Russian River History

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Formation of River and Valley

Even before the flow of the Russian River was augmented by the diversion of hydroelectric runoff from the Eel River, it was formidable enough to push its way through the mountains being forced upward and eastward at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the river's twists and turns come from eons of struggling against this tremendous force. The entire valley, all the way down to the river banks, was likely covered with a dark and dense forest of ancient redwoods. It would have been barely penetrable for Native Americans 5000 years ago, as indeed it was for European settlers until the logging of the forest began late in the 19th century. But when the Indians did venture forth through the forest, they found a paradise of life giving resources.

Indian Settlement

Experts believe the Pomo settled in Sonoma County, particularly along the Russian River (which they called Shabaikai meaning "long snake") as early as 5000BCE. Around the turn of the century, scientists named the Native Americans of Sonoma County "red earth people" or "poomo," but the Pomo called themselves the Pat-Win ("open people" or "people who lived outside"). The Pomo called their land Sonoma, perhaps a combination of the Pomo words sono ("big nose") and ma ("land") after a tribal chief. Jack London, among others, thought the name meant "valley of the moon" after the Pomo legend that when the moon rises farthest to the north, it will show its face seven times between the seven peaks of the Sonoma Mountains. Others believe that the name Sonoma came from the Pomo words tso ("earth place") and noma ("village").
The Pomo of the Russian River Valley built their dome-shaped Wickiups, temporary dwellings made of poles tied together at the top and thatched with mud and reeds, along the banks of the Russian River in summer and farther up the hillsides in winter. The Russian River Valley was richly forested and provided an abundance of wild game, fish, fruits and berries in a temperate climate. The valley was sheltered from yet accessible to the ocean and so provided cooling ocean breezes along with inland warmth. The Pomo mined obsidian to make tools and cultivated tobacco for ceremonial uses. Otherwise, they lived off the bounty of the land, ocean and river, including fish and shellfish, and acorns from the native Black Oak. Like most river cultures, the Pomo created watertight baskets. Visit the Healdsburg Museum to see these beautiful baskets for yourself.

The Pomo were not impacted much by the arrival of the Spanish in California in the 18th century, as the construction of missions extended only slightly north of San Francisco. However, European diseases and the settlement of Fort Ross in the early 18th century by Russian fur traders, who needed cheap labor, did take their toll. Although the Pomo resisted exploitation, by the time gold seekers began to arrive in 1949, tribal numbers had greatly declined. Real history buffs may enjoy this more detailed history of the Pomo.

Happily, after much adversity and impressive legal maneuvering, the Pomo still inhabit this area and have established some reservation land. Each autumn, they gather together to celebrate the acorn harvest and their ancient traditions.

Early European Settlement

By 1531, Spain claimed most of the Americas including California. Still, in 1741, the Spanish had not settled up the California coast when the Russians established fur trading settlements in Alaska. In need of a reliable food supply, the Russians soon began moving down the coast in search of places they could establish an agricultural outpost. Spain had to occupy the land or give it up to Russia. By 1776, Spain had built missions and presidios (military posts) up the coast from San Diego to San Francisco. There was uneasy coexistence for decades, long enough for the Russians to establish an agricultural post in 1812 at coastal Fort Ross, on the edge of a paradise rich for growing crops. The Russians moved in and, with the labor of the local Pomo Indians, built a thriving farming community that would supply the other Russian settlements with food.
As California changed hands from Spain to a newly independent Mexico in 1821, Mexico established a few other missions, including one at San Rafael (Marin County), just north of San Francisco. Mexico's General Vallejo also built a mission and fort at Sonoma (now the town of Sonoma) and a home in Petaluma, however there was no formal conflict with the Russian Fort Ross settlement. Nevertheless, Vallejo believed that becoming part of the United States was the best protection against Russian and European aggression and encouraged American settlement of Northern California. The Russians abandoned Fort Ross in 1839-40 and sold the land to John Sutter just in time for the Gold Rush. In 1848, the Russian River Valley became part of the United States of America along with the rest of the State of California.

Growth of Russian River Towns: Cazadero

Long before the coming of European settlers or San Francisco tourists, the Pomo Indians settled three towns in the area just north of Cazadero, leaving petroglyphs, pestles (stone tool for grinding acorns) and other tools for us to find. The town of Cazadero was founded by Silas Deras Ingram in 1869 as a hunting resort named "Ingrams." In 1886, when Ingram persuaded the North Pacific Coast Railroad to extend its rail line from Duncans Mills to the new town, the government agreed to establish an official Post Office bearing this name. In 1888, George Simpson Montgomery, a wealthy businessman from San Francisco, bought Ingrams and changed its name to Cazadero (Spanish for "The Hunting Place").

Montgomery viewed his new acquisition as a great investment opportunity and proceeded to subdivide and sell the parcels, while developing a resort town for the Bay Area's adventurous sportsmen and tourists. At the time of his purchase, Montgomery was a wealthy, well-connected man who enjoyed a carousing lifestyle. But, in 1890, as a born-again Christian, he attempted to transform Cazadero into a "temperence town," outlawing alcohol and gambling. This did not sit well with tourists or the local population who continued to turn out bootleg liquor from backcountry stills.

In 1907, as part of the sales agreement between Montgomery and buyers Samuel Break and Rufus Chapman, the redwood forest of Cazadero was supposed to be logged to the tune of 7.5 million board feet. Fortunately, Break and Chapman had neither the heart nor the resources to carry out this devastation. This turned out to be a lucky break for the town. In 1933, as the last Cazadero train pulled out of the station, the tourism industry died, and the town was sustained by the industry of sustainable logging. It's also a lucky break for us, because eventually those gorgeous redwoods attracted a new breed of tourists who can visit and be sustained by the majesty of these giant trees.

Growth of Russian River Towns: Duncans Mills

Duncans Mills is named for brothers S.M. and A. Duncan, who, by 1877, set up a sawmill to supply the growing city of San Francisco with lumber. First came the rail line to carry lumber and, soon after, the rail to carry people. The town grew to include two hotels, a general store, a saloon, a meat market, a blacksmith, a livery stable and a notion shop. The town was largely abandoned during the Great Depression and stayed that way until the early 1970's, when city folks became interested in visiting this area again. The historic town began to be restored. Visitors today can visit the vintage buildings of the original town, housing new and fun shops, as well as the intact North Pacific Coast Railroad depot with several original railroad cars. See great photos of Duncans Mills today.

Growth of Russian River Towns: Guerneville

Like the other nearby towns in the Russian River Valley, Guerneville was settled as a logging town. In 1860, R. B. Lunsford dropped anchor on the banks of the Russian River on what was known as Big Bottom. At that time, visitors could take in a hollow tree stump in which twenty horses could stand and watch felled trees floating in great numbers down the Russian River from Guerneville to the new mills downstream at Monte Rio, Duncans Mills and Cazadero. Guerneville came to be known as "Stumptown." Along with logging, there was also quicksilver mining to attract fortune seekers. All this activity created the largest, busiest town on the lower Russian River. Stumptown boasted a general merchandise store, a grocery store, a market, a boot and shoemaker, two hotels, a restaurant, a livery stable, a blacksmith shop, a wagon shop, a church, a public school, a lodge, and a chair-factory. With the passenger railroad came a river resort-based tourism. Along with other attractions, sternwheelers and small ferries with names like the Quickstep and the River Queen took passengers between the towns along this stretch of the Russian River. 

As the Great Depression hit, the railroad line was discontinued and Guerneville shrank down to the small town we enjoy today. In the late 20th century, it was rediscovered by a discerning population of city dwellers who have since flocked to an array of resorts, shops, fine foods and other entertainments, as well activities generated by the natural beauty of the Russian River and the surrounding redwood forest covered mountains.

Growth of Russian River Towns: Monte Rio

In the late 19th century, San Francisco's booming growth demanded a boom of lumber. In response, by 1876, the North Pacific Coast Railroad had built a line that traveled through Marin and Sonoma Counties, stopping in Fairfax, Point Reyes Station, Tomales, Freestone, Occidental, and finally to the abundant forests of the Russian River Station. In 1902 the station boasted a hotel and restaurant and became "Montrio," until 1924 when the Post Office officially changed the town's name to Monte Rio.

By 1903, the sunny deforested hills of Monte Rio were sold as as parcels for vacationing residents. This development was encouraged by the completion of the "broad rail" line in 1909 that brought crowds of tourists from the Bay Area on a daily basis, and Monte Rio, the "Vacation Wonderland," was born. Every kind of entertainment of the time was enjoyed along with the natural splendor of the Russian River herself. The party continued until the Great Depression; the last train left Monte Rio in 1935.

Local residents keep some of Monte Rio's most treasured historical festivities alive and today's visitors can enjoy the Water Carnival, the Big Rocky Games and the fabulous 4th of July parade and fireworks show.

Preservation of the Redwoods

In the Russian River Valley, the Pomo used redwood for occasional religious purposes and had great respect for the trees, but mostly stayed away from the woods because they believed they were haunted. They did not use redwood for building or making tools. The Russian settlers did not use redwood much for building either (little did they know!), although occasionally they would cut logs for support beams. It was the gold miners who discovered the amazing qualities of redwood for building, and as word got out, it came to be in high demand. Much of the lumber went to build gold-rich San Francisco and other Bay Area cities, but fortunately, some enlightened folks saw the need to preserve some of the Russian River Valley's arboreal heritage.

The most accessible example is Armstrong Grove (Woods), a preserve of 680 acres of old growth redwood trees, founded by Colonel J.B. Armstrong, a prescient soul who fought to keep the forest intact instead cutting it down for lumber. Armstrong was a veteran of the Civil War, a civil engineer, and a newspaper publisher. Upon his death in 1916, Armstrong's daughter sold the land to the County for $80,000. The County in turn sold the land to the State for the same amount in 1934, on the condition that the state would spend $80,000 more to create a public park.

Today, visitors can walk and drive through Armstrong Woods, thanks to Colonel Armstrong's forward thinking. There are trails for strolling and trails for hiking, picnic areas, a visitor's center and horseback riding. You can stand inside a lightning struck tree and count the rings of a fallen log. Visit this page for children's activity guide. Up the road, there's camping at Bullfrog Pond, and access to Austin Creek Recreation Area, 4236 acres of back country which stretches west to Cazadero.

Preservation of the River

The Russian River was life-giving to the Pomo Indians, who trapped salmon in its pools and wove baskets out of the willows on its sandy banks. The first European settlers described the river as swamplike with many side riverlets, bounded by wetlands and riparian forest. The river flow dried up in the summer; the fish survived in deep pools until the next rains.

By the late 19th century, European farmers were already starting to fill in the wetlands surrounding the river for agriculture. However, the biggest change came in 1908 when the water from the Eel River was diverted to the new Potter Valley Hydroelectric Plant, supplying electricity to much of Mendocino, Sonoma, Lake and Napa Counties. Once it had flowed through the Plant, the water was passed into the headwaters of the Russian River, creating a year-round flow (which made the farmers downriver very happy). An additional hydroelectric diversion added more water to the Russian River flow and created the conditions for the development of the river beach vacation industry along its banks. Of course this bonanza of year-round water also created the issue of winter flooding. Ever since, the State has undertaken a variety of projects aimed at controlling the flooding which have been largely successful.

There are folks who claim that they remember the days when the river was crowded with steelhead and salmon. Like most of America's rivers, the Russian River has experienced substantial degradation from human activity. However, as there is relatively little industry along the river and there has been a tremendous effort to restore the river's integrity over the past 40 years, the Russian River is one of the cleanest in the nation and very safe for water recreation.

The Russian River has long been viewed as a navigable river thanks to the 19th century loggers floating trees downriver to the mills and the early 20th century tourist boom in river travel. This "navigable river" status is good for visitors today because it means that most of the beaches are public. Anyone can visit the local neighborhood beach if they know where the-less-than-obvious access path is through the mostly privately owned land (we'll share our secrets with you!). The beaches are also accessible by boat; canoeists and kayakers can frequently be seen picnicking in privacy on a beach along the River. The River is dammed at Guerneville, starting in June, which slows the flow and warms the water and makes an even more hospitable place for swimming and boating.

History of the Finest Wine

The Russians who settled along the coast in the early 1800s grew the first grapes in Sonoma County. The logging of the Russian River redwood forests brought large numbers of European immigrants, including Italians who led the way to producing the fine wines we have today. By 1890, almost 250 farmers were working approximately 6,000 acres of grapes which produced a million gallons of wine in a year. While producing a third of the nation's wine, Russian River Valley grapegrowers were hampered early in the 20th century by the phylloxera epidemic and lowered grape prices. They were later further diminished by Prohibition, followed by the Great Depression. 

For many years, the hotter Napa Valley was the preferred site for premium wine production. The better wines were not attempted in the Russian River Valley because it was not thought to be warm enough. However, in the 1960's, some creative winegrowers reinvigorated the Russian River Valley grape growing tradition by introducing new grape varieties, chardonnay and pinot noir, which are well suited to our temperate climate.

Today the Russian River Valley is home to a dazzling variety of vineyards, many of which have tasting rooms and gorgeous fall foliage. Look to Russian River Valley Winegrowners for more information.