The History of Victorian Ferndale

Settlement

On August 25, 1852, brothers Seth and Stephen Shaw crossed the Eel River by canoe and proceeded up its tributary, the Salt River, and through the small Francis Creek to a level area at the base of the surrounding hills. It appeared a formidable area for farming, with dense thickets of alders, scattered forests of spruce and redwood, and savannahs choked with six-foot ferns.

They located two claims and by winter had cleared several acres of land, built a road from the river, and erected a crude cabin. The cabin sheltered them and several other settlers who went elsewhere in spring. Encouraged by the Shaws' success in clearing the land, more settlers began to arrive.

After several years, Stephen William Shaw sold his claim to Francis Francis and moved to San Francisco, where he became an artist of some note. Seth Louis Shaw remained on his claim and, in 1854, began construction of the first large house in the area. Shaw named his home Fern Dale and, when it became the first post office, the new settlement also adopted the name. This town showplace, a notable example of Carpenter-Gothic architecture, still stands on Main Street, now known as the Shaw House.

Like most of the original settlers, Shaw devoted his land to crops and orchards, but it soon became evident that the cleared land produced a lush, natural pasturage that made it ideally suited for dairying or cattle raising. The first settlers were principally men who had been drawn to California by the excitement of the Gold Rush, most from the northeastern Atlantic States or Nova Scotia. Others followed, many directly from Europe: Danes, Irish, Swiss, Italians, Germans and Portuguese. The 1879 census reported a population including: native born, 1,050; 90 from Denmark; 111 from Switzerland; 72 from Germany; 34 from Nova Scotia (Blue Noses); and 34 from elsewhere in Canada.

Agriculture

The dairy-farming Danes, arriving in the 1870s, brought practices from their homeland. Each small neighborhood of dairymen formed its own cooperative creamery. By 1890 there were eleven separate creameries operating in the immediate Ferndale area. Ferndale butter was considered the finest in the state, bringing premium prices in San Francisco. Ferndale acquired its first nickname, 'Cream City.'

Shortly after 1900 many of the small creameries consolidated into larger creameries. The Central Creamery, located on north Main Street, became the mother plant of the Golden State Creamery, one of the largest in the state. ('Challenge' brand dairy products are from the remaining cooperative creamery, the Humboldt Creamery in Fernbridge.)

Ferndale's pioneer creameries were responsible for a number of innovations in dairy processing and dairy management which helped revolutionize the dairy industry. Among these firsts were:

  • the production of the first sweet cream butter
  • the first butter wrapping and cutting machines
  • the first dry-milk processing on the Pacific Coast
  • the first milk tank truck
  • the first cooperative creameries
  • the first cow testing program in California
  • development of the nationally-known Gray-Jensen dry milk process
  • development of the Peebles dehydration process.

Transportation

Dairying gave Ferndale a stable industry, but it was not the sole reason for the town's growth and prosperity. During the last half of the 19th century, Ferndale became an important transportation center and the largest city in Humboldt County. It had its own port for sea-going vessels on the Salt River and was the terminus for stagecoach lines to the Bear River and Mattole regions to the south, with other daily stages going to Eureka and towns to the north and east.

The first farm produce shipped from Ferndale was hauled by wagon to Centerville Beach, four miles west, and from there transferred to vessels anchored offshore. Through the efforts of a pioneer settler, J.G. Kenyon, docks and warehouses were built at Port Kenyon, two miles northwest on the Salt River. The Eel River had proved navigable as early as 1850 when a schooner had mistakenly crossed the Eel River bar while searching for the entrance to Humboldt Bay. The vessel Whitelaw was commissioned to make regular runs between San Francisco and Ferndale. It was followed by other ships which made Ferndale a regular port of call, carrying mail, passengers and cargo.

For many years, stagecoaches from Ferndale offered the only access to the rich farmlands and dairy country of the Bear River and Mattole areas of the south. These stages often made part of their run along the sands of the beach, coming into Ferndale by way of Centerville, a dangerous route when tides were high. Stages were occasionally overturned and wrecked in the surf.

In 1884 a better road was built inland, largely through the use of Chinese labor. Still known by its historic name, the Wildcat Road leaves the south end of Ferndale to climb into the hills at about the site of the original Shaw cabin. Today it is part of the northernmost section of State Highway No. 1.

The other stage lines which connected Ferndale with Eureka and other towns to the north and east had to cross the Eel River, principally by ferry. Singley's Ferry was most favored with Robinson's and East's ferries located farther inland and upstream. In midsummer, if the river was low, temporary bridges were set up. In 1911 Fernbridge was constructed, connecting Ferndale with the rest of the county. An engineering marvel of its day, it was the world's longest concrete arch span ever built to that date (and one of only two still in use in the world).

Cultural Life

Isolated from the rest of the county, Ferndale developed an active social and cultural life of its own, much of it centered around its churches. Five church buildings, constructed prior to 1900, can be seen today. There were a number of fraternal organizations, local musical, dramatic, and literary societies, and several large public halls used for dances, local entertainments, and the presentations of traveling theatrical companies. (Still standing are the Masonic Hall, Odd Fellows Hall, Danish Hall and Roberts Hall, now called Portuguese Hall.) The town was justly proud of its volunteer fire department, which was adept at responding swiftly and putting out fires, and could be counted upon to appear in full dress uniform for almost every parade or civic function. Incorporated in 1893, Ferndale is the westernmost incorporated city in the continental United States.

Hospitality

A number of fine hotels and well-patronized saloons served the many travelers passing through town. Best known were the International, Ferndale (later called Ivanhoe), Pixley, Gilt-Edge and American. On the outskirts of town visitors found the notorious house of ill-repute, Strawberry Hill.

Like many rural towns of the late 19th century, Ferndale had its own racetrack on the northern edge of town. It was used for spirited local horse racing contests, fairs, and, on several occasions, was host to county agricultural exhibits. In 1897 it became the permanent home of the Humboldt County Fair, the longest uninterrupted county fair in California.

Architecture

The substantial wealth which poured into Ferndale from its position as a dairy and trade center contributed to the building of many ornate store buildings, churches and elegant homes, called 'Butterfat Palaces.' The Victorian Village of Ferndale has been designated as a distinctive destination by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, as one of America's Prettiest Painted Places, it remains a photographer's paradise.

Off the Beaten Path

The gradual silting of the Salt and Eel Rivers, along with the development of Humboldt Bay as the major shipping center brought about the abandonment of Port Kenyon. This, along with the completion of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad between San Rafael and Eureka in 1915, and the later completion of Highway 101 as the main arterial north, marked the end of Ferndale's importance as a transportation center. Today Ferndale is five miles off the beaten path, where it continues to be one of the county's unique, prosperous, and self-sufficient small towns, with dairying as its single largest local industry.

For more on Ferndale's storied history, visit the Ferndale Museum.