A century of service at the First Presbyterian Church

GOTHIC SPLENDOR The original First Presbyterian Church at the corner of 11th and G streets in Arcata.  Submitted photo

Katy Allen
Special To The Union

The year 2017 was a rather remarkable one for the First Presbyterian Church on the corner of 11th and G streets in Arcata, for a couple of reasons.

On the positive side, it marked the 100th year since the construction of the main structure that you see today. On the negative side, it was the year that some as-yet-unknown individual threw a torch onto the porch, burning someone seeking shelter for the night as well as much of the entrance to the church.

Ironically, this fire occurred just at a time when the church leaders were about to launch a fund-raising campaign to reroof and repaint this historic structure. They were struck, however, by the outpouring of love and support they received from the community following the fire. For this reason, it seemed like a good time to share with the readers of the Mad River Union a little of the history of this cornerstone, the only remaining church in downtown Arcata.

Above, the church that now stands at the corner was rebuilt in 1917. Submitted photo

In 1859, when Arcata was a town of about 500 people, a women’s sewing circle was organized to raise funds for the construction of a Presbyterian church. Construction of the first structure at the present site began in July of 1860, a Gothic frame building costing $3,000. About half that amount was raised through local pledges.

Three couples agreed to ride horseback into the hills to solicit funds from the miners to pay for the other half. They rode to Hoopa, Weitchpec, Orleans Bar, Forks of Salmon and Sawyer’s Bar, a trip of 104 miles, and came back to Arcata with $600 in gold dust, which at that time was a common medium of exchange.

On March 28, 1861, the church was dedicated. It occupied one-eighth block at the corner of 11th and G, facing south (on the 11th Street side) with a steep flight of steps to the front doors. The Rev. Scott was the first minister, followed by James McDonald in 1862 who noted that “this house of worship stood very near the border of the great Redwood forest, whose lofty and splendid trees cast their morning shadows over it.”

By 1913 the town of Arcata had grown to about 1,200 people. The minister at the time, the Reverend Hessel, felt that the community needed a recreation center of some sort for the youth of the day. Hessel was the first Scoutmaster in Arcata and very interested in providing activities for kids.

With his encouragement, a two story social center was built, facing G Street and right next to the original church. The most interesting feature of this new building was a gymnasium with floating wood floor on the second level. This was Arcata’s first ever gym. Downstairs was a large room for social events with an attached kitchen.

This structure is still there today. As you face the present church on G Street, it’s the portion that is to the left of the front porch area.

By 1916, church leaders decided that the original church structure was in such poor repair that it needed to be completely torn down and replaced.

The wife of George Zehndner (the same individual who donated the now-controversial statue of President McKinley to Arcata) donated half the funds that were raised for this project. The project was completed in May of 1917.

Fun fact – the original bell that was purchased in 1860 for the first church was relocated to the new bell tower and is still rung every Sunday to this day.

This new, more imposing structure (which you see today) takes up considerably more ground space than the first one – 112 feet along G Street and 68 feet on 11th Street.

The sanctuary can seat 300 people and the balcony another 80. Being built during World War I, the first issue of the new church newsletter contained a statement by the Rev. Hessel stating that “this issue is dedicated to the sons of our families, whose names appear upon the roll of honor... May they be girded with strength to do the right to the uttermost, and to shun that which is wrong... (and) when arms are laid aside, and armies are disbanded, may they return to us with rejoicing.”

Arcata Presbyterian has a long history of serving its neighbors. For 35 years it has provided an average of 100 local families with a turkey and other foods for a complete Christmas dinner along with gifts for the children.

In order to make this happen, the church has forged partnerships with the Soroptimists, five local schools and the Humboldt Area Foundation. It has also provided the community with low-cost gently used clothing and housewares for 54 years from a thrift shop which is currently housed in the basement of the church. 

The current Arcata House Partnership began in 1982 as a project called “The Food Endeavor” which was run on church property from 1982-1995. The Redwood Reading Service for the Blind also began here. And many organizations, too numerous to list, have met and continue to meet at the corner of 11th and G.

As the reader can see, the Arcata Presbyterian Church is not only a lovely 100 year old structure, but, more importantly, an integral part of this community.