An Introduction by Marianne Hurley, Architectural Historian, California State Parks, Diablo Vista District
Perched on the bluff overlooking the river and the ocean, the town of Mendocino is not only classically picturesque, but it is also one of the best examples of a vibrant historic landscape where people carry on everyday lives amidst the delightful and enduring legacy of the 19th century.
The overall harmony of the streetscapes and the consistency of the historic townscape have their roots in the foresight of the citizens who in 1971 placed this town on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the earliest district nominations in California, this helped preserve and acknowledge the importance of Mendocino, a place that figured importantly in the development and the economy of the Redwood coast following statehood.
Most historic districts in this country consist of small sections of a larger more developed city, but historic Mendocino is the town itself and this creates a dynamic that is evident as one walks the streets. While visitors come to enjoy the historic townscape, the residents are also using the post office, the library, the school, and the grocery store. Even the more recent additions seem at home and do not detract from the character and feel of this once bustling lumber mill town.
The pathways, the hills, the empty lots, the orientation of the town, all ground us in the present while at the same time transport the visitor and resident alike to an earlier time when towns were walk-able and human in scale. The views both near and far are composed of vernacular, yet sophisticated buildings, water tanks, cemeteries, dirt paths, overgrown vegetation, and colorful gardens all set amidst the rocks, cliffs, ocean, and the mouth of the river. Whether familiar with the town, or a new visitor, the historic landscape will reward those who take the time to appreciate this rich and diverse landscape.
Other Unique Features
Mendocino’s Unique Water Towers
For more than a century, Mendocino water towers and accompanying windmills have captured the attention of visitors and writers alike. In 1892, one reporter observed during her stay, “an individuality about the water works of this town not found in any other place.”
Early settlers were blessed with plentiful water supplies from nearby creeks and rivers, which facilitated the luxury of piped water into the house. All one needed was a windmill tall enough to catch coastal breezes to power the pumps, and a tank positioned high enough to provide adequate water pressure.
Today, most of the windmills have disappeared, but dozens of towers are left standing, ranging from completely restored to a few precariously leaning. Others have been converted into service for such purposes as an artist studio, rental unit or gift shop. You can learn more about the preservation of these unique structures by visiting the Kelley House Museum.
Dive Into Frolic Mystery
Shipwrecks have fascinated explorers and historians throughout time, and resting just off the Mendocino Coast is one of California’s most important Gold Rush-Era discoveries.
In 1850, the Frolic and its $150,000 cargo set sail to the rugged and unknown California coast. Laden with Chinese pottery and household products and bound for San Francisco, it met its fate on Point Cabrillo’s rocky reefs. The following Spring, Jerome Ford’s salvage crew discovered the ship’s cargo and timber beyond recovery due to harsh winter storms. However, Ford was a savvy lumberman who glimpsed a far greater treasure – vast reserves of redwood needed to support the roaring Gold Rush economy. News traveled quickly, and soon California’s North Coast quickly gave way to European settlement – all spawned from a single shipwreck.
Over the last 150 years, divers have explored the Frolic’s remains and recovered most of the treasure. In 2003, a small grant to Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers sponsored a ten-day underwater survey and cataloguing of artifacts by a team of maritime archaeologists and local divers. Also included in the dive team was a film crew from KPI and the History Channel, who recorded the entire event for a one-hour Frolic broadcast this November for its new series, “Deep Sea Detective.” Participants in this grant were members of State Parks and Recreation, an army of volunteers, and Dr. Tom Layton, the San Jose State professor whose books made the Frolic the most researched West Coast shipwreck. More history of the Frolic, as well as a daily dive journal, can be found on the Pt. Cabrillo Light Station Web site.