Eureka! (I have found it!)

History, nature entwine along California’s Humboldt Coast

Published Apr 20, 2008 at 05:00AM

By John Gottberg Anderson • For The Bulletin

EUREKA, Calif. —

There was no gold to be mined — no substantial amount of it, anyway — when Northern California’s isolated Humboldt Coast was settled in 1850. That didn’t stop Eureka from adopting the young state’s motto (Greek for “I have found it!”) as its name. The exclamation was reportedly uttered just two years earlier with the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills.

The Humboldt country’s gold was in the forests and the seas. Giant redwood trees, as many as 2,000 years old, hugged the coastline and the lower reaches of the California coastal range. The demand for their fine wood was such that loggers earned lucrative livings sawing down the old-growth timber and shipping it south to San Francisco. And the Pacific fishery produced a seemingly endless supply of salmon, crab and other marine denizens.

Today, most of the remaining old-growth redwood forests have been protected in national and state parks. Roads and railroads have greatly reduced dependence upon shipping. And the fishing industry is struggling, especially this year with the commercial salmon industry shut down.

But when I visited last week, I found that Eureka, its sister community of Arcata, and other Humboldt towns persist and thrive. The region has combined careful preservation of historic architecture and natural treasures with a bustling university, myriad outdoor recreational opportunities and sustainability-driven farms to make it an unlikely tourist center, several hours’ drive from other areas of peak visitor interest.

A bustling Old Town

With about 28,000 people, Eureka is barely one-third the size of Bend, yet it has a more substantial downtown. The Old Town waterfront district alone, once a rowdy neighborhood of loggers’ and sailors’ bars, covers some 15 square blocks. Indeed, “Two Street” was so notorious that Oakland-based author Jack London visited Eureka specifically to study the characters who frequented its bars and bordellos.

A merchant-led renovation, beginning in the 1970s and continuing today, has resulted in the preservation of 28 separate buildings erected between 1859 and 1912. They are now galleries and antique shops, boutiques and salons, restaurants and coffee houses.

Beginning at the end of F Street, the four-block-long Eureka Boardwalk, which opened in 2001, adds a quiet corridor for a harborside stroll, with a view across a narrow channel to the Woodley Island Marina. From May through October (I was in town too early in the season), the M.V. Madaket offers narrated, one-hour harbor tours along the Eureka waterfront; owned by the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum, the Madaket was built as a ferry in 1910 and continues to operate as a 49-person vessel.

Just outside Old Town, on M Street between First and Second, is the Carson Mansion, the city’s trademark address. Built in 1885 by lumber baron William Carson to employ 100 of his skilled mill workers during a slowdown in the timber business, the spectacular turreted estate is the quintessential Victorian manse. The exuberant design, by San Francisco architects Samuel and Joseph Newsom, combines a variety of styles of the era.

U.S. Highway 101 extends through the heart of town along Fourth Street (southbound) and Fifth Street (northbound). The city’s newest pride and joy occupies a spot on G Street between the two arterials. Much like Bend’s Tower Theatre, the 1920 Sweasey Theatre underwent a variety of transformations (including 22 years as a department store) before it was renovated by local philanthropists. It reopened in January 2007 as the 770-seat Arkley Center for the Performing Arts and now hosts a variety of local and touring productions. A new mural on its back wall by local artist Duane Flatmo has added a stunning accent.

Art and history

Nearby are some intriguing museums. The Morris Graves Museum of Art was established by the Humboldt Arts Council in part from a donation of 100 works by renowned Northwest artist Morris Graves (1910-2001), a Humboldt resident from 1964 until his death. Lodged in the 1904 Carnegie Library building, the museum has seven galleries on three floors.

The Clarke Historical Museum, in the 1912 Bank of Eureka building, might be just another local historical museum were it not for a world-class collection of California Indian basketry. An entire gallery is devoted to the work by Wiyot, Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa and other tribes of the region; in addition to basket weaving, it includes stone implements and ceremonial costumes, including intricate shell work.

Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George Crook, namesake of Central Oregon’s Crook County, were among the young officers who served in Eureka at Fort Humboldt in the 1850s. There’s no longer much to see at the fort, now a California state historic park. Established in 1853, it was abandoned in 1870, and all that remains are a couple of wood-frame buildings, one of them housing a small museum. Of more interest are displays on 19th-century logging, including hand tools and antique locomotives. And there’s a nice bluff-top meadow, ideal for a picnic lunch.

I would rather take my picnic to Sequoia Park, however. Embracing a 50-acre grove of California redwoods on the southeast side of Eureka, it has several walking trails through a lush second-growth forest with ferns and blossoming trilliums. In one corner of the park is the Sequoia Park Zoo, a community zoo with a barnyard-animal petting area that children love.

The Highway 255 bridge links downtown Eureka with Woodley Island, site of the municipal marina, and the Samoa Peninsula, which frames Humboldt Bay, to its north. Of note at the marina is an oversized bronze sculpture of a fisherman standing in the prow of his boat, pulling in his net: It’s a memorial to those lost at sea.

Samoa was one of the busiest timber towns in the region during the heyday of the Humboldt timber industry. The Samoa Cookhouse opened in 1890 to serve huge boarding house-style meals to the loggers, and it’s been doing so, day in, day out, ever since. On a previous visit to Eureka last year, I indulged in one of these all-you-can-eat extravaganzas (the only choices: beef or chicken), and I did not leave hungry. Adjoining the restaurant is a small museum with a wonderful collection of late-19th-century photographs, as well as early cookhouse artifacts.

North to Arcata

Six miles north of Eureka is Arcata, best known as the home of Humboldt State University. The northernmost outpost of the California State University system, Humboldt has a student body of about 7,700 and a curriculum highly rated for its botany and marine science programs. The university is also known as an oasis for the counterculture: Bare feet and dreadlocks are common sights around campus, and there are plenty of nearby stores specializing in hemp clothing, handmade pottery and vegetarian cuisine.

A town of 18,000, Arcata’s downtown is focused around a central plaza. My visit coincided with the first farmers market of the 2008 spring-and-summer season, and at midday Saturday, the square block of greenery was packed not with merchants selling fruits and vegetables, as I had expected, but with nurseries offering plants and cuttings for local gardens. There was no shortage of buyers.

“One of the strengths of our isolation from the rest of California is that it requires our community to do things pretty much on their own,” said Richard Stenger, the director of marketing for the Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It makes good economic sense for us to grow our own vegetables, produce our own milk and so forth. That’s a big part of living here.”

Another attraction of Arcata is the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. A series of trails lead away from an interpretive center just a few blocks south of the town plaza, on the edge of Humboldt Bay, winding around miles of swampy shoreline. Even on a short walk, I glimpsed godwits, sandpipers, scaup and other waterfowl.

Twenty minutes’ drive north from Arcata is Trinidad, a delightful little seaside village spread along a hilltop overlooking Trinidad Bay. Humboldt State has its small marine laboratory here and keeps it open for public visits. There’s a nice, small beach at the foot of the hill as well as a couple of excellent seafood restaurants.

Victorian Ferndale

Apart from Arcata, Eureka’s best-known neighbor is Ferndale, about 12 miles south via U.S. Highway 101 and five miles west on a county road. Founded in the bottomlands of the Eel River Valley as a dairy-farming community in the late 19th century, Ferndale has a main street that is lined for five blocks with colorful two- and three-story Victorian structures. Today, many contain restaurants, galleries, theaters and intriguing stores like The Blacksmith Shop, which produces all of its own wrought-iron and metalwork.

If you’re intrigued by the quirky, pay a visit to the tiny Kinetic Sculpture Museum, at the rear of a community art and antique gallery. For three days every Memorial Day weekend, artists and mechanical engineers roll out their all-terrain amphibious craft and race them 41 miles from Arcata via Eureka to Ferndale. Many of the past winners are displayed in this little museum. It’s hard to believe some of them could go 41 yards, let alone 41 miles.

Probably the most prominent building in Ferndale is The Victorian Inn, a flamboyant 1890 Italianate hotel with 12 rooms and a popular restaurant. It’s one of numerous bed-and-breakfast inns not only in Ferndale but throughout the greater Humboldt area.

I set my bags beneath a turret in Old Town Eureka’s Eagle House Inn. Just down the street from there is the Carter House Inn, an elegant B&B with a fine-dining restaurant. And those were just a couple of options.

My favorite meal in the Humboldt region was at Avalon, another Old Town establishment, where I enjoyed a delicious entree of petrale sole Provencale. At casual Folie Douce in Arcata, the Roquefort rib-eye was similarly excellent.

But I found no shortage of fine-dining opportunities in this corner of California. In spite of its moderate size and relative isolation, the Eureka area is a worthy place to visit.

Visiting Eureka, Calif.

IN TWO WEEKS: SUTTLE LAKE Lodge

• Gas, 855 miles @ $3.60/gallon $123.12

• Lunch, en route $4.70

• Dinner, Waterfront Cafe $25

• Lodging (3 nights), Eagle House Inn $343.35

• Breakfast, Los Bagels $7.50

• Admission, Clarke Historical Museum $2

• Lunch, F Street Café $17.84

• Admission, Morris Graves Museum of Art $4

• Dinner, Avalon $51.87

• Breakfast, Ramone’s Bakery $7.44

• Lunch, Café Brio $16.38

• Dinner, Folie Douce $43.97

• Breakfast, Old Town Coffee $6

• Lunch, en route $6.32

TOTAL $659.49

Prices include 9% lodging tax and 7.25% restaurant tax.

• Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1034 Second St., Eureka; 707-444-6634, 800-346-3482, www.redwoods.info

• Carter House Inns, 301 L St., Eureka; 707-444-8062, 800-404-1390, www.carterhouse.com. Rates from $190.

• Eagle House Inn, 139 Second St., Eureka; 707-444-3344, www.eaglehouseinn.com. Rates from $105.

• Red Lion Hotel Eureka, 1929 Fourth St., Eureka; 707-445-0844, 800-red-lion, www.redlion.com. Rates from $101.

• The Victorian Inn, 400 Ocean Ave., Ferndale; 707-786-4949, 888-589-1808, www.a-victorian -inn.com. Rates from $105.

• Avalon, 603 Third St., Eureka; 707-445-0500

• Café Brio, 791 G St., Arcata; 707-822-5922

• Café Waterfront, 102 F St., Eureka; 707-443-9190.

• F Street Café, 1630 F St., Eureka; 707-268-8959

• Folie Douce, 1551 G St., Arcata; 707-822-1042

• Los Bagels, 403 Second St., Eureka; 707-442-8525

• Old Town Coffee & Chocolates, 211 F St., Eureka; 707-445-8600

• Ramone’s Bakery and Café, 209 E St., Eureka, and other area locations; 707-445-2923

• Samoa Cookhouse, Cookhouse Road, Samoa; 707-442-1659

• Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, 569 S. G St., Arcata; 707-826-2359.

• Arkley Center for the Performing Arts, 412 G St., Eureka; 707-442-1956, www.arkleycenter.com

• Clarke Historical Museum, 240 E St., Eureka; 707-443-1947, www.clarkemuseum.org

• Fort Humboldt State Historic Park, 3141 Fort St., Eureka; 707-445-4567, www.parks.ca.gov

• Humboldt State University, 1 Harpst St., Arcata; 707-826-3011, www.humboldt.edu

• Kinetic Sculpture Museum, 580 Main St., Ferndale; 707-499-0643, www.kinetickingdom.com

• Morris Graves Museum of Art, 638 F St., Eureka; 707-442-0278, www.humboldtarts.org

• Sequoia Park and Zoo, 3414 W St., Eureka; 707-442-6552.