Where the Heck is Sisson?

My grandmother, Marjorie Cain, attended Chico State Teachers College in the 1920s, graduating in 1925. I’ve been researching various details of her life for a historical fiction novel I am writing which borrows liberally from her life and times. Last November I spent some time at the California State University, Chico (CSUC) library delving into what campus life was like in the 1920s. That’s when I discovered that Chico State Teachers College, as it was known during my grandmother’s era (formerly Chico Normal School—the name changed in 1921), had a summer camp where students could attend a 6-week session. The camp was located in the town of Sisson. The only problem was, where the heck was Sisson? Did it still exist?

The idea of Chico Normal School holding a summer session was first raised in 1916, but WWI caused a delay to the plan. In 1918 a location for the summer camp was sought somewhere in the Sacramento River canyon, and the town of Sisson was chosen. At that time it was common for people to escape the heat of the valley by summering at higher elevations. Locating the camp at Sisson benefited both the town and the college. The first summer session was held in 1920.

Mt. Shasta as seen from the town of Mount Shasta.

It turns out that Sisson is the former name for the town of Mount Shasta. When Molly and I recently learned that the headwaters of the Sacramento River (ok, one of the headwaters) is also located in Mount Shasta, we decided we must plan a stopover on our annual road trip to the Pacific Northwest. Excited about this confluence of our shared obsessions with California and family history, and the headwaters of California rivers, we continued our research on the exact locations of the camp and the source of the Sacramento River. The searches led us to one and the same place: Mount Shasta City Park.

The summer camp (which is now the city park) was situated near the railroad and Big Springs, from which the Sacramento River flows. Drought or no drought, the cold, crystal clear water continues to pour right out of the foot of Mt. Shasta. During our visit to the park we saw people drive in with jars and jugs to capture the water, which is pure enough to drink right out of the springs.


Big Springs, source of the Sacramento River
Big Springs, source of the Sacramento River
Big Springs
Big Springs


Construction of the camp continued for a number of years. Most of the buildings used by the summer camp were in place by 1927. These included bathrooms, a power house, a dormitory which housed 40 students, a manual training building, a laundry, a kitchen and dining room, an art building, more dormitories, a lodge, an administration building, a hospital, and a home for the Dean of Women. I had been wondering if any infrastructure remained from the camp, which ran from 1920 until 1942. The Mount Shasta Recreation and Parks District website, which describes the current-day 26 acre city park, states that “the park facilities include picnic areas, playgrounds, and five public buildings.” What they neglect to mention is that the buildings were constructed for the CSTC summer camp in the 1920s.

It seemed to me that the history of the summer camp was under-appreciated, as there was nothing about it at the Mount Shasta Museum—although one of the volunteers did find a 3-page article in a binder that had some of the history—and there was no signage or information in the park that mentioned the history of the buildings. Too bad.


The CSTC course catalogue for academic year 1922-23 includes the following rather effusive description of summer school:

The summer student can not do better than to attend the Mount Shasta Summer Session. The camp is located conveniently, near the village of Sisson, in a beautiful grove of cedars, pines, firs and oaks. The famous spring of “Muirs Woods” gushes ice cold water from beneath the lava rock, furnishing the water supply of the camp.

The natural scenery surrounding the grounds can not be surpassed. To the north and east, but a few yards from the camp, one hits the trail that ascends 14,380 feet to the crest of the sublime Mount Shasta. To the west rises Mount Eddy. These two mountains are snowcapped the year around. Among other points of interest which are easily accessible by pack animal or by auto are Castle Lake, McCloud River, Castle Crags, and Crater Lake (Oregon). Week-end trips are made by students to these points, chaperoned by members of faculty.

Social life in the camp is quite ideal. The housing is provided for by means of dormitories and tents. A cafeteria on the grounds provides plenty of appetizing and wholesome food at moderate prices.

The Lodge furnishes a place for amusements, such as dances, musicals, plays, and all general recreational parties.

There are half-day sessions conducted during the forenoons, leaving afternoons free for study and recreation.

A summer spent at the Mount Shasta Summer Session cannot but prove one of delight and profit.

By all accounts that we’ve read or been told, the students had an absolute blast at these camps. I only regret I was born too late to attend, and it’s one more thing I wish I had talked to my grandmother about when I had the opportunity.

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