History of the Mendocino Coast

About the Area

Blessed with a congenial climate, plentiful natural resources, and outstanding natural beauty, the Mendocino Coast has drawn people to visit and live here for over 150 years. It all started when the clipper ship Frolic sank in 1849 near the present location of the Point Cabrillo Lightstation. Subsequent efforts to salvage the cargo were unsuccessful, but they exposed the great resource: redwood trees. News of the giant redwood trees led to the founding of the first lumber mill on the Mendocino Coast, right out on the Mendocino Headlands. The influx of people led to the founding of Mendocino at the mouth of Big River, as well as a mill and town at the mouth of every river large enough to transport logs.

Redwood lumber from Big River was used to build San Francisco in the time of the first Gold Rush, and then to rebuild it after the Great Earthquake and Fire in 1906.

As mills were built along the coast, towns sprang up to provide the needed services. As more people and money flowed into the region, more goods were delivered from San Francisco by ship. These ships would berth wherever they could, including offshore in Mendocino Bay. These berths required the use of ropes to move passengers and cargo between land and ship. Noyo Harbor is a fine natural harbor, so it became the home of a commercial fishing fleet.

Over the years, the mills closed as the lumber industry declined. This led to an area-wide decline for many years, but the area was reinvigorated in the 1960s. An influx of creative people in the 1960s led to the creation of the Mendocino Art Center, which became the hub of a thriving artist community. This directly led to an influx of innkeepers, and now the Mendocino Coast is home to a thriving tourism industry.

About the Village of Mendocino

Mendocino Bay and Village

What is it about Mendocino that draws people? It’s a combination of factors, best described by MaryAnne Hurley, an Architectural Historian with CA State Parks: “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 history of Mendocino is the history of the Coast: redwood trees. This was the first location in the area where lumber was harvested. It all started in 1849 when the Frolic sank near Point Cabrillo. The attempt to recover the cargo was unsuccessful, but the scout discovered the giant redwood trees. In less than 2 years, the first lumber mill was operating on the Mendocino Headlands—right out where the sinkhole is, south of the west end of Main Street. You can still see traces of the old buildings, as well as massive iron rings set into the rock to anchor lines going out to the ships. This mill was only used for 2 years, and then it was rebuilt on Big River, just east of where Highway One crosses the river. The reason for moving it was simple: the exposed location on the Headlands meant that the winter storms kept tearing off pieces of the mill.

Over time, a billion board-feet of lumber was taken out of the Big River watershed. This lumber was primarily used to build San Francisco as it expanded in the Gold Rush, and then again to rebuild it after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. The mill closed in 1939, and Mendocino became a sleepy place for decades.

In the Sixties, there was an influx of creative and independent people. Bill and Jennie Zacha started the Mendocino Art Center on a shoestring and a prayer, and this gradually became the center of a thriving artist community. The Art Center continued to grow over the years, and it hosts exhibits, demonstrations, and classes for artists. Over the years, the arts became a way of life for many people, and so you can find a lot of galleries in Mendocino and in Fort Bragg. Local arts are exemplified in another way: music and the other performing arts. There are 2 local opera companies, a symphony, a theatre company, and other performers in the musical arts.

As the cultural scene thrived, so did the tourism industry. Now, you can enjoy a full service hotel and fine dining with a Ritz-Carlton trained chef at the Mendocino Hotel, or if you prefer a cozy bed & breakfast inn like the Hill House. Many other services have built up around this tourism trade like massage at the Doll House Spa or wine tasting,  so visitors can expect to easily fill their time with as much or as little as they want to do.