Two sharp bends of the McCloud River have watched the waters of history flow swift along her banks. Wintu stood here as the salmon possessed the wet ribbon through the forest. Clark Gable and Charles Lindbergh rested here sitting among the trees, which outlasted their careers. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., and his son John Fitzgerald lingered as the currents passed at their feet while their futures still beckoned them. The air and water breathed the name of this place in a quiet voice, Wyntoon.
Justin Sisson settled over the hill, in the town, which bore his name along the Sacramento River in the 1880s. Today, in the place known as Mount Shasta, the trapper homesteaded, opening a tavern and an inn. He petitioned for a railway to be built from Redding to his new home. Sisson purchased 120 acres over which the rail line would transverse, giving him the money to expand his business when the railroad bought it from him. When it was completed in 1887, miners, loggers, and those seeking adventure came to the Strawberry Valley, enjoying Sisson’s hospitality. The outdoorsman, turned businessman, took his attentions to the McCloud River, buying land, along one bend of the same. There he established a fishing resort, called “Sisson’s-on-the-McCloud.”
Sisson died in 1893 and six years later his widow sold the McCloud property to Charles Wheeler, a San Francisco attorney. Wheeler constructed a new hunting lodge of stone, with a slate roof, and a tower with windows made of trout aquariums. The building sat under a forest canopy. Inside, an 800-book library hosted Native American baskets, giving homage to those once living along these banks. The interior displayed a mix of wood and stone, imitating the land.
In 1900, Wheeler invited Phoebe Hearst to visit. Enchanted by the property, she asked to purchase it; however, Wheeler only acquiesced to a 99-year lease, not including the property or lodge at the lower river bend. Phoebe’s financial adviser, Edward Clark, owned the upper bend of the river, which he had named Wyntoon. Phoebe had leased the property in between the bends. Desiring to possess as much of the property as possible, Phoebe purchased Clark’s land and combined it with the leased land. She adopted the Wyntoon name for the entire holding. Wheeler wished to keep any building modest on the leased property. However, Phoebe proceeded with plans for a seven-story castle to be constructed, and Wheeler made no attempt to stop the project. Phoebe moved into her forest home in 1902, with construction ending in 1904. The gabled castle rose up in the forest as if plucked from a Grimm’s fairy tale.
Phoebe spent summers there with her grandchildren, children of her son William Randolph Hearst. They enjoyed the mountain breezes, swims in the river, and adventures which the forests surrounding McCloud provided. However, at her death in 1919, she willed the property to a niece, giving her son other holdings. William Randolph wanted the property and harassed his cousin until she sold the property to him in 1925. Wheeler died in 1923, and in 1929 William Randolph bought the leased property from the Wheeler family, including the lower bend, expanding the estate to include both bends of the river. However, the acquisition was bittersweet as the same year a kitchen fire burned Phoebe’s castle to the ground.
William Randolph set out to replace the lost building. Hiring the designer working on his San Simeon estate, plans were made for a 61-bedroom castle, with two great towers. Where his mother’s castle arose dream-like from a fairy tale, his would establish a scene from the history of European nobility. A Spanish monastery was purchased and 10,000 stones were brought to San Francisco to be used in the construction. In 1931, building was to begin; but the Great Depression made the project financially unfeasible. Plans were redrawn to create a Bavarian village, consisting of three fairy tale houses: a Cinderella House, a Fairy House, and a Bear house, arranged around an open green area, with the river flowing behind. A Swiss artisan was hired to paint scenes from the stories on each house.
The three homes brought magic to the landscape. The lush, green lawn, decorated with a fountain, drew the eye to the bend of buildings arcing along the edge of the river. Another house was added with a pool, pouring into the passing waters, and a dining hall rose nearby equipped to show movies to those lodging there. Each house told its own story with vibrant colors which appeared to be dropped onto the sides by the nymphs of the forest. Later, the Angel House would be built as a fourth addition, but remained uncompleted until the 1990s.
In 1934, the structure at the lower bend was torn down with the exception of one wing where a cornerstone containing the title “The Bend” was embedded in the wall. Over six years a modest castle arose. Its walled courtyard looked up to the looming windows and stonework. As with all the buildings of Wyntoon, the insides were furnished with antiques and artwork, completing the vision of elegance in the rustic setting.
William Randolph’s bankruptcy in 1937 put the property in the hands of a Conservation Committee who slashed the construction budget, halted many other building projects and imposed a rental fee anytime William Randolph stayed there. When World War II broke out, fear of coastal attacks by the Japanese and the required blackouts made staying his San Simeon estate unbearable. William Randolph came north, moving into the Bear House with actress Marion Davies and their pet dachshunds. Distance made the number of guests smaller than his San Simeon home; however, Wyntoon continued to be the residence of a gracious host. Guests enjoyed the grandeur of the forest, the allure of the buildings, and company of the aging man who lived there.
The property is held now by the Hearst Corporation as a private retreat and is not open to the public. Wyntoon is McCloud’s Brigadoon, seen only in the ethereal mist of conversations and a smattering of photos on the internet. This is a place hidden in the dense stands of Ponderosa Pines, but every bit a part of McCloud.
By Gary VanDeWalker