New Years On The Coast, 1879

by Malcolm Macdonald, January 18, 2017

1878 slipped into 1879 along the Mendocino Coast behind a northwestern breeze that blew away the rain showers of New Year's Eve. The flag on the point of Mendocino's headlands snapped with the occasional gust, thirteen red and white stripes along with thirty-eight white stars on a blue background. The stars alternated in number between eight and seven in five rows. The flagstaff had been re-constructed the previous year and a new stars and stripes flown to accommodate the admission of Colorado into statehood.

The morning of Wednesday, January 1, 1879 dawned peaceful on Mendocino until 10 a.m. when the unmistakeable sound of gun fire could be heard to the south. Revolvers then shotgun blasts, scarcely seconds apart, stifled the wind. This was no shootout between feuding factions, but a friendly sport. The editor of the local paper had noted, “Little River has sent a challenge to our marksmen to a target shooting for the championship and a moneyed consideration.”

Littleriver (note the differing methods of writing the name that have existed for a century and a half) was and still is the closest community south of Mendocino. At the cusp of 1879 it too had a lumber mill, though it remained less prominent than its northern neighbor, where any schooner or steamer contemplating entrance to Mendocino Bay might take note of four or five stacks of lumber a block long resting between Rundle and Kelly Streets as well as more closer to the bluffs.

Apparently the distance between Mendocino and Littleriver had been a speculative curiosity for some time. In late May of 1878 two denizens of Littleriver's environs set out to resolve the question. The Mendocino Beacon reported on the methodology employed, “The exact distance between Little River and Mendocino ought to be known now, as Mr. Mahlmann and Mr. Higgins rode up in a buggy last Saturday evening and counted the revolutions of the buggy wheel. A rag was tied around the tire and Mr. Higgins began the work of counting the number of revolutions. Result, wheel turned 1,244 times, circumference of wheel 11 feet and 11 inches, making 14,872 feet, or about 2 ¾ miles.” The report does not state the color of the rag. It likewise omits where in Littleriver Mahlmann and Higgins started from nor does it make clear precisely where in Mendocino they stopped measuring.

One might venture to guess the north side of Little River's stream was the point of beginning for two reasons, Augustus Frederick Mahlmann, the driver of the buggy, resided there and in the 1870s the north side of the river was more populated than the south. Augustus Mahlmann, fifty-seven at the time of the measured buggy ride, was a native of Hanover, Germany who arrived on the California coast through a circuitous course. He served as a baker's apprentice in his hometown for three years, between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. To broaden his baking skills he spent the next eleven to twelve years traveling to Hamburg, Berlin, and Danzig, on to Russia, Greece, Hungary, Turkey, then Venice, Rome and Paris before a stint in Switzerland where he supposedly was caught in political uprisings that caused him leg wounds.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Furthermore, the late 1840s were years of attempted revolution and upheaval throughout Europe. Back in Germany, young Mahlmann somehow found his way to Spandau Prison. His eventual release apparently coincided with a lifetime banishment from his native land. Given the variety of locales, as well as entanglements, Mahlmann gravitated toward it wouldn't seem farfetched to picture him as an agitative part of the unrest of the time; however, no definitive documentary evidence exists to prove or disprove the possibility.

Mahlmann arrived in New York City during the summer of 1850. He claimed to have made his way in that metropolis for a year and a half by means of taxidermy talents he'd acquired while in Hamburg. Early in 1852 he sailed, via the isthmus of Panama, to San Francisco. He tried his luck in both California and Nevada gold fields before walking and riding a burro to the Mendocino Coast where he gained employment in woodswork and sawmills. The 1860 census locates his employment with Alexander Macpherson's mill near the mouth of the Noyo River (Fort Bragg) and his dwelling place as Littleriver, an odd occurrence given the limited methods of transportation then available.

When Ruel Stickney and Silas Coombs constructed a sawmill at Littleriver, Mr. Mahlmann saw his chance at profitable free enterprise in the form of a hotel and saloon. What Augustus Mahlmann called Pioneer House was completed in 1864. Like Silas Coombs, many of Littleriver's pioneers were from the state of Maine and prohibitionists to boot. Much protest ensued concerning the opening of a saloon in their midst. Mahlmann purportedly met the opposition with this bargain, “If you don't come in my saloon, I won't serve you any liquor.” The saloon was still wide open for business when Mr. Mahlmann and Mr. Higgins (Littleriver's schoolmaster) counted the rag wheel turns to Mendocino in 1878.

As for New Year's 1879, Mahlmann's Hotel had played host to a supper and dance the night before. Perhaps the celebrating affected the local crack shots. The Beacon told the tale, “Had the poultry held out, the shooting no doubt would have continued till late in the afternoon [New Year's Day]. The Mendocino marksmen carried away the bulk of the game, leaving only two turkeys and three chickens to go to Salmon Creek, and not even leaving a feather to stop at Little River.”

The feather quill meets the internet at the author's website: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com

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