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Weekend Getaway: Eureka, Calif.

A coastal community on California's north coast builds upon its lumberjack legacy.

Eureka, Calif.'s Carson Mansion
Photo caption
Lumber baron William Carson commissioned his Eureka, Calif., mansion in 1884.


Iron rods still glow white-hot in the furnace of a 31-year-old blacksmith shop in Eureka, on California's northern coast, and a pedal-powered scroll saw still dances through planks in sure-footed jigs. Blue Ox Millworks on Humboldt Bay is open for tours, but practicing the old-time techniques isn't just for impressing the tourists. Founder Eric Hollenbeck believes the best way to bring new life to Victorian buildings—and to preserve the heritage of his hometown—is to restore the late-19th-century confections with 19th-century tools.

Both the White House and a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Unalaska, Alaska, have ordered custom pieces and specialty trims from the Blue Ox, as have architects and homeowners around the world. "We're one of only a handful of mills in the United States that can still process timber from the log to the finished product," Hollenbeck says.

From stacks of pancakes to chicken-fried steak, the Samoa Cookhouse has been feeding hungry mouths since 1893. 79 Cookhouse Ln., 442-1659.

It's no coincidence the Blue Ox is in Eureka. The city's a redwood country crossroads where resident artists and lumberjacks have long found common ground in their appreciation for fine-boned buildings, cheap rents, and down-home hardware stores. The city's Old Town is a visitor's delight. Begin with breakfast at the Samoa Cookhouse. Founded in 1893 to feed the workers of the Hammond Lumber Company, the cookhouse-turned-restaurant still serves brimming platters of scrambled eggs, sausage, and French toast up to 11 a.m., and fried chicken, ribs, and ham beginning at 11:01. (Save room for pie or cake.) After downing several thousand calories served family style on long plank tables, waddle over to the restaurant's small museum to gawk at monster chain saws hanging from the ceiling like trophy fish and behold worn leather boots studded with iron pegs for scaling thick-barked giants. Think the guys who climbed redwoods ever worried about trans fats or portion size?

When ships first pulled into Humboldt Bay in the mid-19th century, there were no roads north or south and no railroads. As one of the largest harbors between San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound, Eureka quickly grew into a transportation hub and supply center for tools and provisions—first for the gold- fields along the Klamath and Trinity rivers, then for burgeoning lumber camps.

As sawmills sprouted along the bay, burghers and barons alike built stylish Gothic, Italianate, and Queen Anne homes. About 1,600 of these Victorians survive in Eureka, the most spectacular a three-tiered, eight-gabled, redwood and mahogany palace commissioned by timber magnate William Carson in 1884 to keep 100 of his best workers busy during an economic slump.

In those early years, Eureka's commercial district hugged the waterfront, and dockside business was rough, particularly after hours. Local lore has it that between 1890 and 1950, anyone reporting "drunk and disorderly" behavior on First Street was out of luck; cops wouldn't show up. More recently, the district's storied brothels, saloons, and mercantile buildings have been converted to restaurants, galleries, and shops.

At the Clarke Historical Museum, docents from local Yurok and Wiyot tribes explain the significance of designs woven into intricately twined basket hats. Down the street, Gallery Dog sells fine works by more than 150 area artists. Pause for a handcrafted pint of Alleycat Amber at the Lost Coast Brewery. See a play at the Redwood Curtain. Or head to Hotel Carter for an eight-course, wine-paired dinner at Restaurant 301, a seven-time winner of Wine Spectator's annual Grand Award.

The cornerstone of owner Mark Carter's property is his bed-and-breakfast, a historically accurate replica of an 1884 San Francisco mansion that burned in the 1906 quake. More than a century after the Eastlake-style house was designed, Carter discovered its original plans in an antique shop. With the help of Eric Hollenbeck and his well-worn machines, Carter has resurrected the creation, giving a fine old building new bones—and new life—in Eureka.

Restoration Hardware, the high church of nostalgic nesters, was born in 1980 when Eureka resident Stephen Gordon began selling period finishings and lighting fixtures out of his home.

Photography courtesy Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau


This article was first published in May 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.