Whenever I am near the small town of Mendocino, I make a point of visiting. It is one of my favorite communities on California’s beautiful and rugged North Coast. Its unique, almost quaint look, has made it a favorite among Hollywood movie directors looking for the ideal coastal location for their films. It has starred in several movies including East of Eden where it became California’s Monterey and The Summer of 42 where it was transformed into a New England town.
Its best-known role, however, was as the small Maine town of Cabot Cove where Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) lived and was forever solving crimes in the TV series Murder She Wrote. Nine episodes of the 12-year, 264 series were actually filmed on location and almost all of the episodes included shots of the town and surrounding areas.
I drove south on Highway 1 to Mendocino from where I was staying in Fort Bragg for a few days on my North Coast trip in August. The region is filled with parks and lots of memories. One was particularly memorable. Peggy and I were camped in our van on a small river. It rained cats and dogs all night, or make that whales and elephant seals. I woke up and looked out our van window in the morning. A seagull was swimming by! Waves were lapping at our tires. We vacated the premises— quickly.
Dark and stormy nights have been particularly harsh on ships sailing up and down California, Oregon and Washington’s rocky coast, especially in the days before satellites and GPS. To counter the danger, a series of lighthouses and foghorns had been placed along the coast. In memory of the time our van Quivera almost became a shipwreck, I stopped off at Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park just north of Mendocino and walked the half-mile out to the lighthouse. It is still doing its duty but automation has long since put the lighthouse keeper out to pasture. His house has now become a museum and his assistant’s house has become a guest cottage that visitors can rent. I paid homage to the days of yore and drove on to Mendocino.
The community started out as a logging town with a dog hole port in the 1850s, as so many North Coast towns did. Dog hole refers to the size of the port. If you’ve ever watched a dog turn around to fit into a bed it has scratched out in the dirt, you get the idea. Like the dog in his hole, the ship had just enough space to turn around. Given the additional challenge of steep cliffs, logs were loaded onto ships via a slide that reached down to the deck.
Mendocino was first named Meiggsville after Henry Meiggs, a San Francisco entrepreneur who had come west to make his fortune in the California Gold Rush. Anything with dollar signs attached had attracted his attention. Redwood lumber needed to build the rapidly growing San Francisco fit the description— as did an opportunity to defraud the city. Before the sheriff could catch up with him, however, Meiggs had skipped out to South America where he made a fortune building railroads and became the “virtual dictator of Peru” according to Wikipedia.
Meiggsville was renamed Mendocino after the cape it is located on and did quite well for the next hundred years selling lumber until the timber industry crashed and it became a backwater town with little money and fewer people. Artists discovered it in the 50s, as they often do when a place is both beautiful and inexpensive. Tourists weren’t far behind. Inexpensive no longer describes Mendocino, but the town has retained its beauty and still has a thriving art community.
I did what I always do in Mendocino: walked up and down the streets, hiked along the coast, bought my quota of books at the Gallery Bookstore, and scarfed down a delicious meal.
NEXT BLOG: It snowed here on Sunday providing an opportunity for Peggy and me to go on a winter-wonderland walk. Photos from the walk will provide our holiday card to the great folks who follow this blog from around the world.