In the 1880s, Rohnerville, which lies south and a bit east of Fortuna, offered residents and visitors two liveries, a couple of hotels, saloons, brothels and even an opium den. The town also featured the violence and mayhem that usually go with those establishments.
And yet today all that remains of the town’s central district is a couple of dilapidated commercial buildings and some older homes.
I wondered what happened.
And then I found out… In Denis P. Edeline,s book Place Names of Humboldt County, California, A Compendium: 1542-2009, he says Rohnerville started declining when the railroad was rerouted through Fortuna and that may been true. But the fire that took out most of the commercial district in August of 1895 certainly didn’t help…
Before Henry Rohner named it Rohnerville, the area was known as “Eel River”. This is a VERY early pic of the area…
I was initially drawn to this photo because of the church and rectory (?) [nope, see update below] to the left – oh, and look ! There’s the Eureka Inn in the background (just click to enlarge the photo). But then the tiny houses caught my attention. The most important element, however, was the little building on the bottom right. The Rosary, it turns out, has nothing to do with the church. But it did help me date the photo….
Update: According to Walter Fletcher (in a comment on Facebook)
…the rectory is on the other side of St Bernard’s Church on H Street and is not visible in this picture. The building on the corner behind the church is The Knights of Columbus Hall.
The building beneath the Eureka Inn was originally a hospital then The Travelers Hotel. There is currently an office building in that site.
On Monday, Nov. 21, 1892, after Miss Edna Gardner authorized contractor J. W. Blakemore to begin construction on her house at the corner of Ocean and Craig streets in Ferndale, the wives and daughters of the city’s most respectable citizens vowed to stop it. Opposite the Methodist Church and “in shadow of Good Templar Hall,” where the community’s Lutheran Danes held their Sunday services, Gardner, the women believed, was building a house of prostitution.
By 9:30 that night, 11 women had gathered at the construction site, where they attached one end of a rope to a foundation pier of Gardner’s new house and the other to a “good stout horse” borrowed from a neighboring rancher. Using the animal, they had successfully undermined one corner of the structure when Ferndale Constable Thomas Varian showed up. Varian ordered the women to stop but they refused until he threatened to arrest them. He took the names of nine (two had run off), and though he said he’d take them into custody the next morning, he did not follow through. While some believed the women “displayed the best of grit” that night, others insisted they’d gone too far. Edna Gardner herself was undeterred and vowed to keep building.
Within a week, no doubt at the ladies’ urging, Gardner, whose legal name was Minnie French (many women of ill-repute changed their names to protect their families from the “shame” of their profession), was charged with conducting a house of ill-repute. She paid $50 bail and was released. Her trial was set for the weekend.
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3, Ferndale’s Roberts Hall (now known as the Portuguese Hall) was packed. Gardner’s defense attorney E.W. Wilson and three prosecutors examined 12 of 35 possible witnesses, including Constable Varian. The testimony, interrupted often by laughter from the crowd, a pounding gavel and Justice James Smith’s threats to clear the courtroom of spectators, went until after 4 p.m. At 5:30 p.m. the case went to the jury, and it took just 15 minutes for it to pronounce Gardner not guilty. While this frustrated some, The Ferndale Enterprise admitted “no surprise.” After all, on the day of her arrest, Gardner’s house was not yet finished, let alone ready for callers. The owner, who had been deserted by her husband in 1888 and was struggling to support their daughter alone, was surely relieved. But the controversy was not over.
After Edward Ogle, editor of Ferndale’s Oracle, used his Dec. 8 issue to accuse Constable Varian of perjury in the Gardner trial, the two tussled in a local restaurant where, The Enterprise (the Oracle’s competition) reported, Ogle was “worsted” by the constable. The Western Watchman then questioned the jury’s integrity * and reported that “the crowd applauded boisterously” after hearing the non-guilty verdict. At least some from the courtroom audience, the story added, had then “adjourned to the hill and fired off the cannon in honor of the event.”
On Dec. 16, The Enterprise admitted with “regret” that the celebration and cannon fire had, indeed, occurred. But, the newspaper strove to clarify, this was not in support of Gardner or prostitution. Instead, the celebration had reflected satisfaction that those trying to dictate the community’s morals “had been sat upon.”
For years, the paper complained, a good number of Ferndale’s businessmen and residents had been “annoyed and harangued” by the town’s moral reformers and had grown tired of it . Many felt the gossip of those “whose prejudices seem to have supplanted their judgement and whose zeal has evidently ran away with their brains” had, without concrete proof of wrongdoing, finally gone too far.
On Jan. 16th, Gardner’s house was finished but Ferndale’s reformers were not. Over the next few months, citizen “detectives” watched the residence and recorded the names of visitors. On May 5, 1893, 13 men of Ferndale filed a nuisance abatement order with the Humboldt County Superior Court, alleging that Gardner conducted a house of ill fame **. Though they had yet to be named, it was understood that many of Gardner’s nighttime guests would be called to testify.
That month the abatement case wound its way through the court system and rumors about potential witnesses circulated through town. Then at 2 a.m. on May 30, 1893, the “slumbering inhabitants of Ferndale were awakened by wild cries of fire and clanging of the Methodist church bell.” The town’s nightwatchman, after smelling smoke, had discovered Gardner’s house aflame. Citizens responded with a hand fire engine and hose cart, but fires were rare in Ferndale and the city had no organized department. The responders were hampered first by a short hose, and then a longer one with a water leak. By the time volunteers put an ineffectual stream to the fire, Gardner’s house was engulfed and the fire had spread to the adjacent two-story town hall. Both buildings were lost. A second hose was secured to soak the roofs of adjacent structures, which ultimately saved them. First responders had “detected the odor of coal oil,” and presumed the fire had been set on purpose. Whether the conflagration was the work of determined ladies, unhappy neighbors or one of Gardner’s visitors terrified of being called to testify in the abatement action was never determined.
Gardner continued to be challenged by legal and financial woes and didn’t bother to show up that summer for the abatement hearing. Insurance had covered $800 of the approximately $1,200 she had invested in her Ferndale resort and its contents, but she still owed $215 to Pacific Lumber Co. for building supplies and another $52 in legal fees (or approximately $8,000 today). By the fall of 1893, the lady was working at a house in Eureka’s lower district and in November of the following year, she sold the Ferndale lot to Constable Thomas Varian. In 1895, she relinquished custody of her daughter, Maybell, who was adopted by a local family and Minnie French, also known as Edna Gardner, disappeared from the annals of Humboldt history.
In the years that followed, many prostitutes resided in Ferndale’s “house on the hill,” which operated openly for years but was located away from the town proper. It was also easier to defend, perched alone on the slope between the two cemeteries. In 1917, the district attorney invoked the red-light abatement act to close it and by March 5, 1922, Ferndale’s wives and daughters could finally rest easy when the Humboldt Times declared Ferndale “cleared” of prostitution completely. Even the notorious “house on the hill” was closed. Or so they said…
* On 16 Dec 1892, the Ferndale Enterprise criticized the Western Watchman for assailed honor and integrity of jury in Gardner case, which included G.A. Dungan, A. Berding, Charles Harkins, W.M Flowers, John Pollard, W.M. Samuels, L.P. Branstetter, L.P. Jennings, GG Dudley, Daniel Wooldridge and Giles Patrick, “old residents… whose honor, integrity, worth and standing have never been questioned save by miserable cur who penned the article…”
** R.J. Tyrrell, Uri Williams, J.W. Kelly, J.A. Davenport, Jr, S.M. Woodward, R.A. Simpson, H.J. Ring, L.E. Goble, James Smith, Wm F. Smith, C.M. Peterson, John Hanson and T.J. Frost signed the abatement order
This story was originally published in the Ferndale Enterprise on April 21, 2022
In April 1903, in an effort to replenish the depleted city treasury, the Eureka city council directed the police department to start arresting bawdy-house keepers for selling intoxicating liquor without a license. Should they be arrested for keeping immoral houses, officials reasoned, the fine would go to the county and the cash-strapped city would receive no funds.
Over the years, city officials struggled with how to address Eureka’s Red-Light District and often faced criticism for their laxity in addressing the women who lived “in violation of the laws of God and the state”. But the women struggled more–with poverty, exploitation, public ostracism, addiction, disease, and violence.
Learn more at the Clarke Museum presentation by local author and historian Lynette Mullen, Stories from Eureka’s Early Red-Light District, on May 21st from 2-3pm. You’ll hear the history of Eureka’s “Lower District” in the early 1900s, the madams and others who worked there, and those who truly profited from the world’s oldest profession….
Lynette Mullen is a Humboldt County project manager, writer and historian. While researching the history of the Scandia Hotel in Eureka, she uncovered the story of Virginia Jeffray. Jeffray, abandoned by her husband in 1914, struggled to raise her seven children alone and narrowly escaped “a life of shame” in one of Eureka’s many brothels. Jeffray’s plight inspired Mullen’s research and this presentation on Eureka’s Early Red-Light District. She is also writing a book on the subject.
The full scope of Humboldt County’s resources is finally being understood. Realtors, builders, mechanics, and laborers are busy, and strangers continually arrive looking for homes, employment, or investment. Unfortunately, one of the best indications of this prosperity is the scarcity of housing, or so said the Humboldt Times on December 2, 1882.
More than a century later, we’re having the same conversation. A year ago this month, Realtor.com listed Humboldt County as the nation’s 13th hottest housing market and by October of 2021, we’d jumped to number three. In October, we were also the only California county listed. Some of the recent demand is most likely driven by the crazy cost of housing elsewhere in a state where the median price of homes is predicted to rise to over $800,000 this year. But we also have a number of new and exciting developments and opportunities in Humboldt, including Humboldt’s transition to a Polytechnic, the offshore wind project and Nordic Aquafarms facility planned for the Samoa Peninsula. Folks are coming in and everybody’s looking for housing.
“California is confronted today with the gravest shortage of housing in its history,” said a report submitted to the governor by the State Commission of Immigration and Housing ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO. The report then analyzed reasons for the “dwelling-famine” (which will also sound familiar). These included an increasing population (still true in Humboldt, at least), a decrease in the relative number of new residential buildings (yep) and the high cost of building materials, transportation, and labor (which seem to be rising daily in 2022).
“The usual surplus of housing, which must exist if rents and prices are to be controlled by competition, has been wiped out,” the 1920 report continued. There’s clearly no surplus today either and we are definitely seeing the impacts. According to Dan Walters in his CalMatters story published last December, California has the second-lowest rate of homeownership in the country, just ahead of New York. Historically Humboldt’s housing has been more affordable than the state on average, but the local housing shortage is changing that too. According to realtor.com, Humboldt’s housing prices have jumped over 20% in the last year. Zumper.com says that rents have also increased 45% in the same period, a hard-to-fathom increase. The resulting lack of quality, affordable housing has affected our area’s ability to attract and retain workforce, which impacts everything from the availability of desperately needed plumbers to timely access to health care. Home-grown young adults are being priced out of the market altogether.
Today’s crisis has prompted desperate officials to seek solutions and while new projects are in the works, there is clearly more to be done. Fortunately, the 1920 study also offered solutions. While some may also sound familiar, others may be worth considering today.
Use input from housing industry experts, labor leaders, realtors, bankers, and more to imagine new, more imaginative housing solutions
Form more building and loan associations that offer an extension of “easier terms.” Form community housing associations linking banks with builders and contractors to enable the purchase of homes at lower cost, with smaller “down” payments and longer time to pay. These associations, the report added, “operating on a sound business basis and influenced by community spirit” would allow California to become a “homeowning state.”
“The present acute condition,” the 1920 report concluded, “is due to abnormal times.” Yeah, apparently not so much. But we are not without hope. While recent housing projects have engendered controversy, at least housing is on the radar and developers are initiating projects at this critical time in our community. We also need to stay open to new and innovative ideas to increase housing. The long-term health of our community and our economy may depend on it.
Too long ago, because I’m behind on everything, I got the following message from Kristen Baker, along with the great photos below. If anyone can help with info on her family, please feel free to comment — or send an email to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
From Kristen: Looking for anything on the Gillispie family, Amos, was one of the 10 siblings, and Mae Lucindy who was his sister and my great grandmother who eventually married the logger Guy Larison, looking for any remaining Gillispie and any info on Guy Larison and why him and great gramma were divorced in the early 1900’s, while they had four young little ones, Leona, Leata, Mervyn and Leonard. Just my continued digging for some family answers.
According to the library, the Eureka Drug and Book store, owned by Weck and Short, was located at the northwest corner of 1st and & G Streets in 1864. The men in the photo are identified as Dr. Graham, F.A. Weck and Robert Porter.
By October of 1880, Frank Albert Weck, a druggist and apothecary, had opened his own shop at the corner of 3rd and F Streets.
“Pure Brandy, Whisky [sic], Wines, Gin and Rum for medical purposes”….
Weck apparently had a new store built 3rd & F Street around 1884 but harbored even bigger plans, as by 1891, he had set up shop in San Francisco…
Weck kept his eye on Humboldt, though, and continued to lobby for her prosperity…
The Alpine Saloon was located at 420 2nd Street, Eureka, on the south side of 2nd between E & F Streets- just across from the Gazebo
According to this website, which highlights Historic Sites and Points of Interest in Humboldt County, the building was constructed around 1880 and…
This is a handsome example of a typical American building type which combines ground-floor commercial space with offices or living quarters above. It was built around 1880 and was listed on the 1889 Sanborn Map as a restaurant and saloon. At one time, a boxing school was upstairs (you can see the “Boxing School” sign in window, upper right). The building is interesting for its decorative treatment. The first floor is essentially Italianate with Eastlake inspired decorative elements, primarily channel-carved or applied cut-outs. A continuous garland and foliate motifs occur at the cornice level, around the window frames and on the corner pilasters of the second floor.
And here it sits today. There’s been some updates, clearly, but it is still recognizable…