Crescent City, California
June 11, 2021
Crescent City is the county seat of, and the only incorporated city in, Del Norte County, California. Named for the crescent-shaped stretch of sandy beach south of the city, the cuty had a total population of 7,643 in the 2010 census, up from 4,006 in the 2000 census. The population includes inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, also within the city limits, and the former census-designated place Crescent City North annexed to the city. The city is also the site of the Redwood National Park headquarters, as well as the historic Battery Point Light. Due to the richness of the local Pacific Ocean waters and the related catch, and ease of access, Crescent City Harbor serves as home port for numerous commercial fishing vessels.
The city is on the Pacific coast in the upper northwestern part of California, about 20 miles south of the Oregon border. Crescent City's offshore geography makes it unusually susceptible to tsunamis. Much of the city was destroyed by four tsunami waves generated by the Good Friday earthquake off Anchorage, Alaska in 1964. More recently, the city's harbor suffered extensive damage and destruction from tsunamis generated by the March 11, 2011 earthquake off Sendai, Japan. Several dozen vessels and many of the docks they were moored to were destroyed as wave cycles related to the tsunamis exceeded 8 feet.
Climate of the Crescent City is moderate, with cool summers for its latitude as a result of intense maritime moderation. Nearby inland areas behind the mountains have significantly warmer summer temperatures.
The area that is now known as Del Norte County was and still is inhabited by the Yurok (Klamath River Indians) and Tolowa Nations of indigenous peoples. The first European American to explore this land was pioneer Jedediah Smith in the early 19th century. He was the first European American to reach the area overland on foot in a time before the European Americans knew anything about such a distant territory. For him it was literally "Land's End" — where the American continent ended at the Pacific Ocean. In 1855 Congress authorized the building of a lighthouse at "the battery point" (a high tide island on the coast of Crescent City) which is still functioning as a historical landmark.
European explorers first visited the area by ship in the late 1820s. Europeans began moving to the area in the 1850s. Crescent City was incorporated as a city in 1854.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 2.415 square miles. Fishing and crabbing, tourism, and timber are the major sources of income in Del Norte County. The Elk Creek flows into the Pacific Ocean at Crescent City. Its nearest Californian place of any size to its interior is Happy Camp separated by roughly 42 miles by air, but, due to the unsuitable terrain, it is much farther by road. The nearest city is fellow coastal city Brookings, around 20 miles to its north. The Humboldt Bay area encompassing Eureka and Arcata is more than 60 miles to its south. Crescent City is as far north in latitude as Chicago, Middle Island in Ontario, Canada, as well as New England on the Atlantic side. It is as much as nine degrees latitude north of San Diego at the southern tip of the state. Crescent City is closer to Vancouver, Canada (521 mi)) than to Los Angeles (623 mi)).
Crescent City has a warm-summer Mediterranean climate (Köppen Csb), with moderation similar to an oceanic climate. Regions of the world with similar temperatures to Crescent City, California include Sitka and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, Aysén Region in Chile, Ushuaia in Argentina, much of the United Kingdom, much of Ireland, most of New Zealand, the Atlantic coast of Spain, the western coast of Norway, most of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and other parts of Scandinavia (where mild climates are often seen such as southern Sweden and most of Denmark). It is one of California's rainiest spots; the annual rainfall is 71.24 inches. The wettest months are from October to March; the wettest month is December with 13.70 inches and the driest month is July with 0.35 inches. The average high and low temperatures in January are 54 °F and 41 °F. The average high and low temperatures in August are 66 °F and 51 °F. On average, fifteen mornings each winter fall below 32 °F.
The highest temperature recorded in Crescent City was 95 °F on September 28, 2020. The lowest temperature on record was 19 °F on December 21, 1990. The maximum monthly precipitation was 31.25 inches in November 1973, while the wettest “rain year” has been from July 1937 to June 1938 when 107.74 inches fell, and the driest almost certainly that from July 1976 to June 1977 with less than 40 inches. The maximum 24-hour precipitation was 7.73 inches on January 9, 1995. The highest snowfall recorded for any period in 24 hours was 6.0 inches on January 6, 1972.
Crescent City has the effect of focusing tsunamis. According to researchers at Humboldt State University and the University of Southern California, the city experienced tsunami conditions 31 times between the years 1933 and 2008. Although many of these incidents were barely perceptible, eleven events included wave measurements exceeding one meter, four events caused damage, and one event in particular is commonly cited as "the largest and most destructive recorded tsunami to strike the United States Pacific Coast."
On March 27, 1964, the Good Friday earthquake off Anchorage, Alaska, set in motion local landslide tsunamis, as well as a trans-Pacific wave. The tsunami wave travel time to Crescent City was 4.1 hours after the earthquake, but it only produced localized flooding. The second and third waves to hit Crescent City were smaller, but the fourth wave struck with a height of approximately 20 feet after having drawn the harbor out nearly dry. The next morning the damage was counted: 289 buildings and businesses had been destroyed; 1,000 cars and 25 large fishing vessels had been crushed; 12 people were confirmed dead, over 100 were injured, and more were missing; and 60 blocks had been inundated, with 30 city blocks destroyed. Although most of the missing were later accounted for, not all were tracked down. Insurance adjusters estimated that the city received more damage from the tsunami on a block-by-block basis than did Anchorage from the initial earthquake.
The tsunami raced down the West Coast with more deaths and destruction, but no other location was hit as hard. Crescent City bore the brunt, due to its offshore geography, position relative to the earthquake's strike-line, underwater contours such as the Cobb Seamount, and the position of rivers near the city. Although houses, buildings, and infrastructure were later rebuilt, years passed before the city recovered from the devastation to lives, property, and its economy. Since the 1980s, the breakwater has been protected from normal storm waves by hundreds of Dolos armor units, 38 ton concrete shapes.
The city is deemed to be tsunami-ready today. Its preparedness was tested on June 14, 2005 when the 2005 Eureka earthquake measuring 7.2 on the moment magnitude scale hit 90 miles offshore; much of the city (an estimated 6,000 people) was evacuated when a tsunami warning was issued, and a 10 in tsunami wave hits the area.
On November 15, 2006, a magnitude 8.3 earthquake struck off Simushir Island in the Kuril Islands in the western Pacific. A tsunami warning was issued but rescinded hours later. However, a surge from that quake did hit the harbor at Crescent City causing damage to three docks and several boats. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a county state of emergency. Upon that declaration, the area affected was eligible for federal emergency relief funding to repair the damage.
Parts of the city were evacuated on March 11, 2011, after a 9.0 earthquake struck Japan. Thirty-five boats were destroyed, and the harbor suffered major damage. The reported peak surge was over 8 feet by 9:50am. Five were swept out to sea, and one person was killed.
Battery Point Light
Battery Point Light is a lighthouse in Crescent City. It is registered as a California Historical Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as "Crescent City Lighthouse".
Battery Point Light was one of the first lighthouses on the California coast. Rugged mountains and unbridged rivers meant coastal travel was essential for the economic survival of this region. In 1855, Congress appropriated $15,000 for the construction of a lighthouse on the tiny islet, which is connected to Battery Point by an isthmus which is visible, and can be traversed on foot, at low tide. Although not included in the 1852 contract by the United States Lighthouse Service for the first eight west coast lighthouses, the Battery Point Lighthouse was actually lit ten days before the Humboldt Harbor Lighthouse, the last of the original eight to become operational. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was lit in 1856. The lighthouse was automated in 1953, and a modern 14.8-inch lens replaced the fourth-order Fresnel lens. Theophilis Magruder was the station's first keeper; Wayne Piland was its last before automation in 1953. The 1964 Alaska earthquake, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the northern hemisphere, caused a tsunami. The lighthouse survived. In the following year, the modern beacon that replaced the Fresnel lens in the tower was switched off, and a flashing light at the end of the nearby breakwater served as the harbor's navigational aid. In 1982, the light in the lighthouse tower was lit again, and the Battery Point Lighthouse was listed as a private aid to navigation.