An Historical Point Of View

by Malcolm Macdonald, January 4, 2017

Some of you may have already paid your property taxes in full, some may have sent in half, with another half still due in the new year. Odds are the vast majority will pay by mail. Back in the late 1870s, taxes were collected at specific locations throughout the county by the Sheriff or his designee. On the Mendocino Coast, in those days, the most likely tax collection spot was at the Mendocino store of William Kelly. Mr. Kelly's vault reportedly exists to this day inside one of the 21st century shops at the same locale, corner of Main and Lansing Streets.

In the 1870s Mendocino was the major metropolis on the coastal side of the county. Fort Bragg had a lumber mill, on the flats near the mouth of the Noyo River, but by the autumn of 1878 that mill was failing financially. Taxes were not collected at Fort Bragg. If you lived in that vicinity you either walked or rode your horse to Mendocino and paid at Mr. Kelly's store or headed north to Kibesillah, a boomtown of the 1870s and 1880s you'd find approximately three and a quarter miles south of present day Westport. In the 1870s the closest tax collection locale south of Mendocino was found at Cuffey's Cove (near Elk).

In those bygone times when the county sheriff collected tax money by hand, carrying the proceeds back to the county seat in Ukiah via stagecoach or horseback, it may surprise some that by the summer of 1878, within the town of Mendocino, telephone service between the post office and the newspaper office was already in existence, scarcely two years after Alexander Graham Bell received his official patent for the device.

While Mendocino was the closest thing to a city on the coast in the 1870s it still lacked in key areas. The town had been devoid of a dentist for some time until John F. Wheeler began plying the trade in a room within Norton's Hotel (across the road from Mr. Kelly's store, and a tad east on the south side of Main Street). The impermanent nature of a dentist located in a hotel room was not lost on the town's leading citizen. William Heeser, the local newspaper editor and a promoter of his town (he was the largest property owner) as well as a gatherer of news, wrote this in October, 1878, “We were this week shown work performed by our dentist, Mr. Wheeler, which speaks very highly of him as being a first-class dentist. Those wishing work in his line should not fail to call on him at once, as by so doing they will benefit themselves, and also encourage a man of worth to locate in our midst.”

The criminally minded may have read the section about the Sheriff transporting a year's worth of tax money from the coast inland and thought that official ripe for the pickings. You wouldn't be far off. This space covered just such an 1879 robbery plan gone wrong within the pages of May 2012 issues of the AVA. We don't have time or space to recount all of those happenings here, but the illegal, murderous action began on the fringes of what is now Russian Gulch. Some of the 1879 bandits, who thought they would rob the tax collecting sheriff, may have made their escape by riding over Observatory Hill. This landmark rests approximately four miles east from the mouth of Russian Gulch and about a mile north of the Woodlands.

The name Observatory Hill was a new one in 1879. In fact one has to travel back only a year to find out how the place earned its name. I'll leave you with this description from William Heeser, written one week before he encouraged the denizens of Mendocino to support the newly arrived dentist.

“Last Sunday we paid a visit to the observatory constructed by the Coast Survey, and received a kind invitation, though a little loathe to do so, and were tied with ropes to the elevator, and soon found ourselves swinging in mid-air, gradually rising above the tree and mountain tops. On arriving at the top of the structure we were loosened from our seat, and began the inspection of the formation of our “wooden country.” From this elevation one has a beautiful view of our county, being elevated above all the mountains except Cold Springs, San Hedran [sic], Blue Rock, Cahto, Chemise and Ukiah mountains, and one can see into Lake, Humboldt and Sonoma counties.

The belt of timberland presents a beautiful appearance, and can be traced from Shelter Cove to Point Arena with the naked eye, the mountain ridges and small valleys presenting themselves very plainly to view. The grand old ocean appears to be no more than a mile distant, and the fogs which dot it here and there form the loveliest natural scene we have ever witnessed.

After gazing at the beauties of nature to our heart’s content, Mr. Pratt informed us that he would signal the station on Cold Springs Mountain. The helioscope was brought into requisition, adjusted to take in the full blaze of the sun, and soon flashes seen by us were about the size of a hand, and as bright as the sun. After an hour's stay in the upper regions, we descended to terra firma greatly pleased with our view of the country, and under many obligations to Mr. Pratt for the kind courtesies shown us. No one should fail to pay a visit to the observatory, as it will repay the trouble a hundred fold.”

(Sadly, this historic point of view no longer exists, but readers can observe the author's website at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

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