Hotel Arcata: A downtown home to hope, highs, lows and history

Hotel page corrected

Page A6 of the July 15, 2015 Mad River Union. More photos appear below.


Note: This address was given by Donald Forrest to attendees at the Hotel Arcata's Centennial event Friday, July 10. – Ed.

Donald Forrest
Special to the Union

Our story begins just west of present day Weaverville, just 60 miles east of here as the crow flies.

Early the morning of Nov. 5, 1849, Dr. Josiah Gregg convinced eight hungry, threadbare miners to walk to Trinidad on the Pacific Ocean from Rich Bar on the Trinity River. He told them it stood to reason that the Trinity River must flow into the Trinidad Bay named by Spanish explorers. Whereas the Indians (perhaps it was the Tsnungwa people) claimed it took two weeks to follow the rivers to the sea, however Gregg possessed “state of the art” surveyor’s instruments, therefore they could walk a straight path and be in Trinidad in five days, as the crow flies.

Seven weeks later, starving and broken, the party, including Lewis Keyser Wood, Josiah Gregg, David A. Buck and John Van Duzen had a knock-down-drag-out fight on the north bank of a swollen river. Eventually the river became known as the Mad River.

Christmas day 1849, just west of here on the Mad River slough, they encountered a Wiyot hunter/leader and blurted out the two rudest questions you can ask a Wiyot, “Who are you? Where are we?” – thus obligating their host to explain to them the history of the universe by way of introduction of place and person.

I won’t go that far tonight.

The Wiyot eventually told the party that the water of the bay was called Qua La Wa Loo. The men envisioned a sea port with access to the Trinity mines and vast tracts of timber.

The Union Company was formed. They staked out the Plaza over the Wiyot settlement of Kori. The men named their settlement Union Town. They built California’s first railroad, a horse-drawn plank system that ran from the outhwest corner of the Plaza onto a wharf extending almost a mile out into the bay, accommodating deep water shipping. The “fireproof” Jacoby’s Storehouse was built in 1857, where it stands today. It became the staging point for pack trains to the Trinity mines.

The barrel-making business was the largest employer in town, then came lumber mills, boat builders, stone quarry and dairy farms as the town was becoming respectable in size, reputation and families. The name was changed to Arcata in 1858. The name “Arcata” comes from the Yurok term oket’oh, that means “where there is a lagoon.”

As the gold fields played out, the demand for lumber increased. Wetlands were drained. The bay was diked. Mills were built. The railroad improved. Word of this labor-intensive boom brought immigrants to Arcata from northern Europe to the west coast. However the only way to travel to and from San Francisco was by ship or horse-drawn stage. The shifting, rocky terrain north of Santa Rosa stopped the Spanish in their quest to build missions from San Diego to Alaska.

The Northwestern Pacific Railroad linking Portland and San Francisco was completed in 1914. The same year, the Redwood Memorial Highway (Hwy. 101) would begin a 12-year construction. And it was in that year five prominent Arcatans commissioned the famous San Francisco architect W.H. Meeks to design a world-class hotel where we stand today.

It is interesting that this location has always been home to a hotel. The Eagle hotel was built in 1852 here. After it burned in 1858, the lot was rented to peddlers who stayed in tents and sold their wares. It is the place where Brizzard had his first store with rooms to let.

This is the place where Eureka contractors Elsemore and Jacobs eventually built this “fireproof” three-story brick masterpiece. It took one year to complete. The hotel opened in April of 1915 as the Sportsman’s Headquarters. Seventy-five guests registered opening day, paying $1 for a room with a sink and $2 for a room with a bath and toilet. An autobus met guests at the train station and stage line terminal and delivered them to the front door.

People came from near and far to celebrate the grand opening. Arcata residents gathered to see first-hand a building so grand it could boast electric lights and steam heat throughout. There was a pistol range in the basement.

The buzz was created in part by the Arcata Union and Eureka newspapers, which followed the building progress in front-page stories every week for a year.

The celebration unveiled the the interior featuring the finest collection of mounted game heads in California: bear, elk, mountain lion, antelope and wolves, all installed in the vast lobby by the hotel’s first managers, Thomas Bryant and Herman Haumann. The lobby took up the entire first floor of this building and included a fine dining room and lounge with showrooms for the wares of traveling salesmen, conventions and civic meetings as well as a barbershop.

The hotel served as the permanent residence for prominent citizens, a cultural destination for hunters, fishermen and travelers and practically the whole town would gather to enjoy Sunday dinners here. Because the Hotel Arcata was considered the finest in the county, the film casts of the 1916 Lass of the Lumberlands and the 1917 Valley of the Giants stayed at the hotel. During their stay, dining room business increased as many local citizens sought opportunities to see the movie stars.

If you have studied the historic photos along the lobby walls, you’ll appreciate how little the hotel has been altered from Weeks’ original plan. From the iron and hammered cooper marque to the cream-colored pressed brick exterior to the verde antique marble facade, the building remains faithful to original. Earthquake and fire damage have forced some alterations. The lobby has been partitioned to allow storefronts. The original 48 rooms are now 32, allowing more space and modern amenities. The gun range is gone; the basement, closed to the public, holds the furnace and a modern infrastructure hub.

But the clean lines of the Craftsman-era exterior remain as does the the Beaux-Arts detailing in the furnishings and woodwork of the interior and one-inch thick white tile covering the lobby floor.

The Hotel Arcata was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in January, 1984. These are some of the significant design elements they found distinctive:

The main entrance has several ornate features: the vestibule walls are covered with Tokeen Alaskan marble, with the floor covered with one-inch ceramic tile and colored border. The original oak veneer door has been replaced with wood frame plate glass doors. At each side of the vestibule entrance is a partial column, constructed of brick, with a Tuscan capital and scroll entablature.

A cast metal and hammered copper marquee, held stationary by turnbuckles, has a shell motif, reed moulding, and is fringed by small square spaces containing glass. The marquee is damaged in a few spots, and the wired glass that formed the marquee roof is no longer there. Above the marquee, a hood projects from the building about 12 inches and is the same width as the marquee.

A fillet and scroll motif molding, which extends around the south and east sides of the building, is continued across the hood. The hood is topped with a shell crest.

Within the context of the small City of Arcata, the Hotel Arcata has made a major architectural and commercial contribution.

On the historic Arcata Plaza, the Hotel Arcata has been at the hub of Arcata’s commercial district since 1915. Today, the Hotel Arcata appears essentially the same as it did when newly built and in the limelight of Arcata’s commerce and community life. The Hotel Arcata played a role in that era of expanding commerce by providing elegant lodging and dining for travelers and meeting rooms for civic, business and social organizations. The style, stature, and size of the Hotel Arcata made it a prominent structure in 1915 and accounts from that era describe the pride and thrill of having such a building and modern hotel business in Arcata.

The Hotel Arcata stands alone in Arcata; there are no other surviving hotel buildings and the only other three-story building in Arcata is the Jacoby Building. The building continues to convey the feeling of community and commercial life of a small city in the early 20th century.

During the ’70s, the grand old building fell on hard times, according to my girlfriend Alison, who resided on the second floor for a time, sharing a hallway bath with other residents until another fire brought a series of renovations and restorations. The City of Arcata bought the building in 1982 using funds from a Community Development Block Grant. Offering a complete restoration, the Lorenzo family purchased the building in 1986; however with so many rooms empty during the work, the revenue from the occupied rooms was not sufficient to service their debt.

It was at that point one of the major financiers of the renovation assumed the title and management of the Hotel Arcata. Those are the people of the Big Lagoon Rancheria.

The tribe, with respect to heritage, architecture and tradition, have indeed returned this grand place to its original status as a world-class hotel.

I have been part of Dell’Arte International in Blue Lake for 40 years. The Hotel has always been our choice to lodge guest artists and the Rancheria has been financially supportive of our work.

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