While driving the Shoreline Highway along the 106 miles of the Mendocino Coast a traveler today might ask, “What brought people here in the first place? The answer is that it was not the sea and fishing or good farmlands. There was no gold. There were no easy paths for the traveler. There were only dense forests, deep canyons and wide rivers. So, what brought the very first white settlers to the fog shrouded coast? The answer, believe it or not, was a search for a shipwreck.
In 1850, a schooner called the Frolic ran aground on the rocks at Point Cabrillo between Fort Bragg and Mendocino. The crew sailed a leaky lifeboat back to San Francisco and reported that their ship full of trade goods from the Orient was waiting to be salvaged. A San Francisco entrepreneur named Harry Meiggs sent Jerome Ford to find the wreck site and recover the goods. He was too late. He found that the Pomo, the native Indians wearing oriental silks, eating preserved ginger and making beads from broken porcelain pottery taken from the wreck. Ford returned to San Francisco and told Meiggs that the trade goods were gone but he had found something of infinitely more value – the giant redwoods. He told Meiggs that there were huge, vast forests of incredibly tall trees growing right down to the water’s edge.
Jerome Ford lived was born in Vermont, in 1821 and was a woodsman by trade. He left Vermont in 1849 and found his way to San Francisco. Henry Meiggs was a swindler who had to hot foot it to Chile where he made a fortune. Meiggs ordered a sawmill from the East Coast and purchased a ship (the brig Ontario) to carry it north. Ford was a partner in the business venture. As the Ontario was fitted out, loaded and manned Ford drove cattle overland, up the Mendocino Coast, and arrived in Mendocino on 17th June 1852. He staked out lands around present day Mendocino, sharing the property with a shipwrecked sailor, William Kasten, who had claimed squatter's rights.
The first Mendocino mill was built on the Point but proved inadequate – see picture right.
A second mill was built in 1854 on Big River delta flats and Ford was made supervisor – see picture left.
That year, 1854, Ford left Mendocino (then, Big River Township), to return to the East Coast and marry Martha Hayes. While on his trip, Edward C. Williams was employed to construct a house. When Mr. and Mrs. Ford returned they found their house had a rather unusual feature. Williams had built the kitchen in the basement, insisting that all kitchens were to be found in the basement! Their house – see picture right, the Ford House Museum is on the south side of Main Street and has a superb collection of Mendocino related books for sale as well as models and photos of Mendocino’s beginnings.
Below are some photos of Jerome, his family and the original house. Click a photo for a larger version.
The lumber was hauled up from the flats of Big River and stored on the cliff top to the west of the Ford House – see picture left.
If you walk along the cliff top today to the Point (see photo right) you can find "rings" embedded in the concrete that were used to brace the wires (see photo left) which went out to the ships. In the Ford House you can see from a model and photos of how the rings were used.
Getting ashore at Mendocino was a quite hair raising experience as the the photos right show. "Steamer day" was a day of high interest as it was when Mendocino residents received their mail and all necessities.
In its heyday Mendocino had 21 saloons and eight hotels. There were also two hospitals and a jail.
Other old "relics" - The Mendocino Hotel (see picture left) was built in 1872 and was originally called the "Temperance House" as no liquor was allowed.
The McCallum House (on Albion Street behind the Mendocino Hotel) was built before the turn of the 20th century. The picture right, shows it before it was moved to the front of the lot.
There was a small but significant Chinese community in Mendocino. Evidence of this can be seen today on Albion Street where you can find a Chinese Temple. Dedicated to the Chinese god of war - a Taoist symbol of integrity and loyalty, the Temple of Kwan Tai offers living evidence of Mendocino's 19th Century Chinese community. Four generations of its founders' descendants (the Hee family) have preserved this original Taoist temple, a site now recognized as California Registered Historic Landmark No. 927.
An excellent source for the history of the Chinese in Mendocino County can be found in "Chinese in Mendocino County" by Lorraine Hee Chorley. The full text of the book can be found here.
A detailed history of the railroad that the mill operated appeared in Issue 436 of the Western Railroader magazine written by Dan Burleson . The full text of Issue 436 can be found by clicking on the front cover to the right, or here. A pdf version can be downloaded here
Mendocino by Dorothy Bear and Beth Stebbins Published in 1973
The book is mainly about the families who first came to Mendocino and their homes - many of which still stand. One interesting item was detail of the Azorian fishermen who settled and lived in Mendocino:
The Mendocino Redwood Company’s website has a very good section on the first Mendocino mill on Big River – click here.