Where is Fort Dick, California?


The tiny town of Fort Dick is north of Crescent City, California, and only a few miles south of the Oregon state line. Also called ‘Russell’s Prairie,’ at one point, Fort Dick dates to before the official establishment of Crescent City, when an unknown settler’s log house served as a “fort” as a defense from the Indian attacks.

Jedediah Smith entered the area of Fort Dick and skirted the eastern edge of Lake Earl between June 14th and the 16th, 1828.  During this time, not only did they explore the area, but they made contact with the Tolowa Indians.

The company pushed up the beach until they struck a “low neck of land running into the sea where there was plenty of clover and grass for our horses” on June 14th and camped. The trappers were forced to take to the sea for several hundred yards at a time, “the swells some times would be as high as the horses (sic) backs.”

The company remained on the south bank of Elk Creek on the 15th, while several hunters went out, where one of them killed a buck elk, “weighing 695 lbs., neat weight.” A number of Tolowa came into camp at this time, “bringing fish, clams, strawberries, and camas roots,” which the party bought.

The next day, the company rode out, heading north-northwest, where they had a lot of difficulty in getting the horses across Elk Creek, and had to “to make a pen on the bank to force them across.” They then camped on the wooded flats south of Lake Earl.

Skirting the eastern margin of Lake Earl, the trappers camped three nights in between the lake and what would later be known as Kings Valley. On June 20th the company struck eastward, crossed Howland Hill, where Smith saw the river destined in later years to bear his name.

After they climbed the ridge separating the watersheds of Smith River and Myrtle Creek. The night of the 21st was spent overlooking the headwaters of Little Mill and Myrtle Creeks.

Instead of pushing on to High Divide, Smith led his men westward out of the mountains, halting for the night of the 22nd near where Morrison Creek flows into Smith River.  By the following day that had unknowingly entered the Oregon territory, where they pitched camp along the Windchuck Creek.

As they rode northward up the Oregon coast, the Mountain Men advanced along the shore where possible, though a rocky bluff often forced them inland. To ford the many water courses, Smith had to wait for ebb tide.

Although less difficult than passing through the mountains, progress was slow. The 12 miles made on June 25th, was called the ‘best march for a long time,’ by Smith.

By the evening of July 13th, the company had reached the Umpqua River. The next morning, as the men were cooking breakfast, they were attacked by 100 or more Indians.

Within a few minutes, all the party except Smith, Arthur Black, and John Turner were dead. Turner ran into Smith as he was returning from a reconnaissance, where he told Smith of the massacre.

Believing they were the only ones who escaped, the two started for the Willamette Valley. However, Black was able to track Smith and Turner, eventually joining them for the trek north.

Of the 18 white men who first entered the Fort Dick area, 15 died.  Their June 14th camp site is along Elk Creek, a quarter of a mile west of U.S. 101 and  Elk Valley Road.

Due to continuous unrest between the settlers and Indians, in 1862 the military was called in, at the request of the Department of Indian Affairs, to set up a presence at Fort Dick. However, the military selected a site at what is known as Camp Lincoln, jus’ east of Fort Dick.

In 1888 a shake and shingle mill, owned by the four Bertsch brothers (Frederick, Jacob, Joseph  and William H.) moved to Fort Dick and town was renamed ‘Newburg.’  A second post office was set up in 1917 — the first in 1896 — and the name of the town reverted back to Fort Dick.

Nearby is the Yontocket Historic District, where a Tolowa village named Hawunkwut was once located. The district is an archeological site added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, commemorating the Yontocket Massacre of Tolowa people by white settlers in 1853.

The dead were unceremoniously thrown into the slough, and the village burned, after which it was known as ‘Burnt Ranch.’ The Yontocket Slough was once the main drainage channel of the Smith River, but about 900 years ago, the river abandoned the channel.

A 1856 map of the area shows the slough (then named ‘Ottawa Slough’) tidally connected to the Smith River and the upstream Tryon Creek flowing south into Lake Earl but dune migration has cut off this connection.  The slough has silted about 16 inches since the 1850s.

In 1881, Yontocket Slough was described as “literally alive with salmon” even after years of commercial harvest. In December 1861, an early fishery, Woodbury’s cannery and 400 barrels of salmon were washed out by the Noachian Deluge.

Continual harvesting in excess of 50 tons per year however, led to the decline of the fishery which was closed to commercial take during the 1930s. The 1964 Christmas flood added several inches of silt on top of the sediments, further reducing its depth and the fish habitat.

By 1942, the slough began to isolate from tidal influences. Before the 1942 construction of Pala Road, dividing the slough into a lower (near the Smith River at the northern end) and an upper part, salmon used the three-and-a-half mile stretch of water to migrate between the river and their upstream spawning grounds.

A transplanted Italian, Andrew Tomasini arrived in California March 15th, 1911. His Fort Dick Tavern opened in 1930.

At that time, the Volstead Act was law and the establishment was instead ‘an ice cream and sandwich shop.’  When Prohibition lifted in 1933, Tomasini obtained his liquor license, which eventually became the oldest ever held in Del Norte County at the time.

The original bar, now well over a century old, is still in use at ‘Tomasini’s Enoteca,’ on 3rd Street in Crescent City. The restaurant is owned and operated by Sacha Tomasini, Andrew’s granddaughter.

Former long-time resident Victor Shaw writes in his blog, ‘Tells-n-Lies,’ “Fort Dick also claims ownership of Pacific Shores one of the largest failed ocean front subdivisions in all of California. The miles and miles of abandoned paved roads of Pacific Shores provided a place for thousands of us to learn to drive.”

“The main road leading to Pacific Shores Kellogg Road is maintained as access to Kellogg Beach and literally leads right to the sand and beach,” he adds. “Kellogg Road has served as the Crescent City drag strip for the last forty years.”

“On Lake Earl Drive there has always been a sign that says Fort Dick and list a population and elevation just like every other city or town in California,” Shaw concludes. “The population has been 350 or 500 in my time and has swelled with the arrival of the prison and these days’ nearly 1000 people call Fort Dick home.”

Opening in 1989, Pelican Bay State Prison is a supermax California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation state prison. The 275-acre facility is explicitly designed to keep California’s alleged “worst of the worst” prisoners in long-term solitary confinement.

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One thought on “Where is Fort Dick, California?

  1. I enjoyed this read, I lived on the end of Old Mill Rd in Crescent City, my family still owns the land. I walked or rode horseback on nearly every inch of the Totowa lands. Thank you for the history

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