By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
Before roads were viable means of transport, the redwood lumber of far Northern California had to be shipped out by boat. There were ready markets in San Francisco. As a result, Eureka became the port city for the titans of timber, such as William Carson. Today, Carson’s mansion is a landmark in California architecture.
The Historic Story
The wealth of the early lumber period expressed itself in Eureka, especially in the palace Victorian homes on the lumber barons.
Lumbering has been the main historical story associated with redwood country. The tree’s wood is soft and easy to saw. While not as strong as Douglas fir, it has an attractive red color. The color can be stabilized to remain red or will weather naturally to a pleasing gray. Even today, builders favor redwood in house siding, decks, and garden structures. However, the biggest virtue of redwood is its ability to withstand weathering and termites. Redwood will not readily deteriorate. Prolonged moisture will cause most woods to rot, but redwood will endure. Consequently, redwood is one of the most weather-resistant types of wood found in North America, competing with the cypress of the South.
When thinking of the lumber baron era, you need to stop and gaze at the William Carson Mansion in Eureka. This lavish gingerbread Victorian, the finest 19th-century architectural legacy along the north coast, built in 1884, stands at the corner of Second and M Streets.
William Carson became the timber tycoon of Eureka, but there were also many other prosperous folk at that time. Moreover, a brochure from the Visitor Bureau can alert you to a driving tour of Eureka with numerous other structures from the Victorian era. You’ll see styles ranging from Queen Anne to Carpenter Gothic.
Eureka’s Clarke Memorial Museum has a permanent Victoriana display showing the parlor of a grand house. Beyond that, the Museum also has many Native American artifacts, such as basketry, from the Hoopa, Karuk, and Yurok tribes.
Another museum, the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum (77 Cookhouse Rd, Samoa, CA 95564; 707/444-9440; www.humboldtbaymaritimemusuem.com), shows the rich maritime story of this largest bay and seaport in California north of San Francisco. Schooners carried the wood from roughly 75 mills on Humboldt Bay to the San Francisco market at the height of lumbering.
Eureka’s Old Town
Eureka’s Old Town area, along 2nd and 3rd Streets from C to M Streets, has interesting shops. Blue Ox Millworks and Historic Park (1 X Street; 707/444-3437; www.blueoxmill.com) deals in the wood trimmings used to restore Victorians. They offer a tour of the mill and the Victorian trimmings that their skills enhance.
Fort Humboldt State Historic Park (707/445-6547; http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=665), an 1850s military outpost at Eureka, has many exhibits about the early lumbering. One amazing tool of the trade was a huge winch, called a slackliner, used to bring large logs down steep slopes. Ulysses S. Grant served at Fort Humboldt in 1853. Later, he pursued his career as a victorious general in the Civil War and became president of the United States.
However, the futures of both logging and fishing, the economic mainstays of the region, are uncertain. Depletion of the old-growth redwood supply, rather than a diminishing demand, is a restricting factor in lumbering. However, redwood is the fastest-growing softwood species suitable for this climate. Young forests are more productive than old forests, from a board-feet point of view.
Fishing for salmon is dependent on the yearly salmon count. Fishing guides work the Klamath River and chartered boats leave from Trinidad Bay and Humboldt Bay for ocean fishing. Upstream, in the Hoopa Native American reservation, the residents are allowed to net the fish. As a result, the politics of salmon fishing and logging are equally intense.
Eureka is on Highway 101 north of the Avenue of the Giants and Ferndale. Allow six hours for the drive from San Francisco.
Be Sure to See
The Carson Mansion (143 M Street) is a gem of California’s Victorian architecture. Gaze at it from the outside because you won’t be able to enter. The house is now a private club, closed to the public.
The Clarke Historical Museum (240 E Street; 707/443-1947) is housed in the landmark Bank of Eureka building and is now the site of the Eureka Visitor Center. Its exhibits range from Humboldt County’s Native American cultures to gold rush settlements and the relics of the lumber industry.
In the Eureka Old Town area, Humboats Kayak Adventures (601 Startare Drive; 707/443-5157; www.humboats.com) offers a variety of rentals, including whale watching in season.
Best Time of Year
Any time of the year is good for Eureka. Be aware of the seasonal pattern in Northern California. The long rainy winter, the fog of summer, and the glorious days of spring and autumn are all aspects of the annual weather pageant to consider. There is a Redwood Coast Music Festival in March.
Few B&Bs in California have the historic completeness to equal Abigail’s Elegant Victorian Mansion in Eureka. The building itself is an 1888 National Historic Landmark, one of the exceptional Victorian homes of the region. The interior shows antiques and period mementos, including books, newspapers, and items from daily life of the Victorian era. The B&B is more of an interactive living-history house museum than a commercial lodging. The proprietors sometimes dress in period costumes and drive guests around in their vintage automobile. Abigail’s Elegant Victorian Mansion is at 1406 C Street; 707/444-3144; http://eureka-california.com/mansion.php).
The Hotel Carter’s Restaurant 301 (301 L Street; 800/404-1390; http://carterhouse.com/restaurant-301) ranks on the creative cutting edge of modern California cuisine. The restaurant emphasizes a garden-to-kitchen style, based on its own gardens, which can be toured. Its wine list is a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner.
For Further Information
The main area tourism information source is the Eureka-Humboldt Visitors Bureau (322 First Street; 800/346-3482; https://www.visitredwoods.com).