The Mystery of the Lost Bunnell Safe is “Cracked” by Local Residents
In 1901 the Bunnell Hotel, located at the tip of a mountain ridge, known today as the peninsula, opened. Luther Wellington Bunnell’s popular first hotel had burned to the ground in 1899 at a total loss, and the opening of its elegant replacement was widely anticipated.
With few banks, no such thing as a credit card, cash was the method of payment. In order to prevent loss from theft or fire, Bunnell ordered a safe sold by a company from San Francisco. The 1200-pound safe was first shipped, then put aboard a train and finally arrived by wagon to the remote mountain resort.
By 1910, Great Western Power Company had purchased all the ranches and resorts in Big Meadows, destroying buildings and the town of Prattville by fire in readiness for the flooding in order to create a storage reservoir, now what is known as Lake Almanor. The Bunnell Hotel had been sold and closed in 1907, though Great Western used it for housing important guests and company employees. When the flooding began the hotel was destroyed.
Time passes and PG&E acquires Great Western Power in 1930 which included the Caribou Powerhouse, the first step in the fabled “Stairway of Power,” a series of powerhouse installations down the Feather River Canyon. Caribou also served as the upper operational headquarters for PG&E, as well as a summer resort for the company’s employees and special visitors.
In a dark basement at the Caribou Power Station sat an old safe that PG&E had never used, its combination long lost with no recollection of “how it got there.” Time passed and a few years ago a PG&E employee approached David Davis of Chico, CA, a locksmith and nationally recognized safecracker, about purchasing a new safe for the Caribou office describing the unusable, abandoned old safe. As a collector, Davis was intrigued and suggested that the antique could be used as a trade-in on a new safe. An agreement was reached and after an intense physical struggle to move and an additional four days of effort to “crack” the safe, Davis was pleased with his new addition to his collection.
It was in December 2021 Chester residents, Sharon and Will Henry were having new keys made in Davis’ shop and spotted the L.W. Bunnell safe in the locksmith’s collection. As long-term “locals,” they realized the connection to the area. As luck would have it, the locksmith was closing his shop at the end of the month and stated he was selling out but really wanted the old safe to go to a museum. The Henry’s said, “We know just the place.”
The Bunnell Hotel safe now resides in the Chester Museum on First Avenue, having come nearly full circle after being away for 100+ years.