Salt Point History

Salt Point History

The name of Salt Point State Park derives from the formation of salt crystals in the crevices of the rocky coastline that took millions of years to form along the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. The native Kashia Pomo traditionally collected salt from this area using abalone shells to scrape the crystals off the rocks.

The first inhabitants of the coastal Sonoma County area followed an annual calendar of activities that marked seasonal months of harvesting beginning with winter and ending with fall. An estimated 1,500 Kashia people inhabited these lands prior to the arrival of Russian American Company settlers to Sonoma Coast in the 19th Century. The Kashia territory extended from the Gualala River in the North to Duncan’s Point south of the Russian River. The tribe’s lands also extended about thirty miles inland from the Pacific coast over coastal mountain ranges.

During the winter the Kishia would occupy permanent villages inland to escape the harsh winter storms on the coast and to take advantage of food harvest in the fall in the interior. Once spring came the Kashia moved towards the coast to seasonal camps to make full use of marine resources. Shellfish, including abalone, was gathered along the coastline and baked by covering the clams and mussels with a mixture of hot rocks, leaves, and coals. Fish was caught with hooks made out of deer bone and fishing line made out of kelp. Abalone was often used as bait. Seaweed was also collected and dried by the Kashia. According to Herman James, a Kashia elder, the native inhabitants obtained salt at Salt Point, not far from the site of Kabesilawina [‘rock-flat-upon’] village, which has unfortunately not survived to this day.

Local legend claims that a mystical “a horned sea creature”, about 15 feet long, with antlers resembling “elk horns” that killed whales was sighted at Salt Point in the past. So do be careful when you explore miles of rough rocky coastline, including one of the first underwater preserves in California at Gerstle Cove.

Colonial legacy

In 1812, the Russian American Company extended its possessions to California to settle on the ancient Kashia lands after asking for permission to occupy the Metini Village, roughly six miles south from the boundaries of present day Salt Point State Park. The land which is now Salt Point State Park was under the Fort Ross’ sphere of influence but the Company did not really make use of the scarce quantity of salt found along the shoreline. The Russians needed a great deal of salt to preserve meat products for shipment to Alaska which they purchased from the Spanish. Therefore no substantial commercial activity was undertaken by the Russians at Salt Point during the first half of the 19th century.

Stone quarrying and lumbering became the center of economic activity at Salt Point following California’s ascension into the Union as the 38th State in 1850. The discovery of gold just two years earlier prompted a development boom across the state, and especially in San Francisco which desperately needed building material to accommodate the influx of pioneers into the city.

In 1853, Samuel Duncan and Joshua Hendy built a steam sawmill on a ridge located above Salt Point, establishing the first lumbering operation in Sonoma county, north of Russian river. The boilers powered a sixteen - horsepower engine allowing the mill to process twelve thousand feet of lumber per day. In 1855, Joshua Hendy disposed of his interest to Alex. Duncan, and under the firm name of Duncan Brothers, the business continued to cut trees at Salt Point up until 1860, when the mill was moved to the mouth of Russian River. Before the brothers moved their operation to Duncans Mills, they managed to process about thirty million feet of lumber - five million per year on average.

Stone and forest products were lowered down the cliffs on cables before lumber chutes were built in the vicinity in the 1870s. In addition to timber, the Duncan brothers made a profit from quarrying sandstone from Salt Point’s marine terrace which was shipped to San Francisco and beyond. Stones from Salt Point were used to build San Francisco and Mare Island, tha main US naval yard on the Pacific Coast at the time. Gerstle Cove’s large iron folding stock anchor attests to booming Salt Point economic activity during California’s early statehood years.

Just after the Duncans wrapped up their economic activity at one end of Salt Point, John C. Fisk established his milling operation, which included chute, at the other end of the park in 1860. The Fisk Brothers mill was powered by a steam engine and had a capacity to handle twenty thousand feet of lumber per day. It is estimated in its 14 years of operations forty two million feet of lumber was cut at Frisk Mill which quickly grew into a small village with a store and a four room hotel. Fisk disposed of his interest in the mill in 1865 to Frederick Helmke who continued to operate a successful business. Fisk Mill Cove became an important commercial center, with a store and a saloon, as well as the Wells Fargo office. Between 1868-1874, 437 schooners called at Salt Point to pick up the lumber and other products. Even after James Kruse took over Helmke’s lands after he closed down the mill in 1874, the cove still remained operational well into the 20th century.

As major plumbing operations seized at Fisk Mill, Salt Point was again economically flourishing under the ownership of Frederick Funcke, A. Wasserman, Louis Sloss and Louis Gerstle who purchased the land from Duncan in 1870. The men planned to use the land to harvest ten oak for their leather processing business in San Francisco. They also leased grazing and lumber rights to William R. Miller who built a chute at Gerstle Cove and a number of buildings to support business operations which included about fifty men. The investors also chartered a town named Louisville but their dream of establishing a settlement with straight streets did not materialize. The only comfort offered to visitors at Salt Point was a hotel built by Funcke. By the 1880s resource exploitation at Salt Point was swiftly diminishing and soon the land was mainly used to graze cattle.