Gualala

Next week I’m moving to the seaside town of Gualala. Locals pronounce it “Wa-LA’-la,” from the Pomoan word qháhwala∙li meaning “where the waters flow down.” The Native peoples who occupied the area were known as the latcupda, part of the bokeya group of Pomo peoples. Located on the Pacific coast of California at the mouth of the Gualala River, it’s quite beautiful.

My father was born in Chehalis, the name of a native american tribe that means “shifting sands,” in Washington. It seems maybe karmic that I’m now moving to another place with a Native American name of such beauty.

A little history: In 1861, a man named Cyrus Robinson filed a claim under the Land Act of 1820 for much of the area which is now the town of Gualala. Robinson sold land for a mill, built around 1862. The lumber mills processed redwood trees felled in nearby forests. The town of Gualala quickly grew to support mill company operations, including a hotel, saloon and ferry (I’ve been trying to find where the ferry went to but haven’t had luck yet) as well as a post office (which was also the stage stop), the Wells Fargo Express and the Western Union. By the end of the 1800s, Gualala was a major commercial hub for the entire area, with a dancing school, the Gualala Municipal Brass Band, and an opera house.

The hotel burned down in 1903. Another was built at a new location at a cost of $6,000. The Gualala Hotel property included 636 acres.

The first mill was located at the mouth of Mill Gulch, now known as China Gulch. It owned 4,457 acres of timberlands in Mendocino County and 13,552 acres in adjacent Sonoma county. The Mill Company started a company store that operated until the mid-1960s, when it burned, along with a warehouse, water tower, and stairs down to the river. A second mill, Heywood’s Mill, was constructed in 1868 on a river flat on a large bend near the mouth of the Gualala River and was the main economy of the town for 40 years. Heywood’s Mill burned down in 1906.

Initially, the mill transported lumber by a team of draft horses and a wide-gauge railway to Robinson Point, where a wire chute loaded ships. In later years, a wide gauge railroad replaced horses (yay?). Fun fact: That one was one of the widest-gauge railroads in the United States, measuring 68.5 inches wide, or “Roman Chariot” gauge. The area’s goods primarily came through this location until automobiles [and trucks?] rendered shipping obsolete in the early 1920s (at least for this purpose).

Today tourists come to nearby Sea Ranch for which Gualala provides services. There were no schools in the area until 1883, when a single-room schoolhouse was constructed with the support of the Heywood family. Until that time, it was a common custom to send children to live with other families in larger areas to attend school. Elementary school students of Gualala are now educated at Horicon Elementary School in Annapolis, in Sonoma County, or Arena Union Elementary in Point Arena (where I’ll be teaching!).

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