The first regional inhabitants were the Bokeya Pomo. Their village, Pda’hau, was near the mouth of the Garcia River. Like other California Indians, the Bokeya were primarily self-sufficient, drawing from plentiful resources of the ocean, rivers, forests, and coastal shelf.
In 1542, Spaniards arrived and named the headland Cabo de Fortunas (Cape of Fortune), in recognition of their difficult journey. The cape was renamed to Punta Delgado (“narrow point”) in 1775 and later the area was called Punta Barra de Arena (i.e. “sandbar point”) and finally Point Arena (literally “sand point”). Point Arena itself is a narrow peninsula jutting around 1/2 mile (800 m) into the Pacific Ocean.
The Point served as a prominent navigational site. The first wharf was built in 1866 and made Point Arena the “busiest town between San Francisco and Eureka,” producing 200,000 board feet of redwood lumber a day and serving as the main Mendocino coast shipping port for agricultural products. As more and more timber was shipped south, Point Arena became known for not just its wharf but also its dangerous coastline for ships.
Because of the increased amount of shipwrecks, the U.S government issued an order in 1866 for a lighthouse to be constructed on the point at Point Arena. The first lighthouse constructed was built with brick; 600,000 bricks were either created or brought in from San Francisco for construction. The lighthouse was approximately 22 feet in diameter, 100 feet high, and the base of the walls was 6 feet thick. The original cost for this structure was $120,000. The light from the lighthouse could be seen plainly for 19 miles at sea.
Much of Point Arena, including its original lighthouse, was leveled in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. After the earthquake, Point Arena – including its lighthouse – was rapidly rebuilt and became home to the region’s ranch hands, foresters, and fishermen.
The first lumber mill was built in 1870 along the Garcia River, about 5 miles east of the city of Point Arena. The biggest hurdle the mill faced was transporting the manufactured lumber over to the wharf. A flume was constructed that used water and gravity to move the timber to port. The lumber was taken up a steep hill by an elaborate conveyor. Once at the top of the hill, the lumber was hauled by horses to the bluff top and later taken by train. The lumber was then sent down a chute to the cove and loaded on a waiting vessel.
Point Arena incorporated on July 3, 1908, inspired by a controversy over whether Point Arena would sell alcohol or go “dry.” The town had 14 liquor licenses and wanted to protect them in case Mendocino County went dry. By becoming a city, Point Arena could regulate and issue its own liquor licenses, as well as collect a larger share of the local taxes instead of relying on the county to share its revenue.
In 1927, a calamitous fire destroyed most of the town’s structures. The fire forced local business owners to respond to economic changes. Lumber mills and ranches were going out of business. Tourists were arriving. Buildings that served the old economy (hotels for mill workers, blacksmith shops, saloons) were replaced by buildings to serve the new economy (gas stations and a movie theater). Most of the buildings in the commercial district were constructed in 1927 and 1928, giving downtown Point Arena a timeless appearance.
In January 1983, huge storm waves roared in one after another at Arena Cove, destroying the pier and fish house and severely damaging the historic boat house and cafe. Not the first of such incidents, it was the worst since the original wharf was built. In 1987, a rebuilt steel and concrete pier 322 feet long with a boat hoist opened and remains to this day.
The independent spirit that prompted Point Arena to go its own way and twice rebuild itself in less than thirty years remains. Today, residents of Point Arena continue to value the rural character that comes from being located among the open fields and spectacular vistas along the Pacific Ocean. Residents of the City take pride in the fact that the community is self-contained and can meet their needs without reliance on big outside corporations.
With its wharf, monumental lighthouse and abundant natural beauty, Point Arena is a place that continues to draw in visitors. For its citizens, Point Arena is more than a wide place in the road. It is a unique place with unique flavor inhabited by unique people.
Point Arena has always been an independent place and that spirit still thrives today.
- The Early Days of Point Arena by Steve Oliff and Cheri Carlstedt, 2005
- City of Point Arena 2014-2019 Housing Element Update, December 2015
- The Pomo by Western Railroader, website accessed 1/5/2017
- Point Arena Light, Wikipedia website, accessed on 1/7/2017
- Point Arena, CA, LighthouseFriends.com, accessed on 1/7/2017