The geological processes that created the spectacular cliffs along the northern California coast only recently became known to have begun several hundred million years ago with movement of the earth’s crust. Plate tectonics did not become widely accepted until their contours were serendipitously identified in the 1960s with the world wide deployment of sensitive seismometers, which were actually purposed to detect atomic bomb explosions. Through many years of painstaking data collection, we now know that about 250 million years ago the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate, which had been very gradually moving towards each other, collided. The sea floor crust of the Pacific Plate slipped beneath the continent, heating and melting as it reached the earth's interior creating a subduction zone Then, about 30 million years ago the relative movements of the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate changed from a head-on collision to laterally slipping sideways against each other. This zone of slippage, extending nearly the length of California is the well known San Andreas Fault, which veers about 10 miles off shore under the sea by Point Arena, about 30 miles south of Sea River House, and does not return back onto land until Cape Mendocino, about 125 miles north of us. Along this zone, folding of the sea floor along the margin of the North American Plate resulted in the creation of the Northern California Coast and Transverse ranges, which are composed of remnants of the crushed, crumpled, and folded sea floor sediments and fragments of the edges of the continental plates. Visible in the sea cliffs along the Northern California coast are massive and steeply dipping rock layers, called the Franciscan Formation, which can be seen nearby at Point Arena. These rocks were formed as the Pacific Plate subducted under the North American, sometime in the Late Jurassic period. At the end of the last ice age about 11,500 years ago, the great glaciers that had covered much of the northern hemisphere began melting, causing worldwide sea level to rise as much as 100 feet over the next 5,000 years. Cliffs formed as wave action and sea-level rise eroded weaker rocks and sediment, while the stronger sedimentary rocks became headlands and the sea stacks that dot the many coves along the Mendocino Coast, including Brokeback Cove seen from Sea & River House, and the oft photographed Elk Sea Stacks just 2 miles south on Highway 1.
Yet, for those original settlers who scratched out a living logging northern California, the raging sea and powerful storms of winter made for a fearsome place, and they built their homes safely back from the cliffs. However, by the late 1940s, the depression and the war were receding from memories, the industrial age appeared to be bearing bountiful fruit, and the task of living no longer seemed precarious. Those vestigial fears leaked away, and the staggering beauty of the bluffs resonated with our primal roots in the sea, where life began. Soon, the Mendocino coast began to attract weekend visitors from the surging middle class, which was enjoying more time for leisure. By the 1960s, a critical mass had been attained, and, led by San Francisco refugees Bill and Jennie Zacka, they preserved and restored the dilapidated lumber town of Mendocino, transforming its timeless beauty into the artist colony and tourist attraction it is today. Old Mendocino can still be seen on video of the 1955 James Dean movie East of Eden, which was partially filmed in the village several years before it was re-discovered (a scene from the movie is along side). But, even though the original wood plank sidewalks have been replaced with concrete (fire codes!) and the cat houses are long gone, the time-out-of-mind feeling of those bygone lumber days remains.
Navarro Bluff Road
The original homes on the bluffs around Sea & River House were built shortly after World War II for weekend and vacation getaways by developers from Geyserville, 80 miles to the southeast back off of Highway 101, which is why the area was sometimes called Little Geyserville. River House was built by a bar owner from Sacramento whose family loved abalone fishing along the coast on weekends. We bought the house from the Browns in 2007, as a future retirement home, just as many of our neighbors on the bluff to the north and south did earlier in the 1970s, where they now live there year round. It has also has embarked us on a lifelong remodeling project.Of note, Navarro Bluff Road — today just a frontage road off of State Highway 1 in front of Sea & River House — is actually a remnant of old Highway 1. Until 1964, the highway followed the now frontage road to the remnant of the weathered-away path that can still be seen hugging the valley wall in a single lane down to what had once been the thriving town of Navarro. In that same decade, high bridges also began to be built across the many river valleys and gorges north of the Navarro up to Fort Bragg, eliminating those hair raising, single lane roads on the cliffs snaking down to the wild ocean below. Before that, a trip from Little Geyserville up to Fort Bragg could have taken an entire day of white-knuckle driving. Whenever a fast moving lumber truck approached from the opposing direction on those one lane roads, a motorist had to yield and reverse back up the curving valley wall, with the crashing sea below.
That town of Navarro, incidentally, which had been on the south side of the mouth of the Navarro River, as shown in the old photograph below. According to the local historical society, the Navarro-by-the-Sea Center, it was first settled in around 1851 by Charles Fletcher. He was a sailor, a ship’s carpenter, and a whale boat captain, who originally came to San Francisco in 1849 during the gold rush. In partnership with James Kennedy and Capt. Thomas Kennedy of San Francisco, Capt. Fletcher built the inn during the 1860’s for sailors who had to wait three days while their schooners were loaded with lumber from the Navarro Mill. The Navarro Mill was built in 1861 by Henry Tichenor and Robert Byxbee co-partners in the firm of Tichenor and Co. of San Francisco, on land purchased from Charles Fletcher for $1,200. The first mill was built on the Navarro Flats near Capt. Fletcher's home. A train on the north bank of the river brought logs to the mouth of the river, where they were brought across to the mill on the south bank. In 1860, after he sold most of his land to Tichenor and Byxbee, Charles Fletcher married Bridget Cooney of Mendocino, a widow from Roscommon, Ireland. They built a large house, which replaced Fletcher’s original redwood cabin, and raised four children there. Historic photographs show the house located immediately to the west of the Inn where a motel unit, built in 1964, now stands. The Fletcher family was one of the last to live in the old village of Navarro. Charles Fletcher died in 1902. His daughter, Nellie Fletcher Schaeffer inherited both the Inn and the family home. When she moved to Fort Bragg in the early 1920’s, her daughter, Elsie Nystrom purchased the house and Inn for $10.00. Captain Fletcher’s Inn has survived three major fires, the earthquake of 1906 and the devastating flood of 1907 that swept away a bridge near the mouth of the Navarro. Before that in July of 1890, a fire had destroyed the first Navarro lumber mill located near Capt. Fletcher’s Inn, which had been built in the 1860's. Tichenor had died in 1883. Byxbee re-formed the company with Mrs. Tichenor as one of the partners. Byxbee then built a second, larger and more up-to-date mill about a mile up river. In 1911, a chimney fire, which started in the home of Schaeffer’s daughter Nellie, destroyed much of the village on the Flats. In the early 1920’s, a fire started by fishermen destroyed the Fletcher’s family home next to the Inn. The Navarro Mill went bankrupt in the crash of 1893. Byxbee attempted to sell to an English firm but was unsuccessful. The company was deeply in debt, not only for the new mill building, but also for improvements such as the extensive railroad line and a new engine called the Tichenor. One of the company's steam schooners, the Newsboy, was sold to Robert Dollar. It was his first ship, and the beginning of the famous Dollar Steamship Line. After the mill was finally sold in 1902, it burned down under mysterious circumstances. The fire occurred the same year that Fletcher died. This, then, was followed by the quake of 1906 and the flood of 1907, all of which damaged Navarro. What remained of the original village of Navarro eventually became known as “Navarro-by-the-Sea.” Capt. Fletcher’s Inn and the mill manager’s house are now the only buildings remaining from the once thriving town of Navarro. but, at its height, Navarro had 500-600 inhabitants, with another 300 men located in camps in the woods up river. Ultimately, to reach the contours of Navarro that we see today, in 1922 a road, which would become Highway 128, was built, re-using portions of the train bed he had laid.
State Beach Protection