents and publishers. He oversaw the construction of his custom built sailing boat, the Snark, and the construction of Wolf House.
The trail to Wolf House is a little over a half-mile long and slopes gently downhill. It is recommended that you allow an hour or more for the one-mile hike.
Materials from the area were carefully matched to blend and create a unique outside and interior. Boulders of maroon lava and redwood logs with the bark intact went into the outside walls. Redwood paneling made up the interior walls. The Spanish-style roof was dark red and matched the stone walls.  There was a long indoor pool planned that was to be stocked with mountain bass. There was a library on the first floor and a floor above that housed a special work room for London. A fireproof vault in the basement was designed to hold his collection of manuscripts and valuables.
The entire house stood on an extra-thick concrete slab that was intended to stabilize the house in an earthquake. Double thick concrete walls were intended to be fireproof.
On Aug. 22, 1913 plans to move in custom furniture and personal belongings were ready, but word came that the house had burned, leaving a stone hollowed out hulk of a destroyed dream. The remains can be seen on this tour and an eerie feeling of what might have been hovers over the area.
This house was built by Charmain London in 1919 and is a smaller, more formal version of Wolf House. Charmain used this as her home base, since she traveled a great deal after her husband’s death. She died in 1955 at 84. She dedicated the house be used as a memorial to Jack London and as a museum that would display photographs and exhibits.
Many of the pieces of the furniture in the house were designed and custom built for use in Wolf House. The library is furnished with equipment from London’s study; his roll top desk, the dictaphone and some of the other items were used by London.
This interesting house shows the legacy that London left. Being able to see a number of editions of the Sea Wolf and Call Of The Wild in 70 different languages sitting in a case really brings home the range of the man.
This half-mile long trail circles through the center of the 1,400 acres of land that London called his “Beauty Ranch.” Between 1905 and 1916, London used this area to farm and share his advanced agricultural ideas and experiences.
The grave site is a short, 10-minute hike from the main house. Jack and Charmain’s ashes were placed on a hill close to the plain wooden headboards that marked the graves of two pioneer children. (This spot was his request before he died). His final ceremony was simple without ritual, attended by a few members of London’s immediate family, an old friend and workmen from the ranch. A small copper urn wreathed with primroses was placed within a specially made cement receptacle under a block of red lava. London died Nov. 22, 1916 of gastrointestinal uremic poisoning. (Today, a kidney machine and transplant may have saved his life.)

• Picnic tables and barbecue pits are available, and ground fires and portable stoves are prohibited.
• The museum in the House of Happy Walls is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.
• There are a few rattlesnakes. Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you. There is also poison oak in the area. Be alert.
• Dogs must be kept on a leash and are allowed in the Historic area – they are not allowed in the museum or on the hiking trails.
PARK ADMISSION (rates can change)
$5 per vehicle
$4 per senior vehicle
$1 per dog
Call for bus and group rates
2400 London Ranch Road
Glen Ellen Calif. 95442
(707) 938-5216

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