The Backyard Traveler: Marvelous Mendocino

With its perfect, high false facades, Victorian bay windows and picturesque gables and steeples, all dramatically overlooking the ocean, it's no wonder that Mendocino sometimes seems like it was created as a movie set.

Indeed, it should be no surprise that this tiny northern California hamlet of some 1,000 residents has appeared in a number of TV series and films, including "Murder She Wrote" (where the town was used as a New England community).

The town of Mendocino, California is located about an hour and a half north of San Francisco via scenic Highway 1.

Mendocino has had a number of incarnations over the years. Originally settled in 1851 by a German immigrant named Kasten, it was first called Big River because it is situated at the mouth of Big River, located on the north side of the nearby small bay.

The following year, a ship filled with valuable cargo from China, grounded itself on a reef about four miles north of modern Mendocino. No lives were lost, but a rescue party from nearby Bodega, which had come to salvage the cargo, took note of the area's thick redwood forests.

Word of the region's commercial potential spread and within a short time others came to the area to develop a sawmill and lumber operations. Another ship, the "Ontario," sailed from San Francisco with men and materials to build the mill and start a community.

Because the ship arrived in the summer, when the Mendocino Bay waters are calm, the mill was built atop one of the headland cliffs. A series of flumes was constructed to transport the logs to the mill, then down the cliffs to the ships below.

An attempt was made to close a nearby "blow hole" (a hole in the cliffs that opens to the ocean) by sinking the Ontario within the passage, but that failed.

After the mill was completed, at great cost, the builders discovered the truth about Mendocino's fierce headlands. Storms quickly destroyed the complex flume system and the mill was moved to another site on the flatlands to the south.

Mendocino's earliest residents were lumber workers from Maine. As a result, most of the buildings in the community reflect a "Cape Cod" architecture -- which is why it can pass for a New England village.

Over the next few decades, Mendocino slowly grew, adding churches (the Presbyterian Church, still standing, was built in the early 1860s, while the Catholic Church was constructed in 1865), hotels, businesses and a school. By 1870, several hundred people resided in Mendocino.

As with many lumber towns, eventually the surrounding forests were logged out and the mill closed. By the 1950s, Mendocino had become a picturesque but sleepy coastal community with a declining population.

But as the town was fading, it was "discovered" by a group of San Francisco area artists, who were attracted by the rustic natural setting and the quaint 19th century buildings. Mendocino began its next phase, as an art colony.

In 1959, the Mendocino Art Center opened and ushered in a new era. Within a few years, the decaying homes were being restored, old store fronts were being spruced up and barns were being converted into studios.

Today, Mendocino remains one of northern California's most beautiful communities. Despite the fact that the town has probably become overcommercialized -- and few true starving artists can afford to live there anymore -- it still retains a certain charm, particularly if you visit in winter or late fall, when the tourists aren't around.

A stroll through the town offers a chance to soak in the unique ambiance. There really is a New England feel to the place with the Cape Cod-style homes and the stiff wind flowing in from the headlands.

In addition to dozens of small shops offering everything from trendy clothing to books to music to fine arts and crafts, the Mendocino Art Center continues to offer art classes and exhibits of the works of member artists.

Perhaps the most impressive building is the historic Mendocino Hotel, which is still in operation. Another good place to visit is the Kelley House, an historic mansion built by 1861 that serves as the regional historic society museum.

The nearby cliffs, so breathtakingly beautiful, are part of the Mendocino Headlands State Park. The park includes a three-mile hiking trail, a small beach (you can walk down wooden stairs to reach it) and incredible sea-carved sandstone stacks (stand alone sections of the cliffs eroded by the elements), tunnels and, of course, spectacular views.

For more information, contact the Ford House Interpretive Center, Mendocino State parks, P.O. Box 440, Mendocino, CA 95460, (707) 937-5804 or 937-5397.

Richard Moreno is the author of "The Backyard Traveler," "The Backyard Traveler Returns," and "The Roadside History of Nevada" which are available at local bookstores.


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