By DOUG LOVE, Chairman, California History Board
The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Oh, wait! They have already been here. During the Cold War, which lasted all of my childhood, the Russians were viewed as the enemy and a threat to our way of life; but that was not always the case. With the founding of New Archangel in Alaska in 1804, the Russians ranged up and down the California coast trading for supplies and hunting sea otters and other aquatic mammals. When the Spanish Crown decreed that there was to be no trading with the Russians in Alta California, the Russian-American Company decided to establish a permanent outpost in California. From 1812 until 1841, Fort Ross was that outpost.
Fort Ross State Historic State Park is a two hour drive from San Francisco up US 101 and CA-1 (The PCH) to a windy bluff north of Jenner on the Sonoma Coast. On the way, you will pass through the towns of Bodega Bay and Jenner. While in Bodega Bay, make sure to stop at Patrick’s Salt Water Taffy. You can’t miss the pink and white striped building. Patrick’s has been in business for 50 years selling taffy and other confections to visitors. (915 Hwy 1, Bodega Bay, 707-875-9816). You may want to stop for lunch in Bodega Bay and I can recommend both The Tides and Lucas Wharf Restaurant. If you want some fresh oysters you can try the Bodega Bay Oyster Company (12830 Valley Ford Road, Petaluma, 707-876-3010). In Jenner, you many want to try the Jenner Inn or River’s End.
When you arrive at Fort Ross, you enter through the Visitor’s Center which has a small museum, gift shop and a conference room in which you can view a short video on the history of this unique California historical site. Outside the Visitor’s Center, there is a replica of the first windmill built in California. After you exit the Visitor’s Center, there is a short trail to the reconstructed Fort Ross. Once you enter the wooden walls of the fort, there are several historic buildings to visit including two blockhouses, the Rotchev and Kuskov Houses, the Barracks, the Storehouse and the Chapel. Most of these buildings have been reconstructed over the years and each is furnished to suggest the life of the Russian settlers.
Fort Ross was originally established to provide food for the Rus- sian-American Company settlement in New Archangel and farming efforts never met demand. If you leave the Fort by the western gate, you can take a hiking path to the cemetery or to the McCall House. There are also trails which lead to the orchard originally planted by the Russians or to the cove beneath the fort.
In 1841, the Russian-American Company decided to sell Fort Ross. The poor farming and the declining sea otter population made the Fort an economic drain on the Company. The Fort was sold to Captain John Sutter, who sent John Bidwell to remove several buildings and moveable goods to his fort in the Sacramento Valley. Eventually, in 1873, the Fort was sold to George W. McCall, who established the 8,000-acre McCall Ranch and ran a successful ranch and lumber business. Many of the Fort’s buildings were put to use, one as a hotel and saloon and another as a dance hall. The chapel was used for wed- dings. The McCalls owned and lived on the ranch until 1973.
Fort Ross and the Russian presence have left a lasting legacy. Many place names in Sonoma, Napa and Lake Counties have Russian origins. The Russians converted many of the native Kashaya Pomo to Russian Orthodoxy and of course, there is the Fort itself, the cemetery and the orchards. But it was the establishment of Fort Ross which made the Mexican government send Mariano G. Vallejo to establish a military presence in the town of Sonoma. On the way back from Fort Ross, you may want to stop in the town of Occidental for dinner. There are two Italian restaurants in Occidental, Negri’s and the Union Hotel. These two restaurants have been competing with each other and serving great family- style Italian food since 1938. Do not expect to use a cell phone in Occidental—there is no service. Perhaps it is because Occidental is the home of the famous Bohemian Grove, summer retreat of the exclusive Bohemian Club. After all, I am sure that Dick Cheney and Barbara Boxer do not want cell phone pictures of themselves skinny dipping in the Club’s pool all over the Internet.