Arcata was called “Union” for its first ten years. It was settled in the spring of 1850 after a group of Trinity River miners, led by explorer/scientist, Dr. Josiah Gregg, located Humboldt Bay by land in December 1849. By the following April, ships from San Francisco loaded with opportunity-seeking men converged on this large, natural harbor and the small one at Trinidad, bringing European civilization to California’s last frontier.
Native inhabitants, people of Alqonquian stock known as the Wiyot, had lived for centuries along the lower Mad River, on the shores, islands, and streams of Humboldt Bay; and along the lower Eel River. Their lifeways were shaped by an exceptional environment of land and waters which generously provided for both their survival and cultural needs. Through displacement, disease, murder and cultural disintegration, white settlement brought almost total annihilation to this people whose population was estimated at one thousand at the time of white contact. Today, only Arcata’s name recalls that heritage.
Settled as a supply center for the interior gold mining districts, Arcata had the State’s first railway when in 1855 a wharf with a wood-track road and horse-drawn car was completed into the Bay. Freight and passengers were transported to the Plaza where general merchandising establishments supplied the miners and residents in this isolated California outpost. Integral to this economy were the mules and packers who moved provisions along mountain trails to the mining camps on the Klamath, Trinity and Salmon Rivers.
Although gold prompted Arcata’s settlement, it was the area’s timber resources which sustained its development. Virgin redwood forests, which covered alluvial flats and coastal ridges in a narrow belt along California’s northcoast, soon fellt the assualt of the woodsman’s axe and saw, as immigrants from other lumbering regions. most notably the eastern United States and the maritime provinces of Canada, were drawn to the region. Logging giant redwoods required new skills and equipment for cutting, moving, and milling, which resulted in a locally-unique economy, labor force and social structure. Arcata’s two early mills–the Jolly Giant and the Dolly Varden–produced lumber from timber harvested off the hillsides east of town. Transported by rail to the wharf, the area’s wealth was exported to California’s metropolitan centers and foriegn ports.
Arcata’s townsite was located by the 33-member Union Company in April 1850 with each man also selecting 160 acres to claim as his own. Subdivision of the claims into blocks and lots initiated a rush of horse-trading as property went from hand-to-hand, but the dust soon settled and the business of building a community got underway. Government was administered through the Town Trustees, schools and churches made their appearance as the women and children arrived, and Humboldt County’s first newspaper, the Humboldt Times, was published here during the mid 1850’s. Things progressed so rapidly that a letter-writer to the Eureka Democratic Standard, June 1, 1878, touted the community’s accomplishments without modesty:
Arcata is alive and improving. Our library is a complete success, having 120 members. We have one of the best cornet bands in the county, splendid string band, good schools and churches, good associations, first class hotels and well-stocked stores, a good post office, telegraph office and express office, fine halls, a large and handsome jail(which is seldom used), one of the neatest and finest barber shops north of San Francisco and south of Trinidad, good town officers and No. 1 doctors and lawyers, a splendid water cure, a fine tannery, a grist and shingle mill, brick yards, splendid streets and sidewalks…
A public water system and fire department came along in 1884, the Arcata Union newspaper in 1886, electricity in 1895, railroad connections with Eureka in 1901 and with San Francisco in 1914. the first automobile in 1903, the William McKinley statue in 1906, Humboldt State Normal School in 1914 and the Redwood Highway in 1925. By 1930 the population of the White City was 1,700 and growing.
Gold, timber, and to a lesser extent agriculture shaped Arcata’s early development, but the twentieth century brought new influences with the establishment of what is now Humboldt State University and the completion of the Redwood Highway. Arcata’s pre-World War II architecture reflects a history of settlement, timber, turn-of-the-century transition, and emergence into the modern world. The community’s house types and styles fall neatly into these historic periods; its architecture from 1850 to 1930 can be categorized as either Settlement, Victorian, Transitional or Craftsman.