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History of Eureka, California

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Town History

Eureka's Pacific coastal location on Humboldt Bay adjacent to abundant Redwood forests provided a rich environment for the birth of this 19th century seaport town. Beginning more than 150 years ago, miners, loggers, and fishermen began making their mark in this pristine wilderness of the California North Coast. But the area was already occupied by small groups of indigenous peoples, whose lives were changed forever, if not lost completely, after thousands of years of relative stability in bountiful surroundings.

Indigenous Cultures

The Wiyot people, are the indigenous people of this area. They are the farthest-southwest people whose language has Algonquian roots. Their traditional coastal homeland ranged from the lower Mad River through Humboldt Bay and south along the lower basin of the Eel River. The Wiyot are particularly known for their basketry and fishery management. An extensive collection of highly evolved basketry of the areas indigenous groups exists in the Clarke Historical Museum in Old Town Eureka.

European Arrival and Conflict

Humboldt Bay was rediscovered by Europeans after going missing since the first documented European discovery in 1806. The mystery was due to the treacherous waters of the Pacific Ocean and the unusually narrow harbor entrance, which is often cloaked in fog. Despite these and other challenges which were to come, Eureka was founded on May 13, 1850 by the Union and Mendocino Exploring (development) companies.

The first Europeans venturing into Humboldt Bay encountered the indigenous Wiyot. Records of early forays into the bay reported that the violence of the local indigenous people made it nearly impossible for landing parties to survey the area. After 1850, Europeans ultimately overwhelmed the Wiyot, whose maximum population before the Europeans was in the hundreds and not the thousands. Settlers unconsciously and then deliberately cut off access to ancestral sources of food in addition to the outright taking of the land despite efforts of some US Government and military officials to assist the native peoples or at least maintain peace. A tragic slaughter committed by a group of locals in the spring of 1860 is detailed in the Wiyot article. The chronicle of the behavior of European settlers toward the indigenous cultures locally and throughout America is present in surprising detail in the Fort Humboldt State Historic Park museum, on the southern edge of the city.

Gold Rush Era

Secondarily to the California Gold Rush in the Sierras, prospectors discovered gold in the nearby Trinity region (along the Trinity, Klamath, and Salmon Rivers). Because miners needed a convenient alternate to the tedious overland route from Sacramento, schooners and other vessels soon arrived on recently discovered Humboldt Bay. Though the ideal location on Humboldt Bay adjacent to naturally deeper shipping channels ultimately guaranteed Eureka's development as the primary city on the bay, Arcata's proximity to developing supply lines to inland gold mines ensured supremacy over Eureka through 1856. "Eureka" is a Greek word meaning "I have found it!" This exuberant statement of successful (or hopeful) California Gold Rush miners is also the official Motto of the State of California. 

Lumber and Developing Economy

Many of the first arrivals who arrived as prospectors were also lumbermen, and the vast potential for industry on the bay was soon realized, especially as many hopeful miners realized the difficulty and infrequency of striking it rich in the mines. By 1854, after only four years since the founding, seven of nine mills processing timber into marketable lumber on Humboldt Bay were within Eureka. A year later 140 lumber schooners operated in Humboldt Bay, supplying lumber to other booming cities along the Pacific coast. Rapid growth of the lumber industry, depletion of forests located in close proximity to Humboldt Bay and technological advances led to the development of dozens of local, narrow gauge railroads to move the giant trees to dozens of lumber mills on Humboldt Bay.

A bustling commercial district and ornate Victorians rose in proximity to the waterfront, reflecting the great prosperity experienced during this era. Many hundreds of these charming Victorian homes remain today in their original elegance and splendor, including those examples in nearby Arcata and the Victorian village of Ferndale. The magnificent Carson Mansion on 2nd and M Streets, is perhaps the most spectacular Victorian in the nation. The home was built between 1884-1886 by renowned 19th Century architects Newsom and Newsom for lumber baron William M. Carson. This project was designed to keep mill workers and expert craftsman busy during a slow period in the industry. Old Town Eureka, the original downtown center of this busy city in the 19th Century, has been restored and has become a lively arts center. The Old Town area has been declared a Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places. This nexus of culture behind the redwood curtain still contains many of its Victorian architecture, buildings, which are now transformed into scores of unique lodgings, small shops, and restaurants.

Fishing, Shipping, and Boating

Eureka's founding and livelihood was and remains linked to Humboldt Bay and its related fishing industry. Salmon fisheries sprang up along the Eel River as early as 1851, and within seven years, 2,000 barrels of cured fish and 50,000 pounds of smoked salmon were processed and shipped out of Humboldt Bay annually, primarily from processing plants on Eureka's waterfront, which exist to this day. By 1858 the first of many ships built in Eureka was launched, beginning an industry that spanned scores of years. The bay is also the site of one of the west coast's largest Oyster farming operations, which began its commercial status in the nineteenth century. The Bay remains the home port to more than 200 fishing boats in two modern marinas which can berth at least 400 boats within the city limits of Eureka.

Chinese Expulsion

In addition to ethnic conflict with the native and Wiyot peoples, some Eurekans joined the statewide response to the increasing Chinese presence in the 1880s. Californians led the nation in the xenophobic response to the perceived large numbers of Chinese immigrants, which ultimately led to the US Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (forms of this law remained in the US Code until 1943). Economic downturns and resulting competition for jobs especially led some citizens of European descent to commit sometimes violent racist actions, especially on the Pacific coast. In February 1885, the racial tension in Eureka broke when a member of two rival Chinese gangs (tongs) accidentally shot and killed a Eureka City Councilman in the crossfire between the two opposing gangs. This led to the convening of an angry mob of 600 Eurekans and resulted in the forcible, permanent expulsion of all 300 Chinese residents of Eureka's Chinatown (a one block area). The Chinese did not return to Eureka until the 1950s.

Queen City of the Ultimate West 

In 1914 the first major, reliable land route was established between San Francisco and Eureka with the opening of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, connecting Eureka through Willits, California to the northern shore of San Francisco Bay. With passenger rail service from San Francisco to the bustling Redwood Empire, Eureka's population of 7,300 swelled to 15,000 within ten years. By 1922 the Redwood Highway was completed, providing for the first reliable, direct overland route for automobiles from San Francisco. Eureka's transportation connection to the "outside" world had changed dramatically after more than half a century of uncomfortable stage rides (which could take weeks in winter) or treacherous steamship passage through the infamous Humboldt Bar and on the rarely pacified Pacific Ocean to San Francisco. The greatest symbol of this advance was the opening of the Eureka Inn (see photo, right), which coincided with the opening of the new road to "Frisco" (a favorite local nickname for San Francisco). The hotel, still one of the largest lodging properties in the region, provided quality accommodations and amenities for travelers in a style unsurpassed for its day and for the decades to come. As a result of immense civic pride during this era of expansion, Eureka officially named itself "Queen City of the Ultimate West." The tourism industry, lodging to support it, and the marketing that supports it had been born.

Post World War II era

The timber industry declined along with Pacific Northwest fisheries steadily since the 1950s. Overcutting and overfishing, increased regulation, and the creation of more parkland to preserve the remnants of once extensive virgin forests, rivers, and fisheries led to diminished profits and massive layoffs of blue collared mill workers and fisherman, beginning in earnest by the 1970s. Automation of remaining consolidated milling operations and competition from other timber markets outside the nation only hastened the process of decline in the number of jobs available in logging and related industries. The challenges resulting from this economic and resulting social upheaval were significant in the lives of many Eureka and North Coast residents. However, both the local fishing industry and the timber industry still figure large in the local and state economy, though in diminished form from the past.

For the region, Eureka remains the center for commerce and healthcare.

History of Humboldt County

The original inhabitants of the area now known as Humboldt County include the Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, Chilula, Whilkut, and the Eel River Athapaskan peoples, including the Wailaki, Mattole and Nongatl. Andrés de Urdaneta hit the coast near Cape Mendocino, California, then followed the coast south to Acapulco in 1565. Spanish traders made unintended visits to California with the Manila Galleons on their return trips from the Philippines beginning in 1565. Humboldt County was formed in 1853 from parts of Trinity County. The first recorded entry by people of European origin was a landing by the Spanish in 1775.

The county derived its name from Humboldt Bay, which in turn is named the after Alexander von Humboldt, a famous German naturalist. The first recorded entry of Humboldt Bay by non-natives was an 1806 visit from a sea otter hunting party from Sitka employed by the Russian American Company. The hunting party included Captain Jonathan Winship, an American, and some Aleut hunters. The bay was not visited again by people of European origin until 1849 when Josiah Gregg's party visited. In 1850, Douglas Ottinger and Hans Buhne entered the bay, naming it Humboldt in honor of the great naturalist and world explorer, Baron Alexander von Humboldt.

The area around Humboldt Bay was once solely inhabited by the Wiyot Indian tribe. One of the largest Wiyot villages, Tolowot, was located on Gunther Island (AKA Indian Island and AKA Bloody Island) in Humboldt Bay. Founded c. 900, it contains a shell midden 6 acres (24,000 m²) in size and 14 feet (4 m) deep. It was the site of the February 26, 1860 massacre of the Wiyot people that was recorded by Bret Harte, then living in Union, now called Arcata. Between 60 and 200 Wiyot men, women, and children were murdered that night. In 1998, musician Frank Black wrote and recorded a song about this event, called "Humboldt County Massacre." Tolowot is now an archaeological site, designated Gunther Island Site 67, and is a National Historic Landmark.

State historic landmarks in Humboldt County include Trinidad Head, Fort Humboldt, The Old Arrow Tree, Centerville Beach Cross, Camp Curtis, the town of Trinidad, the city of Eureka, the Sequoia Park Zoo, California's first drilled oil wells in Petrolia, the Jacoby Building, the Old Indian Village of Tsurai in Trinidad, the Arcata and Mad River Railroad Company, the Humboldt Harbor Historical District, and the town of Ferndale.

On February 5 and February 6, 1885, Eureka's entire Chinese population of 300 men and 20 women were expelled after a gunfight between rival Chinese gangs (tongs) resulted in the wounding of a 12 year old boy and the death of 56 year old David Kendall, a Eureka City Councilman. After the shooting, an angry mob of 600 Eurekans met and then informed the Chinese that they were no longer wanted in Eureka and would be hanged if they were to stay in town longer than 3 p.m. the next day. They were put on two steamships and shipped to San Francisco. No one was killed in the expulsion. Another Chinese expulsion occurred during 1906 in a cannery on the Eel River, in which 23 Chinese cannery workers were expelled after local loggers objected to their presence. However, some Chinese remained in the Orleans area, where some white landowners sheltered and purchased food for the Chinese mineworkers until after racial tension passed. Chinese did not return to the coastal cities until the 1950s.


Humboldt County was already multi-cultural when Euro-Americans arrived in the spring of 1850. The indigenous people occupied specific territories, spoke languages of several different stocks, and had similar but different social and cultural structures. The Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, Karok, Chilula, Whilkut, and the southern Athabascans, including the Mattole and Nongatl practiced lifeways carefully prescribed by cultural and religious mores. Humboldt's Indian communities made and continue to make significant contributions to the history and development of the county.

Ocean exploration of the northern coast of California included Spanish, Russian and British ships, with the first recorded Humboldt landing at Trinidad by the Spanish in 1775. The first entrance to Humboldt Bay was in 1806 by an American with Aleut hunters, all in the employ of the Russian-American Company out of Sitka. But it wasn't until rediscovery by land by the Gregg-Wood Party in December 1849, that the region's history was forever defined. Spring 1850 brought the first ships to Humboldt and Trinidad bays, where men, generally from the States, disembarked on their way to the gold mining districts on the Klamath, Salmon and Trinity rivers. First settled as a point of arrival and as a supply center for these interior mines, Eureka, Union (Arcata), and Trinidad were hubs of activity. But as the excitement and rush for gold subsided, the prospects for economic well-being, if not wealth, shifted to the region's premiere resources - big trees, salmon, and land. This redirection resulted in the arrival of new groups of people from foreign shores and different cultures and, very importantly, the settlement of the county. The Chinese came first to mine on the Klamath and Salmon rivers, work in the fish canneries on lower Eel River, and later to build railroads. They were forcibly expelled in 1885. Americans and later Italians fished commercially on lower Eel River, the Italians acting as the buyers for San Francisco firms. Canadian "Blue Noses " from the maritime provinces, particularly Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, came to work in Humboldt's woods. William Carson, of Carson Mansion fame, developed logging and milling operations around the bay and recruited workers from his home in New Brunswick. Operations on Washington and Jacoby creeks created a community of Canadian woodsmen that came to be known as Bayside. Some of their descendants are still there, as well as the houses they built along Old Arcata and Graham roads.

With the establishment of dairying operations in the latter part of the 19th century, Swiss-Italian immigrants came to work for others on the bottom lands of Mad and Eel rivers, in the Orick valley, and on the coastal plains around the lagoons. But it didn't take long before industry and ingenuity made these dairyman owners of both land and cows. Many residents of the Ferndale and Loleta area trace their ancestry to these immigrants of a century ago. The Portuguese, who came to Humboldt County from the Azores, also found work on dairy ranches, but the timber industry provided employment for many.

People of Slavic origins came at the turn-of-the-century to work in Humboldt County's woods and mills. The homes of James Malvich, Joseph Maronich, Nick Dubrovich, Cosmo Stiglich, and others remain within a few blocks of each other in East Arcata, where these families enjoyed the social activities of a Croatian society. The French found homes in Blue Lake and Arcata, published newspapers, developed townsites, and opened French restaurants. The interior prairies of the Bald Hills, Kneeland, Showers Pass, Bridgeville and the headwaters of the Van Duzen, Mad and North Fork Eel rivers were settled by Americans who ran cattle and sheep operations.

Up to and through the Second World War, this demographic and occupational structure prevailed. People came and went, of course, but the population and work remained fairly stable. The natural resources of the North Coast continued to provide livelihoods for most of Humboldt County's people. Large timber companies, such as Hammond, Northern Redwood Lumber Co., Pacific Lumber Company, and Dolbeer and Carson kept people employed. The close of the war, however, forever changed that stability. A new Doug fir/plywood industry brought woods and mill workers from Oregon and Washington. Gypo loggers and seat-of-the-pants mills appeared overnight. Workers from Arkansas and Oklahoma found ready work. On the peninsula, Manila became a settlement of these folks, many of whom brought home the scrap wood from the mill at Samoa to build their houses. In 1947, Arcata was a lumber boomtown with 30 mills in operation and more to come. Railroad shipments of lumber broke records year after year.

Timber dominated the economic and political life of the county well into the 1970s, but times were changing. College students, back-to-the-land refugees, and environmentalists brought a new perspective to resource use. What had once been a totally resource-extractive economy became a more diverse economy that included education, health and social services, resource protection and restoration, and government. And new groups of immigrants arrived, notably Hispanic workers and their families and refugees from countries impacted by the Vietnam War. An incomparable natural environment and a diversity of people and cultures have created a history for Humboldt County as rich as any in California.