A Brief History of Arcata
by Susie Van Kirk
Any effort to record the history of Arcata must begin with a respectful acknowledgment
that this community sits smack-dab in Wiyot territory. That indigenous society
predates the one brought by Euro-Americans by eons. In fact, those who celebrate
Arcata’s 150th should recognize just how recent her history is when compared to a
history that stretches back to “time immemorial.”
The business of gold, not its mining, but the transportation and merchandising of the
freight needed to support that mining was the impetus for Arcata’s settlement.
California’s first railroad extended from the southwest corner of the Plaza to a wharf that
angled into the Bay. Never mind that the locomotive was Spanking Fury (a horse) drawing
a car across the marsh on wood tracks, the Union Plank Walk, Rail Track and Wharf
Company completed this first “railroad” in 1855, a mere five years after settlement.
Euro-American new-comers laid out the Plaza in the spring of 1850 and christened
their little community, “Union,” a name that prevailed for a decade before the present
name came to be. Incorporated as Union first in 1856 and then again in 1858, the official
name change occurred in 1860, when the Yurok word for Big Lagoon, Oketo, was
adopted and adapted to the town’s new name—Arcata.
Sea captains, a single horse, local merchants, and mule packers conspired to move
goods through the community to the mining districts on the Klamath, Trinity, and
Salmon rivers and whatever gold was needed to pay for these supplies flowed back
down the rivers. Big pay dirt strikes were rare, if ever, so once the initial frenzy was
over, locals turned their eyes to the “gold” standing at the back door—the renowned,
magnificent Redwood. Taller and bigger than anything they ever imagined, this
amazing tree became the foundation of Humboldt Bay’s economic and political life
for more than a century.
Arcata’s first mill appeared in the 1850s, followed by the Dolly Varden in 1872 and the
Jolly Giant in 1875. The virgin forest behind Arcata was logged in the 1870s, the huge
trees transported down Campbell Creek on skids still visible in the creek bed. Railroads,
made first of laurel-pole tracks, moved the logs from the woods and lumber
from the mills to tidewater. The little gypsy engines and the Dolbeer donkey and bull
made their appearance in the 1880s, but even well into the 20th century, the work of
felling trees and moving logs depended on thousands of toiling workers.
Arcata’s bottom land attracted the immediate attention of those looking for farms.
Sparsely vegetated with only scattered Sitka spruce and the Mad River’s riparian forest,
the Bottom was relatively clear for farming. Although now a landscape of livestock
and bulbs, that first agriculture was cultivated crops—oats, barley, wheat, hay, dry peas,
and potatoes. Beginning in the late 1880s, farmers concluded that a daily yield was
better than a yearly yield and they turned their farms into dairies. The Arcata Creamery
was built in 1892, the second two years later, and several more followed in short succession,
including the Diamond Crystal Creamery.
Schools, churches, fraternal organizations, literary clubs, social events, and celebrations
were all part of Arcata’s settlement and growth. The Plaza was the commercial and
celebratory center of the community. William McKinley, the town’s best known character,
arrived in 1906 after surviving the inferno that enveloped San Francisco after the
earthquake. In 1913, Arcata out-competed Eureka to win the Humboldt Normal
School. In 1914, with the coming of the railroad connecting Arcata with the outside
world, Hotel Arcata was built on the Plaza’s northwest corner. The Redwood Highway
followed in the 1920s, completing an automobile corridor from San Francisco to the
World War I and the flu epidemic were hard times for Arcata as she sent her young
men off to war and watched those at home die from the dread disease. But nothing
compared to World War II, when every family sent sons (some families sent four sons)
and daughters to war. The community, in fact, all of Humboldt County gave more
than its share to the battlefields of the South Pacific and Europe.
Following the War, construction throughout the country initiated a local logging and
lumbering boom of such intensity that Arcata dubbed itself the Lumber Capital of the
West, while subdivisions were built to accommodate hundreds of 20th century
settlers—come to participate in the new bonanza.
The rest is modern history: the advent of the environmental movement; the shift from
a lumber-dominated society to one based on education, government and services;
and the rise of innovative, cottage industries. What better way to celebrate Arcata’s
150th than to view some of the photographic record of her history—logging, farming,
business, celebrations, industry, shipping, and expansion.