top of page

Woodland Opera House History

Woodland Opera House will always stand as a memorial to the first fire firefighter in Woodland to loose his life in the line of duty, Mr. William Porter.

The history of Woodland Opera House originated in a small town called Woodland, California that was originally populated by the Hill Patwin Native Americans. Eventually various Europeans groups immigrated to the land in the 1800’s and settled the area by providing a farming community that still thrives today.  Woodland is also currently noted for their transportation routes and contribution of agriculture.

The sleepy town of Woodland is very renowned for a beautiful historical site called the Woodland Opera House originally built in 1885 and consequently was rebuilt in 1896 after being destroyed by a fire.  During this time, the theater was a huge success with over 300 touring companies performing on the stage but dwindled by the year of 1913 due to growing popularity of motions pictures and an injury lawsuit.  By 1971, the Yolo County Historical Society purchased the building that was restored in 1981.  Currently the establishment offers quality life entertainment all throughout the year, although, the Woodland Opera House has earned a reputation that it is haunted. 

One theory is that there is a fireman named W.W. Porter who wondering the theater making him known to workers, talent, and at times the audiences.  This spirit was killed during the 1892 fire and supposedly a burning wall collapsed on him during the fire.  Some believe that the area where the fireman died is the hub of much supernatural activity.  Many other sightings include the chilling paranormal

occurrences in the north upper balcony and basement costume dressing rooms.  Ironically, since this fire, there have been several unexplained fires.

The ghosts presences have been described by spectators claiming they see smoke, visualizing thread unwinding and objects flying on their own. Others believe that a great Polish Actress named Madame Helen Modjeska who performed at the Woodland Opera House is also making herself present in spiritual form, as has been known to materialize in present day at many other American Theaters she performed within her life.

The Woodland Opera House seems to have a life of its own and has survived for many centuries. The theater seems to offer much soul, spectacular entertainment and appreciation to audiences and visitors alike.

W.W. Porter — A very brave man

By Nancy Rice

Volunteer firefighter William W. Porter perished fighting to save Woodlanders’ lives and property in the great fire of July 1, 1892. Mr. Porter was bravely working with his team at the Opera House to retrieve the water hose where it was stuck. The Opera House was lost, so they needed to move the hose to fight the fire at the next building. Before the hose could be removed, the north wall of the Opera House toppled over. Mr. Porter was struck on the head with falling bricks and killed instantly. The other men were able to splice the ends of the burnt hose together and continue in their efforts to save the area. Sadly, a major portion of the small city of Woodland burned down. The whole two blocks of

downtown from Main to Court and First to Third streets were totally destroyed, plus a residential area two blocks south of Main Street. There was damage from other embers carried as far as six or seven blocks away. Because of fire damage, the Yolo Democrat was unable to publish until July 7. In the fire Mr. Porter’s group was working with the trusty 1874 Clapp and Jones Steamer. This engine was retired in 1906, but its final retirement to place after it was pressed into service to fight the big 1935 Woodland Brewery fire (where the Nugget Market stands now). This steamer still appears in parades in this community. A note about the Opera House: It burned to the ground and two weeks later the property was sold to the Hershey brothers, builders of the current Opera House for the princely sum of $10.

Mr. Porter is the only firefighter to have died in service in Woodland. He was honored with an elaborate funeral, one of the largest up to that time in Woodland. A service was held at the family home at 527 College St., followed by a procession to the Woodland Cemetery, and a lodge service there with the burial after that. The service at his home was led by L.D. Bliss of the Congregational Church and Reverend Pulliam of the Baptist Church. The ministers read appropriate scripture, led in prayers, spoke of the sterling character of the deceased and briefly sketched the story of Mr. Porter’s life. This service was graced with a four person choir “rendering some very choice and affecting music,” to quote the Yolo

Democrat. The service at the cemetery was conducted by the Knights of Pythias.

The large gravestone in the W.W. Porter plot has a circular formation on the top signifying that he was a member of the Forester’s Lodge. Two other stones in the plot were damaged a few years ago by vandals and have recently been replaced, thanks to contributions from E Clampus Vitus. Cache Creek Monuments had also donated free labor and time. There will soon be a dedication of the new stones. Mr. Porter was born on Feb. 23, 1838 in the town of Northeast, Pa., and grew up there on his parents’ farm. He left at the age of 24 to work in the newly developed oil field in western Pennsylvania as an engineer, staying for four years. He then returned to the farm, where he married Miss Imogene Dudley

on New Year’s Day of 1873. Eight months later he and his wife came to Woodland “where he pursued his trade of carpentry.” In 1889 he was appointed superintendent of the Woodland Water Company and continued in that position for the three years remaining to him.

Survivors were his wife, Imogene Porter, but no children, his brothers, T.R. Porter of Woodland his J. H. Porter of Pennsylvania, his sisters Mrs. L.B. Adams and Miss Ella Porter of Woodland and Miss Sarah Porter of Northeast, Pa. Mrs. Imogene Porter continued to live in Woodland, where she owned a millinery shop on Main Street. She died in 1912, and is buried next to her husband in the Woodland Cemetery. She had remarried and had a daughter. The Porter home was inherited by her daughter, who lived there with her husband, Dr. James T. Royals, into the 1930's. Ella Porter, W.W.’s younger sister, died in 1945 at the age of 99 and is buried next to her brother.

In another quote from The Democrat, W.W. Porter was “Highly esteemed by all who enjoyed the privilege of his acquaintance. He was a man of strict integrity and possessed the confidence of the entire business community. In his death the city has been deprived of an enterprising and public-spirited citizen, and his family has sustained a lost that is irreparable.”

Referenced and recommended sites:

*Links no longer working, but used at the time of writing, are still listed.

bottom of page