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The Goat Island Mystery

At one time early in the twentieth century Fort Bragg, California, was home to three dozen whore houses at the same time. The most unusual of these sat on an island, a roughly drawn line from the foot of Elm Street shows you where the brothel island existed. Customers walked over a narrow suspension bridge to reach the “island of joy.” Supposedly some of the inebriated patrons didn't make it back, falling dead drunk from the bridge. The whore house burned to the ground in 1921. Subsequently, the respectable folk of Fort Bragg blew up the island with dynamite to prevent further whoring on the site. At low tide the rocks that form the basis of the original island can still be seen.

Island of Joy

The most notable offshore feature of the Mendocino Headlands has long been known as Goat Island. Throughout much of the latter half of the 1800s it was presumed to belong to the Heeser family. Since William Heeser the founder and publisher of the Mendocino Beacon was also a surveyor his claim to Goat Island stood unchallenged for many decades. Standing on the mainland, with binoculars, one might spot the breeding grounds of Tufted puffins or Ashy Storm-petrels.

The island contains about eight to ten acres of land. At one point a century or more ago potatoes were grown on it. The shoreline rocks along the seaward side were once home to a gigantic bed of mussels for intrepid souls to go after during extremely low tides. In the crevices between the rocks resided octopus, some with arms two to three feet long. As far as can be ascertained there have been no recorded casualties due to octopus attack at this locale.

One of the Mathews-Silva (de Mateus Silva in the Azores), who worked for Mr. Heeser, constructed a cable from the headlands to Goat island more than a hundred years gone by. A box large enough for a man to sit in was attached to the cable, so that said person could pull themselves over to the island. At some point a small cabin was built there. Inside were two cots for overnight stays.

The goats on Goat Island remain shrouded in mystery. They did not belong to either William or Auggie Heeser, who ran sheep on the headlands. How the goats got fresh water to drink, other than the occasional puddle, is also an unsolved puzzle. Nevertheless, goats held forth there for decades. The small cabin was destroyed by a hearty storm in February, 1960, when this writer was all of six years of age.

Tourists who walk out to the part of Mendocino's headlands that served as a chute for loading lumber, don't often contemplate how the lumber traveled from the mill on the other side of  Big River Bridge to the headlands. In those long gone days the Mendocino Lumber Company loaded stacks of redwood boards onto rail cars at the western edge of the mill. A rail line ran up an incline that leveled out west of the parking lot below the Mendocino Presbyterian Church. The rail cars were scarcely more than carts, however, pulled by a horses. When the rail car reached the area near the headlands bluff the lumber was off-loaded and stacked until a schooner, or later steamers, anchored in Mendocino's bay. A single horse pulled the cars to the chute house, in the area of the modern blow hole attraction. There the boards were pushed through by hand, slightly downward into the “donkey house.”

Once unloaded the cars were spun about on a turntable to return to the lumber yard. The carrier (of the lumber) was worked by a shaft in the chute house using two spools, one for the carrier and another for the back line. The carrier line traveled through a block on board the ship being loaded. The carrier was nearly square, four or five feet across and ten to twelve inches thick. Raising and lowering the carrier at the chute head was performed by bringing the main line around a pulley geared to move up and down on it from above. Pushing the pulley down tightened the main line and raised the carrier, thus swinging the load free.

Once loaded and ready to go, the carrier line came in, the hook unbolted and tripped, the main line dropped with a splash, and the inshore line winched in with its float, then the moorings were unhitched in reverse order, and with a whistle blaring, the load was off. Due to the vagaries of sea conditions, loading of ships could take anywhere from fourteen hours to two days or more.

After even the hardest of weeks loading ships there is no evidence that any worker mistook the cable to Goat Island for the suspension bridge to the “Island of Joy.”

(Ride the rails of history at


  1. George Hollister December 22, 2017

    Always interesting. I was unaware of the “island of joy”. Too bad so much effort was put into destroying it. Of course, the people involved in the effort thought otherwise.

    • Aurora August 23, 2021

      Any idea if there are any more photographs of the Island of Joy/surrounding area?

  2. Samantha Waldrep April 19, 2020

    It’s always nice to learn about you towns history this is an amazing article and it was one of the last brothels in California.

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