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Trinidad California's Landscape History

Updated on June 11, 2017

Trinidad is a small, seaside village in Humboldt County, California. At times it has claimed the dubious distinction of being the smallest incorporated city in the state, but the length of its history belies the smallness of its population. Its landscape is a complex mix of many facets which have been built up over time as a result of the shifting economic demands of the region and Trinidad’s tenacious ability to adapt its character to ensure economic survival The personae of Trinidad reflects its varied heritage of Native Americans, timbermen, fishermen, and tourists.The character derived from these communities is apparent throughout the town in both the physical and cultural landscape.

Trinidad, of course, did not spring to life fully formed. The first people who defined its character were Native Americans of the Yurok tribe, with a Tsurai village being sited near present Trinidad. The Yuroks were hunters and gatherers who lived in permanent villages and were dependent on the vast local resources, particularly salmon and shellfish.

Surf fishing all but ended in the 1950s, unable to survive the increasing destruction of the fragile habitat caused by recreational use of the beaches.
Surf fishing all but ended in the 1950s, unable to survive the increasing destruction of the fragile habitat caused by recreational use of the beaches.

They utilized surf fishing to harvest smaller fish such as smelt or herring 2. Because the Yuroks had a rather spiritual connection to nature, they made little impact on the land. Salmon were allowed to pass upriver for half a moon before any were caught, thus allowing the strongest to spawn, ensuring the vibrancy of the salmon population. White man’s methods of logging, farming, and fishing have changed the terrain and created problems for the native way of harvesting. 3 However, despite some brief incursions from the Spanish, the Yurok were mostly left to their own devices until the middle of the 19th century.

The Gold Rush first defined Trinidad as an American city and made the initial impact on its geography. Because Trinidad is a natural port and near potential gold reserves, it attracted hordes of miners, causing the white population to skyrocket during this era. During 1851- 1852, it had a population of over three thousand people. However, a few years later, when it was discovered that the nearby gold could not be efficiently extracted, Trinidad’s temporary importance disappeared and the town became rundown and driven by economic hardships. This is documented by Dwight Manning in “The History of Trinidad”:

Trinidad is becoming an empty place, business is almost at a standstill. Most people who came here this spring have gone either to the mines or to San Francisco. Even the Indians had moved away. They are building a new little village about 3 miles from here on the coast [Luffenholtz Beach]. Since the Indians on the Klamath are hostile, one had suspicions about the locals as well. At the nearby village they were sometimes bothered by the odd drunken white man, who perhaps treated them in an obnoxious fashion, which made them decide to move their village to another location.

Difficulties with Native Americans during the period, while limited, still embedded themselves into the popular imagination and opinion. Literature of this period singles out trust issues between pioneers and the natives, combined with immense suspicion and negative connotation. Native Americans were depicted as shifty and dangerous. 7 This negative stereotyping did little to promote positive pioneer-indigenous relations nor help to promote settlement. In fact, these growing sentiments led to the building of Fort Humboldt, in present day southern Eureka.

With the end of the gold boom, Trinidad needed to find another means to ensure economic survival and so its denizens looked to exploit a different resource, lumber. The first timber mills were built in Trinidad in the 1850s. One was south of town at what is now Luffenholtz Creek and another at Mill Creek, on the north side of Trinidad. The two timber mills and a shingle mill employed up to 200 people in the area. 9 At the time the railroad was not connected to Trinidad, and so the harbor became a lumber port with a significant infrastructure of tramways.The most popular method of shipping lumber offshore was through heavy cables attached between a buoy in the bay and a ship, at which the cable was made fast and the lumber was hauled ashore in sling loads.

Elevated tramway in Trinidad, 1893. Regard the elevated tramway
Elevated tramway in Trinidad, 1893. Regard the elevated tramway

The lumber came from camps which were within walking distance of Trinidad. Due to the impassibility of the roads, walking entailed certain difficulties which made it necessary to leave by 4 o’clock in the morning. However, there was room and board for those who did not care to walk to and from work each day. Naturally such hard working lumbermen had their own needs, and there was a saloon in Trinidad - Pinkham’s Saloon. In proximity to Trinidad was a quarry at “Potato Rock” which was used for providing the stone to build the jetties of Humboldt Bay. The train finally reached Potato Rock in 1906. There were few passengers during this time period as the train mostly served to transport lumber and then, whale oil in the 1920s.

Because the timber mills depended on shipping products out of the area, the accompanying harbor infrastructure grew alongside the industry, which precipitated the Trinidad lighthouse. Between 1850-1865 at least 25 vessels were lost off California’s north coast, which led to the lighthouse proposal on the ocean-facing side of Trinidad head. Funding was approved in 1871, and the lighthouse entered operational service in 1871 and has mostly remained the same since then.

The local Yuroks were affected by the timber industry as well. The traditional split redwood houses were replaced with milled board. A description of the village follows:

At one time it comprised a dozen redwood slab houses, a sweat house, water hole, brush-dance pit, graves, boat landing, and trails leading to and from the village. Shown are houses made of sawn lumber that replaced the original traditionally-built village. The core of the village rested right above the beach, about 25 feet from the Pacific breaker line at the base of a coastal bluff half a mile east of Tsurewa (Trinidad Head). The hillside protected the people of Tsurai village from the wind, but there was no shelter to be found from the incursion of white settlers.

Tsurai village when still in existence
Tsurai village when still in existence

At the turn of the century Congress gave authority to purchase land for homeless California Native Americans. In turn, sixty acres in Trinidad along Highway 101 were purchased in 1908 to form the Rancheria, composed of Yurok, Wiyot, and Tolowa peoples. The forming of the Rancheria has not only protected the cultural heritage of its members but has ensured a permanent place for the Native Americans in the makeup of Trinidad’s landscape. During this period, another industry was born in Trinidad, one that was controversial due to its notorious stench which permeated into every household in the village. After several rejections, Trinidad accepted a bid for a Norwegian-based whaling station which operated from 1920 to 1926 at the base of the harbor. The station was active for several successful years, catching as many as nine whales per day averaging 50 feet in length.This length is apparent counterpoised with the whaling crew in the following picture. While landscape naturally tends to focus on the visual, in this case it is necessary to note the odory senses because reputedly the Trinidad whaling station produced an extraordinary smell. The complaints from this environmental hazard, along with overharvesting and advances in technology, led to the closing of the whaling station in 1926. 19 The following excerpt from the Trinidad Museum Society newsletter provides a vivid idea of the issues with smell from the whaling station:

The smell of the Trinidad whaling station carried for many miles and was the talk of the county! The lumber town of Crannell was the recipient of the majority of the odor carried by the prevailing north winds. No one had a refrigerator, just screened coolers, so the women always had to pull the butter out of the cooler or else it would pick-up the whale smell. My Grandfather, William Chaffey, was operating the grocery store in Trinidad, and, at times, clerks were hard to hire because of the strong whale odor.

Note the length of the whale
Note the length of the whale

As the whaling industry died out due to the declining number of whales (particularly humpbacks), Trinidad turned to salmon fishing in the late 1920s with some 50-100 salmon trollers regularly at anchor in the harbor as photographed in another photo. Because Trinidad did not have sufficient infrastructure to support the industry (The wharf was not built until 1945), barges were used to manufacture ice and tow salmon to Eureka for the fishermen.

The old Trinidad pier, constructed from pilings used in the Philippine WWII campaign.
The old Trinidad pier, constructed from pilings used in the Philippine WWII campaign.

In the past several decades, rigid regulations have been placed on the fishing industry. Along with declining salmon populations, these regulations have hurt the fishing economy in the Pacific Northwest. Fishing still exists in Trinidad (mainly crabbing), and its influence should not be ignored. According to North Coast Fishing Communities, fishing brings in some $3.6 million per year, and employs a total of some 60 full-time fishermen - hardly an insignificant figure for a city with a population of 367 people. However, the industry has waned in the past decade and there has been a shift in the economics, demographics and culture of the town from fishing to tourism.

Tourism has never been a stranger to Trinidad. Early in the 1900s Trinidad began to serve as a stopover point for travelers along the Redwood Highway and the town landscape changed to accommodate tourism by building three hotels, a garage, and a popular Italian restaurant called “Big-4”. Across the street from the garage was a small bungalow where “Ladies of the Day and Night” conducted their business in a certain discreet way, reportedly popular for travelers and citizens alike. Some tourism continued throughout the first half of the century, however it was not until the 1950s that it became a major economic focus for the area. As the fishing industry declined, Trinidad increasingly moved to market itself to tourists. The Chamber of Commerce has worked diligently in this regard. Local traditions reflect this goal. For example, the “Trinidad Crab Feed” was founded in 1957 by the newly formed Trinidad Chamber of Commerce. Town patricians worked to develop a plan as noted in the following article in the Trinidad Museum Society Newsletter:

In 1953, Bon and Joellyn Hallmark, and Glenn & Janis Saunders got together for a potluck dinner in the Hallmark home just above the Trinidad wharf. The purpose was to discuss the feasibility of starting an organization to encourage visitors to the Trinidad area to enjoy the salmon fishing and the natural resources we all enjoy here. The tourist trade would add to the tax base of the city and would help the business community, Much enthusiasm was shown by all the people living in this small, friendly historic town.

The Eatery in Trinidad
The Eatery in Trinidad
Trinidad Art Gallery
Trinidad Art Gallery
Trinidad Fish Festival
Trinidad Fish Festival | Source

As a response to tourism in the past decade, a new economic opportunity presented itself to homeowners in Trinidad - vacation rentals- to which many denizens availed themselves. The expansion of these rentals has engendered resistance as their numbers have superseded private family homes and many feel that they impact the character of the residential neighborhoods of the town. Alarmed by the shrinking pool of residents in 2015 Trinidad council unanimously passed a moratorium on new vacation rentals, although some vacation-rental owners protested.

An additional issue with the influx of “out of towners” is that the average housing cost in Trinidad has skyrocketed so that many local first time buyers are kept out of the market.

Another consequence of tourism economics is the restoration of various architectural eyesores. A good example is the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, which had long ago fallen into disrepair, described as follows:

In 1951 Trinidad visitors to Trinidad, enjoying our picturesque little seaport village, would pass a very neglected, dilapidated little church sitting on a lovely lot overlooking the bay. The pews were scattered around in an adjoining field, the doors were falling off, the bell was long gone from the belfry, and the glass was gone from the windows. The children in town used to call it the haunted church and played games in and around the property. It was a favorite hotel for many of the hobos and transients stopping off from the highway for the night.

Holy Trinity Church in Trinidad
Holy Trinity Church in Trinidad | Source

Prompted by fire hazard concerns as well as the decaying visual of the building, the city council wrote to Father Cornelius O’Connor of the Arcata parish, who worked with Janis Saunders to gather sufficient funding for restoration. Thus, Holy Trinity stands today as the oldest historical building still standing in Trinidad.

With the advent of tourism in Trinidad, Native American heritage has become an important focus for the chamber of commerce. This is a rather marked volte-face from the original traditions of Trinidad - namely suspicion and violence directed against them. In the 1980s the Trinidad Museum Society’s newsletters touted many Yurok promotional events dedicated to local Native American culture. These included exhibits of basketry, carved canoes, native costume and dance. A few years later, the museum was landscaped with native plants traditionally utilized by the Tsuari people. Today, it devotes an entire room of the museum to discovery of the Yurok people. While a noble endeavor, one should not attempt to disassociate it from the reality that was in play at the time. Trinidad’s modern attitude towards Native Americans was a response to the increasing influx of retirees and environmentalists into the area, and an opportunity to use its native culture as a springboard from which to attempt to expand tourism opportunities.

Undeniably the most influential Native American component in Trinidad is the Cher-Ae Heights Casino. Established in 1988 by the Rancheria, it has served to promote tribal influence in Trinidad in many ways. The casino draws tourists, who in turn bring income into the town. It provides local employment. Furthermore, profits from the casino trickle back into town in the form of taxes and contributions to the local school system. Profits were used by the Rancheria for the reconstruction of Trinidad Pier and Seascape Restaurant in the early 2000s, which supports the tourism associated with recreational fishing. The Rancheria bought the pier in 2001 and beganconstruction in 2006. The old pier had many structural issues and had creosote which leaked into and polluted the ocean. “Hostler said that the Rancheria would like to see the pier used for kayak rentals, eco-tours, fishing contests and all sorts of other activities. Perhaps, she said, there could be art festivals on the pier, or even concerts.”

The new Trinidad pier.
The new Trinidad pier.

A simple response to tourism has been Trinidad’s focus on its natural beauty along with flora and fauna. The 1980s brought the establishment of a native plant garden and the start of guided nature walks around Trinidad Head. The museum newsletter started devoting space to local species as well as the natural history of the area. A 1989 article from the Museum’s newsletter explains, “Summer is tourist time in Trinidad when throngs of people from near and far come to fish, visit, and enjoy the opulent beauty carved by nature. The rich heritage of this quaint little town is on review at the Trinidad Museum Center located on Trinity street.” Two years later, the newsletter’s logo changed from the lighthouse to that of a beached native canoe - a sure sign of the times.

Trinidad Museum
Trinidad Museum

Trinidad has shown a remarkable ability to restructure its landscape and society as it responds to the economic needs of the time. In this, it serves as a testament to adaptation while its personae endures as a composite of many layers built through time. There is no denying the Yurok roots of the town evidenced at Old Home Beach or the Casino. The influence of the fishing industry firmly plants itself at the pier and at the Memorial Lighthouse where a monument stands giving tribute to those lost at sea. And, the many art galleries and vacation rentals show the impact of the tourist. As one walks the trail at Trinidad Beach, trestles from the old lumber tramways are still embedded along the side of Mill Creek, like fossils from a bygone era. Whatever else happens to Trinidad in the future, we can comfortably expect that it will continue to have an evolving landscape to meet its needs.

Contemporary Trinidad
Contemporary Trinidad

Works Cited

Works Cited

Armand, Dione F. Trinidad: Images of America ( San Francisco, Arcadia Press, 2010).

Durham, Jack. "New Trinidad Pier." McKinleyville Press Blog. N.p., 15 July 2012. Web. 12 Oct.


Faulkner, Jessie. “No More Trinidad New Vacation Rentals For Now,” Times Standard,


Fleschner, Patti. “Trinidad Lighthouse 1871-Present Coming to Photography Room,” Trinidad

Society Newsletter, Fall 2013.

Fonstein, Cindy. “Board Wants to Review Reports on Bingo Parlor,” Times-Standard, 10-23- 85.


Hawley, A.T. “The Old Port of Trinidad.” Overland Monthly 2, no. 9 (September,1883):


Heizer, Robert F. and John E. Mills. 1952. The Four Ages of Tsurai. A Documentary History

of the Indian Village on Trinidad Bay. Reprinted in 1991.

Hight, Jim. "Scary! Nuts! Terrible! Humboldt County's Real Estate Market." North Coast

Journal. N.p., Oct. 2002. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Lindgren, Alex. “President’s Message.” Trinidad Museum Society Newsletter, Summer 1989.

“Luffenholtz Beach Surf Fishing Camps.” Newsletter of the Trinidad Museum Society, ed. Ned

Simmons, Summer 2003.

Manning Dwight. “The History of Trinidad.” Paper. Humboldt State University, 1956. doi: F

868 H8 B37.

Parker, Trevor. “Report to the Trinidad City Planning Commission.” City of Trinidad. March 8,


Pomeroy, Caroline, Cynthia J. Thomson, Melissa M. Stevens, “California’s North Coast Fishing

Communities: Trinidad Harbor Fishing Community Profile.” California Sea Grant


Program, no. T.072 (August 2015): 3-7.


Saunders, Glenn. “The Trinidad Wayside.” Trinidad Museum Society Newsletter, Fall 1991.

Saunders, Glenn. “The Trinidad Whaling Station.” Trinidad Museum Society Newsletter, Fall


Saunders, Janis. “Restoration of Holy Trinity Catholic Church,” Newsletter of the Trinidad

Museum Society, Winter 2004.

Simmons, Ned, A Trinidad Story for Children (Trinidad, Trinidad Art, 1993).


Trinidad Museum Society Newsletter, ed. Ned Simmons, Summer 1992, Winter 1996.

"Trinidad Rancheria History," Trinidad Rancheria, n.d., Web, 21 October 2015.

"Trinidad Whaling Station, 1920-1927," Trinidad Museum Society, ed. by Patti Fleschner, 2011.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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