Westport, Mendocino Coast

Westport, Mendocino Coast

by | Jan 23, 2022

Westport is a historical timber export community on the Mendocino coast, where lumber schooners were loaded using long chutes built across nearshore rocks, about 83 miles (134 km) south-southeast of Eureka and 13 miles (21 km) north of Fort Bragg, California. The community was named in 1877 by James T. Rodgers to contrast with his hometown of Eastport, Maine. The northern coast of California has been shaped by tectonic forces that cause plates of the earth’s crust to collide, resulting in uplifting of the land, severe earthquakes, and major geological instability. The best known geologic feature in northern California is the San Andreas Fault which extends north along the coast from San Francisco and ends at the junction of the North American Plate, Pacific Plate, and the Gorda Plate near Cape Mendocino. Two to three million years ago this ‘Triple Junction’ was closer to Fort Bragg where it caused east-west compression that resulted in the formation of the Coast Range. But it has been moving steadily north and now is compressing the crust from north to south resulting in the formation of ridges and valleys that trend in an east-west direction. The rocks of the Coast Range, called the Coastal Belt, are a mixture of interbedded sandstone, siltstone, shale, and conglomerate of the Franciscan Complex, a mélange exposed from Cape Mendocino in the north to San Francisco Bay in the south. Sea level changes during the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs resulted from the capture and release of large volumes of water during the respective growth and melting of glaciers. Sea level was at a minimum about 15,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum and then started rising in the Holocene until about 6,000 years ago in response to large-scale melting. The earliest evidence of human habitation on the Mendocino coast dates to about 11,000 years ago when sea level was roughly 246 feet (75 m) lower and about 3 miles (5 km) farther west than today. Holocene sea-level rise eroded or submerged most evidence of human occupancy before 8,000-7,000 years ago on the coast and the lower reaches of river valleys.

The Coast Yuki people lived along 50 miles (80 km) of the Mendocino coast between the Noyo River to the south and Cape Mendocino to the north. The name by which these people called themselves was Ukoht-ontilka, meaning ‘ocean people’ or ‘people living beside the big water’. The Coast Yuki shared a name and a similar language with the Yuki who lived inland, but the two groups were not friendly with each other. The Coast Yuki traded with the Cahto, Sinkyone, Pomo, and Huchnom tribes. During the summer the Coast Yuki established seasonal camps at river mouths, and in the winter they moved inland to permanent village sites where the land was covered with redwood forests. The largest stream that ran through their territory was the present-day Ten Mile River near Fort Bragg. There were eleven Coast Yuki groups and each group lived in several small villages with a headman who was chosen by the people. Each group occupied land that included a strip of the coastal ocean and extended eastward into the forest. The Coast Yuki had access to seafood and depended less on deer and elk than groups living farther inland. Salmon was a mainstay of their diet and were caught with spears as they swam upstream or in scoop nets. The Coast Yuki did not have canoes but hunted sea lions and seals from the shore. In 1849, the California Gold Rush introduced thousands of hopeful immigrants to northern California. Prospecting in the coastal hills led to the discovery of the immense redwood forests and the beginning of the timber trade. In 1852, Henry Meiggs built a sawmill near Mendocino, and soon the coast had hundreds of sawmills that would drive the local economy for decades. In 1856, the U.S. government established a reservation which later became Round Valley Indian Reservation and forced thousands of Yuki and other local tribes onto these lands, often without sufficient support for the transition. These events and tensions led to the Mendocino War in 1859 where militias of white settlers killed hundreds of Yuki and took others by force to the reservation.

The brothers Samuel and Lloyd Beall are credited with being the first white settlers here in about 1860. The site was called Beall’s Landing and was reputedly chosen because coastal schooners could get in close to shore on the otherwise reef-infested coastline and land small boats on a beach that was relatively free of obstacles. The Beall brothers were soon followed by Alfred Neyes, and within a year or two by E.J. Whipple and M.C. Dougherty. Dougherty built the first loading chute which was used for shipping potatoes. In 1877, James L. Rogers built a wharf and a lumber chute that was capable of handling 150,000 board feet (45,720 m) a day from the small sawmills in the vicinity including Wages Creek, De Haven, and Howard Creek. These loading chutes were engineered steel and cable contraptions that spanned the shoreline and several rock islets to access deep water and enabled the loading of lumber, supplies, and people on and off ships anchored or tethered among the reefs. Lumber schooners were the only connectors between these small coastal mills and the major cities. They brought all the supplies needed to sustain the industry and returned with lumber, farm produce, and even livestock. The Mendocino coast is dominated by cliffs and bluffs and this topography made it difficult to handle cargo. Many sites utilized chutes and wire trapeze rigging to load the small coastal schooners with cargo. Most of these ports were so small they were called dog-hole ports since they were barely big enough to allow a dog to turn around. Dozens of these were built, and almost any small cove or river outlet was a prime candidate for a loading chute. Westport soon had a railroad and two busy piers and grew rapidly, annually shipping thousands of cords of tanoak bark, thousands of split ties, and millions of feet of lumber. Trees felled from the forests of Mendocino County largely built San Francisco from the 1870s to the 1900s, and Westport was a key part of that process. Westport became the largest town between San Francisco and Eureka with over 1,000 residents, 12 saloons, and several hotels. The early loggers probably had no idea that each tree was hundreds of years old, and since the forests seemed endless, everyone thought that logging would last forever. Read more here and here. Explore more of Westport and the Mendocino coast here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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