In the beginning…
(a history of the Arcata Plaza)
At the time of white settlement, the Humboldt Bay region was the home of the Wiyot, an Algonquian-speaking people, whose life and culture fit into a world shaped by ocean, bay, rivers and redwoods. A rich and diverse environment provided an abundance of game, fish, marine animals, shellfish, and plants; the Wiyot people lived comfortably in tune with this world along the lower Mad River and Eel Rivers and the streams, shores and islands of Humboldt Bay. White settlement brought disease, murder and displacement to the native peoples, their numbers dropping precipitously by the turn-of-the-century.
Located by a party of Trinity County miners in December 1849, Humboldt Bay was inundated with ships and land-claiming companies the following spring in the rush to settle a new supply center and point of entry for the interior gold-mining regions on the Klamath, Trinity and Salmon Rivers. Union, as Arcata was known for the first ten years of its life, was among the first settlements on the Bay. Members of the Union Company laid out the Plaza and surrounding blocks in the spring of 1850, each man filling a pre-emption claim on a quarter section of land, 160 acres, and describing it without benefit of legal surveys as that land bounded by a line running from a redwood tree, to the edge of the sloug, to a stake in the ground, and back to somebody’s northeast corner! Needless to say, this identification left something to be desired, but once done, the real “horse-trading” began as land and money were freely exchanged.
Tents, crude shelters, and even pre-fab houses(some settlers thought there might not be anything to build a house with on Humboldt Bay!) were hastily erected on the Plaza. By 1855, a deep-water wharf was constructed and the first railroad in California, running across the marsh, connected it with the depot on the block at the southwest corner of the Plaza. The tracks were made of wood and the motive power was a single horse, but this early railroad was the transportation lifeline for the community. Supplies for establishing a new town and those supplies needed to keep the interior mining camps going were brought by ship from San Francisco, transported to the Plaza by rail, and offered for sale in Plaza merchandising establishments. Mule corrals ringed the Plaza since all the supplies for the interior regions were transported by pack mules across the rugged coastal mountains and up the river valleys.
Although the initial reason for settlement was gold, that illusory source of wealth was soon replaced by a far more valuable resource. Virgin redwood forests covered the alluvial flats and coastal ridges, where abundant winter rainfall and cool, foggy summers created an ideal environment for trees that grew to unheard of heights (Redwood National Park is the site of the world’s tallest living thing–a coastal redwood tree). Eastern forests with which the newly-arrived loggers had experience could not compare with the giant redwoods whose size demanded an entirely new technology of tools and skills for cutting, moving and milling.
Sawmills, logging railroads, oxens, camps, cookhouses and hundreds of specialized woods and mill workers–many from the maritime provinces of eastern Canada–became an established part of the social and economic life of the northcoast. Arcata had two mills of note. Located north of town, the Dolly Varden and Jolly Giants mills, both built in the 1870’s, milled the timber cut off the hills east of town–lands now occupied by Humboldt State University and Arcata’s Community Forest.
The Plaza’s central green space recalls the New England common or the squares of the southern United States, where people pastured livestock in early years and in later times, gathered for social events, picnics, parades or simply conversation and a little sun on a summer day. Former Arcata resident Charles Murdock wrote the Arcata Union in 1895:
The Plaza should be a thing of beauty and a center of life and interest. No building should rest upon it, but green sword, and well kept walks, a fountain, shrubs, and trees should be so attractive that it would be the pride of every citizen.
After a slow start, the Plaza Improvement Committee finally got off the ground and began developing ideas for beautifying the Plaza. The center bandstand was completed in the spring of 1901, the cows and “Charles Richards’ goat” were ordered off and the old fence came down. In 1903, Louis Shorlig planted three dozen roses, twelve dozen boxwood plants were set out on the lawn around the outer walk, the first palm trees were planted and the much-enjoyed benches made their appearance. More palms were set out, the boxwoods torn out and the bandstand was removed in 1906 as the Plaza prepared for the arrival of Arcata’s best-known work of art, William McKinley, a statue commissioned by Arcata resident George Zehnder in remembrance of the slain president. Haig Patigian, a sculptor working in San Francisco, received the commission. A May 1st celebration by the Masons and the unveiling of McKinley were canceled when the news of San Francisco’s devastation in the 1906 earthquake reached Arcata.
Located in a burning San Francisco foundry, the McKinley statue was moved to the street by workmen and survived to take its place on the Plaza in May 1906.
For 113 years, Mr. McKinley was been the center of Plaza activity, sometimes with flowers in his outstretched hand–once even, a bunch of bright yellow bananas–or his brow encircled with an occasional colorful handkerchief, and for many Christmas celebrations, he acted as Arcata’s “Christmas Saint”, playing Santa Claus, the Angel, or a sheperd leading his flock. The statue was removed in 2019. For more information on the McKinley statue, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_McKinley_statue_(Patigian)
The radiating sidewalks, suggested by Murdock in 1895, were completed in 1910 and the WCTU drinking fountain, an effort of Arcata stonemason James Davidson, was erected in 1912.
From the earliest days of settlement, the Plaza has been the center of Arcata’s commercial life, reflecting in its green space and old buildings a small-community atmosphere, shaped by a unique historical and architectural heritage. With the exception of the Jacoby Building, which includes a little storehouse of the 1850’s, none of the original architecture remains. Fire and the passage of time have not been kind to the Plaza; however, most of the buildings were built before the turn-of-the-century and except for three buildings of the 1950’s, the remainder were built by 1915, the Hotel Arcata being the last. Modern facades disguise many of the old buildings, some dating to the 1870’s, but restoriation has already been completed for several and the future looks bright for other storefront restorations.