Humboldt Bay Harbor Recreation and Conservation District includes both the Port of Humboldt Bay and the Port of Eureka. Humboldt Bay is California’s second biggest natural bay, and the District is responsible for protecting its environment, including marshes and estuaries. Located about 225 miles north of San Francisco, it is the only large deep-water port for California north of San Francisco Bay.
The primary city for the Port of Humboldt Bay, Eureka was established on the site of Fort Humboldt, and it was the scene of several Native uprisings. Based on exploitation on the redwood forests and mining, Eureka is a lumber and commercial fishing center as well as the headquarters for the Six Rivers National Forest.
For thousands of years, the Wiyot people lived in what is now Eureka. Europeans first explored the area as early as 1579, but they did not locate the Port of Humboldt Bay because it was concealed by a narrow entrance. Overland exploration finally discovered the Bay in 1849, leading to the settlement of Eureka a year later by the Union and Mendocino Exploring companies. Before 1850, the fierce defenses of the Wiyot people prevented landing parties from surveying the area. After 1850, the Europeans overwhelmed the indigenous peoples and cut off their ancestral food sources.
At the time of the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, prospectors found gold near Eureka and the Port of Humboldt Bay. Ships soon entered Humboldt Bay to provide an alternate to the difficult overland route to and from Sacramento. Many of those prospectors were also lumbermen, and they soon discovered the potential for a healthy lumber industry in the area.
Only four years after Eureka’s establishment, seven mills were processing timber into lumber to be exported on ships through the Port of Humboldt Bay. Only a year later, 140 schooners carried lumber from the magnificent redwoods to other cities along the Pacific coast.
This development led to the building of a busy commercial district near the waterfront at the Port of Humboldt Bay, with hundreds of ornate Victorian homes that still stand today. The famous Carson Mansion may well be the best example of Victorian architecture in the U.S. Built in the mid 1880s to keep mill workers and craftsmen busy during a slow period, the mansion was created for lumber baron William Carson.
Old Town Eureka is now a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been restored and made an important arts center. Many of the old Victorian homes are now lodgings, shops, restaurants, and home to cottage industries for hand-crafts.
The City of Eureka was and is largely dependent on the Port of Humboldt Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Salmon fisheries grew up along the Eel River in the mid-1800s, and thousands of barrels of cured fish and smoked salmon were shipped out of the Port of Humboldt Bay every year. The Port of Humboldt Bay is also the site of huge oyster farming operations. It is still home to over 200 fishing boats.
When the first reliable land route linked Eureka and San Francisco in 1914, the city’s population exploded to 15,000. By 1922, the Redwood Highway provided a direct land route for automobiles. The Eureka Inn, which is still one of the largest lodgings in the region, opened to provide luxurious accommodations and services for travelers. Eureka proudly named itself the “Queen City of the Ultimate West” and gave birth to an impressive tourism industry.
Since the 1950s, the timber and fishing industries have steadily declined with overcutting and overfishing, increased regulation, and forest preservation efforts. Beginning in the 1970s, lower profits led to layoffs that shook the community. Even so, timber and fishing still play an important role in the local economy, and the Port of Humboldt Bay and Eureka continue to be important regional centers for commerce, healthcare, and tourism.