Albion River, Mendocino Coast

Albion River, Mendocino Coast

by | Aug 3, 2022

Albion River starts at an elevation of about 1,050 feet (320 m) in the California Coast Ranges and flows generally west-southwest for 18 miles (29 km) draining a watershed of about 27,520 acres (11,140 ha) and enters the Pacific Ocean at Albion Cove, about 22 miles (35 km) north of Point Arena and 6 miles (10 km) south-southeast of Mendocino, California. The river forms an elongated estuary that is tidal for 5 miles (8 km). The northern California coast was given the name New Albion by Francis Drake who navigated along the coast on the Golden Hind in 1579. Albion is an ancient name for Britain and is derived from the Latin word ‘albus‘ meaning white or bright and probably refers to the White Cliffs of Dover, England. The name was applied to the river in 1844 by William A. Richardson. Albion Cove is enclosed by Albion Head to the north and an unnamed headland to the south that represent the lowest of a series of uplifted marine terraces. The marine terraces are composed of sand and gravel that are partly cemented with clay minerals and are commonly stained by iron oxide. The lowest prominent terrace is about 100 feet (30 m) high and is about 100,000 years old. The terraces are underlain by bedrock of the Franciscan Complex, a Mesozoic terrane of heterogeneous rocks found throughout the California Coast Ranges. The bedrock is mostly greywacke sandstones, shales, and conglomerates which have experienced varying degrees of low-grade metamorphism. In the northern Coast Ranges, the Franciscan Complex is divided into the Eastern, Central, and Coastal Belts based on the degree of metamorphism with the Coastal Belt being the youngest and lowest grade. The Coastal Belt is deeply incised by river channels and mantled by 3 to 33 feet (1-10 m) of colluvium eroded from Franciscan Complex bedrock.

The Mendocino coast was prehistorically inhabited by the Pomo people who were not socially or politically linked as a unified group but lived in small bands linked by lineage and marriage. Their territory included the vast forests of dense coastal redwoods that occupied a belt parallel to the coast varying in width from 5 to 20 miles (8-30 km). Although high in biomass this belt was relatively low in productivity and biodiversity and no single food resource was abundantly present. Therefore, relatively few Pomo communities could survive on the coast because of the relative scarcity of food. Small groups established short-term coastal camps to hunt sea mammals and terrestrial game and to gather shellfish and plant foods in the intertidal zone and nearby coastal prairie and riparian woodland habitats. One seasonal camp was located at Albion Head where, according to the archaeological record, family groups foraged for shellfish, seaweed, and fish during the late spring and summer, and for berries, acorns, and quail from interior hills in the late summer and early fall. During the winter the family groups would aggregate in villages set back from the coast and subsist on stored goods and from where people could hunt deer and catch silver salmon and steelhead trout in nearby streams. The Pomo culture changed significantly with the arrival of Russian fur traders at Fort Ross in 1812. They interacted and traded with the Russians and many Pomo were enslaved and forced into labor. In 1837, a deadly epidemic of smallpox originating from Fort Ross caused numerous deaths. In 1844, a land grant of 152,000 acres called Rancho Albion surrounding the mouth of the Albion River was given by Juan B. Alvarado to William A. Richardson, who also owned Rancho Sauselito in San Francisco Bay, as compensation for his service to the Mexican government of Alta California.

Richardson built a sawmill near the mouth of the river in 1853. The mill was converted to steam power in 1856 and burned down in 1867. The mill was rebuilt and the Albion River Railroad was constructed in 1885 to bring logs downstream to the sawmill. The rough lumber was shipped to San Francisco where the Albion Lumber Company had a planing mill and lumber drying facilities. By 1895, a company town and wharf were located near the mouth of the river. The last log went through the Albion sawmill in 1928, the railroad ceased operation in 1930 and was dismantled for scrap in 1937. Today, logging of the watershed continues and is the cause of river sedimentation. Over half of the land in the watershed is owned by Mendocino Redwood Company, and most of the land is third and fourth-growth forest. The river has no dams or reservoirs and provides recreation, groundwater recharge, and industrial water supply for the community of Albion, as well as wildlife habitat including cold freshwater for fish migration and spawning. The community of Albion lies directly on California State Route 1 which crosses the river on the only remaining wooden bridge on the coastal route. The Albion River has been crossed by a bridge since 1861, however, until the present bridge was built in 1944, the crossing was low, and could be reached only by treacherous grades up and down the bluffs on either side of the river. The current bridge was built of salvaged wood because of World War II shortages of concrete and steel. It includes a steel center truss that was also salvaged, possibly from an older bridge in Oregon, supported by concrete towers. It is 970 feet (300 m) long and its deck is 26 feet (7.9 m) wide. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in July 2017. Read more here and here. Explore more of Albion 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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