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Ferndale, California

Ferndale, California

June 7, 2021

Ferndale is a city in Humboldt County, California, United States. Its population was 1,371 at the 2010 census, down from 1,382 at the 2000 census. The city contains dozens of well-preserved Victorian storefronts and homes. Ferndale is the northern gateway to California's Lost Coast and the city, which is sited on the edge of a wide plain near the mouth of the Eel River, is also located near the extensive preserves of coast redwood forests.


Before American settlement, Ferndale was a glade of giant ferns reaching more than six feet, surrounded by alder, willow, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, coast redwood, swampy land and windswept prairies. The area was populated by the southern Wiyot people, and centered along the Eel River, where they caught lamprey eels, salmon and sturgeon in iris leaf fish nets, collected shellfish along the river and at its mouth, while cultivating only a California species of tobacco. The town was established in 1852 from settlement by Willard Allard, Seth Louis Shaw and his brother Stephen W. Shaw.

Early settlers

In August 1852, Allard and the Shaw brothers borrowed a canoe from the Wiyots in the Table Bluff area and rowed it across the Eel and up Francis Creek to arrive with their supplies to the approximate vicinity of Main and Shaw streets. In September 1852 they cleared a five-acre area of ferns and began building a cabin near the base of the Wildcat Road even though Allard was sick with the ague. By January 1853, twelve men were living in the Shaws' cabin including Seth Kinman, who provided the group with meat, and Joe Russ (1825–1886), whose later holdings included the Fern Cottage Historic District. About this time, Stephen Shaw painted the portrait of Wiyot elder Kiwelattah (or Ki-we-lah-tah) and kept a detailed journal of two years of trying to grow plants in cold coastal fog.

Seth Shaw settled in the area now marked by Main and Lewis streets where he began construction of the now-historic Shaw House on his property in 1854. The Shaw House served as the area's first polling place in 1854, post office in 1860 and courthouse in 1863. The voting registers for Humboldt County and Ferndale are on file for viewing in the Andrew Genzoli Collection at Humboldt State University, starting in 1888. Seth Shaw was justice of the peace and postmaster, and his home served for many gatherings although it was not finished until 1866. After having been away from the area for two years, Stephen Shaw sold his holdings in 1856 to Welsh-born Francis Francis (1818–1877) who later established the city's water system through pipes laid initially in 1875.

Other small towns were established around Ferndale, including Centerville, Port Kenyon, Waddington, Grizzly Bluff and Arlynda Corners. Produce from Ferndale was shipped out via Centerville and transferred to ships at anchor offshore prior to the opening of docks at Port Kenyon in 1876. In 1865 the first shipment of coal oil from the Union Mattole Oil Company was shipped through Ferndale to San Francisco.

While the earliest settlers were English speaking from Great Britain, New England, Canada or Ireland, waves of immigrants arrived in Ferndale from Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Portugal and China.

European immigrants

Danish settlers founded and built Our Savior's Lutheran Church in 1899 and dedicated Danish Hall, which had been built as a warehouse by Arnold Berding in the late 1880s, on October 10, 1929. The Swiss who settled in Ferndale from Italian- and German-speaking families included the Oeschgers who moved to Ferndale in time for Joe Oeschger to play baseball at Ferndale High School before going to a career in Major League Baseball. A later influx of Romansh Swiss included the ancestors of College Football Hall of Fame coach Len Casanova. Sausage, salami-making and wine-making can be traced to Italians who arrived later than the Danish and Swiss, beginning around 1897. The Germans arrived early, the first was businessman Arnold Berding in 1857. Most Germans worked on ranches or were dairymen, but at least one owned the Milwaukee Brewery Depot Saloon. Congressman Don Clausen is descended from German settlers of Ferndale. German settlers organized St. Mark's Lutheran Church in 1906. Except for three Portuguese brothers who arrived in the 1870s and a few from mainland Portugal, most came from the Azores islands between 1900 and 1915. Ferndale Portuguese have celebrated their traditional Festival of the Holy Ghost since 1924.

Chinese settlement and expulsions

Chinese arrived in California in the earliest gold-rush days, and were settled in all parts of Humboldt County almost as soon as English-speaking whites. They worked in gold mining on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, before settling mostly in Eureka, with a few in outlying towns like Ferndale where two Chinese owned clothes washing businesses. Chinese laborers built parts of the Wildcat Road between Ferndale and Petrolia, dug out the water reservoirs for the Francis Water Company and worked at two fish canneries on the Eel River, although - as in the rest of California - they were not truly welcome. In 1885, after a city councilman of Eureka was shot dead in the crossfire from two warring Chinese tong gangs, 480 Chinese residents were rounded up in two days and forced to relocate to San Francisco. A year later, the Cutting Packing Company brought in a crew of Chinese for the season. Following a heated meeting at Roberts Hall in Ferndale between local residents and an upset delegation from Eureka, the company guaranteed the workers would come nowhere near town and they were allowed to stay until the fishing season was over in December. Chinese crews were used again at the same cannery in 1887 and 1889. In 1906 Eureka and Fortuna citizens were again up in arms at Ferndale's violation of the unwritten law of the county when the Starbuck-Talent Canning Company of Port Kenyon brought in 23 Chinese and four Japanese to work at the cannery. After threats of mass action, the Chinese were taken to an old cookhouse on Indian Island from which all whites were barred and where they were held until they left by sea. The Japanese were permitted to keep working for Starbuck-Talent.

Ferndale was incorporated in 1893.

Business and communications

Dairies were founded from the Bear River Ridge to the south side of the Eel River starting in the late 1860s. Filled kegs of butter were transported along the beach river by four-horse teams from the Mattole to Centerville or Port Kenyon and the teams returned supplies from Ferndale. The eighty-one dairies from the southern area faded as the land along the Eel River Valley was settled for dairying, first by the Danes and later by other settlers. In the 1880s multiple cooperative creameries in the Eel River valley began to process milk into butter; by 1904 the Central Creamery on Main Street Ferndale had combined the smaller operations into a more modern production facility. The use of paper wrapping on butter to reduce air oxidizing the product was pioneered here at the suggestion of Chester E. Gray (1881–1944) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture who studied the problem of unrefrigerated fine butter turning white within hours of production. Gray patented a new spray-drying process (U.S. Patent #858,868 - 1907 and #1,157,935 - 1915) and went into business with Central Creamery owner Aage Jensen in a new dry-milk manufacturing process to utilize non-fat milk solids which had formerly been waste of the process. Their new plant processed 75,000 pounds of milk a day, shipping to San Francisco and filling contracts for the U.S. Navy. The first motorized milk truck was used here. In 1916 Grey and Jensen moved to San Francisco and changed the company name to Golden State Creamery. Local Ferndale resident Andrew Genzoli began recording the history of the Ferndale dairies during this time, culminating in scrapbooks of newspaper clippings from 1910-1954, which are on file for viewing at Humboldt State University Special Collections.

Ferndale was a crossroads village and provided lodging, horses, blacksmithing and other services both to individual travelers and the Overland Stage and Express line which ran from Eureka to Cloverdale with connections to San Francisco over 80 hours of traveling for a cost of $20. The first stage line was founded in 1862 with daily trips from Eureka, Centerville and Petrolia. ] In 1868, twice weekly stages ran to San Francisco and by 1871 daily service was available. The first automobiles were used for the stage runs in 1911, the same year as Fernbridge (bridge) was built, eliminating the need for ferry boat service.

In 1878 regular service on steamships carried produce, cargo and passengers from Port Kenyon, where by 1897, 188,652 pounds of wool and 965,010 pounds of butter were shipped out along with grains, chickens, potatoes, lumber, eggs, hides, vegetables and salmon. The steamer trade declined as the Salt River silted up and the transport hub shifted to Eureka. The completion of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad in 1914 allowed for speedier transportation to Eureka and the San Francisco area. The track was built about 5 miles to the northwest of Ferndale in Fernbridge.

Main Street businesses supplied the needs of not only the Ferndale area, but for the inland Mattole Valley as well. They included banks, hotels, stables, variety and merchandise stores, hardware and grocery stores, farm and machine implements, butchers, blacksmiths shoemakers, barbers, tailors, milliners, saloons and gambling halls, billiard parlors, coopers, doctors, dentists, drug stores, lawyers, engineers, surveyors, real estate agents, several photographers, furniture makers, undertakers, a telegraph office and a Wells-Fargo office.

Telephone and telegraph wires were run into the valley by private companies in the 1890s; by 1899 it was said that the telephone was in "almost universal use in this valley." ] In 1900 the telephone line was extended to the Mattole Oil fields in Petrolia. In 1911, the Eel River and Southern Telephone company consolidated operations around Ferndale, and on February 6, 1960, dial telephones were introduced; the old switchboard and crank phones are on display at the Ferndale Museum.

The Ferndale Enterprise newspaper was founded on 11 May 1878 by three sons of the local Methodist minister and has published continuously since then, while moving offices and shifting from semi-weekly to weekly publication.

Incorporation and services

Ferndale incorporated with a vote of 89 in favor and 47 against on 17 August 1893 primarily to organize drainage and prevent dogs and other animals from running loose, according to the earliest ordinances enacted. In 1915 the current firehouse was built as combined firehouse and city hall.

After the 1875 fire which nearly destroyed south Main street was put out by volunteer bucket brigades, and other smaller conflagrations, the City purchased a used Hunneman hand pumper fire engine on April 14, 1883. The end-stroke torrent pumper had been built in the 1850s and been shipped west in the 1860s. The name on the side of this engine was "Franklin" because the city bought it from the Franklin Fire Company of San Jose, California. The engine was transferred to the newly formed Ferndale Fire Department when they organized in February 1897. In November 1923, after 41 years in service, the hand pumper was shipped to the American LaFrance Company, "as part payment on the fine new pumper recently purchased by this town." Other sources say the engine was sold to a Hollywood film company. Modern equipment arrived in 1905 with a motorized pumper engine, in 1917 with a Model T truck with chemical tanks and in 1948 the Hook and Ladder Company formed. In 1883, water supplies were consolidated in local cisterns under present-day State Route 211 which were later filled in and water from the hill reservoirs was used to supply the hydrants. In 1902 the fire alarm was placed in a wooden structure at the corner of Brown and Main which fell over entirely in the 1906 earthquake (see below) which led to the bell being hung at the firehouse, and a steam-whistle at the Creamery used for the fire alarm from 1906 until electric sirens came into use in 1931.

Electrical lighting was installed in May 1896, supplied by a wood-burning steam electric-generating plant that worked between dusk and midnight only; it was replaced in 1903 by a distillate-burning steam electric generator a few blocks east of Main Street. In 1911, the earlier generation and distribution systems were merged into Western States Gas and Electric acquired in 1927 by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

The national landmark Ferndale Public Library was completed in 1910 with local funds and an $8,000 Carnegie grant. In 1876 the Ferndale Cemetery Association was established which manages the 5.03 acre burial ground.



Ferndale's climate is moderated by being close to the Pacific Ocean and in the lee of the Wildcat Hills. Winter temperatures rarely go below freezing and summer days are rarely over 80 °F (27 °C). Ferndale has a warm summer Mediterranean climate indicated by the code "Csb" on some weather maps. Ferndale receives most of its roughly 40 inches of rain from November to May, with lesser amounts in the summer months. Local microclimates are varied and support tropical palm trees and Sitka spruce, including a mature Sitka forest in Russ Park, and the over 150 feet tall spruce lighted every year for Christmas. Morning fogs are common year round.

A weather station was run in the town from 1963 to 1973. The climate is similar to that of nearby Eureka.


The local economy is a mixture of dairies and ranching, agricultural support, retail and services. On July 18, 2013, the California Employment Development Department identified Ferndale as having the second lowest unemployment rate (1.7%) of all cities in the state, led only by Carmel-by-the-Sea.


Affordable housing

U.S. Navy Housing was built for staff of the 37-acre Naval Facility (NAVFAC) Centerville Beach, Centerville, California which was commissioned on March 25, 1958. Originally the base was staffed by 95 people, but grew to over 280 people. The 52-unit Ferndale Navy Housing was built as part of this project. The NAVFAC was decommissioned on September 30, 1993.

The U.S. Coast Guard subsequently occupied the Navy Housing but vacated the housing units in October 2008. The property was returned to the Navy which declared the units surplus. In order to acquire the housing, a ballot initiative was required. The city placed Measure S on the ballot for the 2 November 2010 election. Measure S passed 516 (74.57%) to 176 (25.43%) approving the City's plan to acquire low- and moderate-income housing from the Navy.

The Ferndale City Council voted to purchase the housing from the Navy for $1.00 on 1 September 2011. The city began negotiations with the non-profit O'Rourke Foundation, part of the Bertha Russ Lytel Foundation, to take over and run the 52-unit project as an affordable housing project. The Navy housing is ten percent of the available housing in the city. The 24 single-family homes, 14 duplex townhouses, three playgrounds and two community buildings of the former Navy Housing were transferred from the Navy to the city in a public ceremony with Congressman Mike Thompson on October 23, 2011.

Drinking water

The Ferndale water system was installed by Mr. Francis Francis in 1872. In 1906, the Francis Land and Water Company was incorporated and in 1910 they bought the Cold Springs Water Company which supplied eastern Ferndale. In 1954, the Citizens Utilities Company bought the system from the Francis Estate and sold it to Del Oro Water Company in 1996.

Ferndale's spring water comes from 28 individual springs which produce 113 gallons per minute. Historic tunnels under the hillside and a million gallon underwater reservoir collect and store water before distribution. As a secondary source of supply, water may also come from Van Ness Treatment Plant which can supply an average of nearly 30 gallons per minute. The Del Oro Water Company finished the Ferndale Mainline Replacement Project in 2011 which included larger pipes and new valves to reduce the number of customers affected during line repairs.

Wastewater treatment

Ferndale's first sewage treatment facility and combined sewer system was built in 1953 and upgraded in 1973, 1994 and 2001. Improvements were made to the sewers in 1989 under a $400,000 project funded by the California State Water Resources Control Board to improve the collection system and reduce inflow and infiltration.

Less than ten years later, El Niño storms in April 1998 caused Williams Creek to change course due to debris blockage. Williams Creek had been the major tributary of the Salt River near the treatment plant, so diversion lowered the volume of water available and caused the dilution ratios at the plant to exceed permitted levels. Record stormwater flows also damaged the plant and the city applied for assistance under the FEMA-1203-DR-CA El Niño storm Presidential disaster declaration. On 15 May 2003, the Regional Water Board (RWB) placed a Cease and Desist order on Ferndale due to discharges of treated wastewater which exceeded 1 percent of the flow of Francis Creek / Salt River stream system. The city paid a $48,000 penalty to the RWB and agreed to complete an environmental project instead of paying $78,000 more in penalties to the RWB and began replacing the old plant in 2009.

The new wastewater plant was completed in 2011 and provides tertiary treatment for nearly 1,500 commercial and residential users. The only other wastewater facility like Ferndale's in California is in Colfax.

In popular culture

Some of Ferndale's historic buildings at Legoland California. Left to right top: Abraxas Building, Victorian Inn, NVB Bank Building, Hobart Galleries, and the IOOF hall. The order of the buildings is not the same as in reality.

Filming location

Ferndale has been featured in such movies as The Majestic and Outbreak. It has appeared in such made-for-television movies as Salem’s Lot, A Death in Canaan, and Joe Dirt.

Legoland model replica

Many of Ferndale's buildings have been recreated at the Legoland California theme park, as the only American small town to be represented alongside New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas and other nationally known locations. Ferndale was settled by many Danes, and Lego is a Danish company. In 1995, Legoland staff took hundreds of photos in Ferndale, and used over 1 million Lego bricks to recreate the town in the Miniland section of the park.

Downtown Ferndale:

Outside of town:

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