A Brief Land Use History of the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary
Most of the land between the Bay and the forested hillsides was at one time marshland with a few drier prairie areas. The Arcata Prairie was the site of several Wiyot villages and was called Goal-la-nah meaning a land a little above water. In 1849, the Gregg-Wood party camped near where the present Arcata Plaza is located. Members of the Union Company returned in April 1850 and laid out the town of Union.* By February 1851 it was a thriving town of 500 inhabitants and 100 buildings. The name was changed to Arcata on March 20, 1860. In 1850 swampland reclamation was legalized and encouraged by the Federal “Arkansas Act” of 1850, granting titles of swamp and overflow lands to certain states, on condition that proceeds from their sale would be used to assist reclamation efforts. California’s 1861 “Swamp Land Act” allowed the State to offer patents to those who could drain and reclaim Bay land. Sixty-five hundred acres of fresh and salt water marshland existed on Humboldt Bay in the 1800’s. Now there is less than one tenth of that and only forty acres of freshwater marsh (Arcata’s Marsh Project now almost doubles the amount of freshwater marsh on Humboldt Bay). This means that ninety percent of the marshland surrounding Humboldt Bay has been lost due to swamp reclamation. Dikes can be seen west of the Marsh project. Marsh B, the Robert Gearheart Marsh was an area diked off around 1890 for agricultural uses.
During the past 120 years the shoreline has been developed for industrial, commercial, agricultural, and residential uses significantly decreasing the size of the Bay. Humboldt Bay at one time was believed to have covered 27,000 acres before development began. Reclamation projects reduced the Bay to 17,000 acres.
Shipping facilities were developed in the Bay in the latter half of the 1800’s to assist in the export of timber products. At that time, the Arcata community revolved around the bay and its’ shipping.
The Arcata Wharf was completed in May 1855 and extended 11,000 feet (almost two miles) into Humboldt Bay. The Union Wharf and Plank Walk Company built the railroad to the end of the wharf and an old white horse named “Spanking Fury” served for many years as the locomotive. This was the first railroad in California and allowed vessels access to Jacoby Storehouse. During 1875, the wharf was lengthened 600 yards to reach deep water. In July 1881, the Arcata and Mad River Railroad undertook construction of a single track to be operated by steam and horsepower and to run from the main shipping channel to the north fork of the Mad River passing through Arcata for transportation of freight and passengers. The Arcata Wharf, in 1892, was utilizing the services of 116 sailing vessels and 34 steamers. The Arcata wharf used by the Northern Redwood Lumber Company partially burned in May, 1908. The Wharf served the area until the 1920’s. In the early 1900’s the railroad connected Humboldt County with San Francisco causing the decline of shipping in Humboldt Bay. After its use as a shipping facility, the wharf was used by fishermen and others until several storms finally caused much of it to collapse. The old wharf pilings can still be seen from the outer parking lot of the Marsh Project. A few still remain on the west side of the recreational lake.
The site of Arcata’s Marsh Project has had several uses before it became a wildlife sanctuary. Up to 1903 much of the area was still tidal marshland. In the 1940’s the area was proposed to be used as a sea plane landing area but the idea never went any further. In 1945 the area of Marsh A (George Allen Marsh) was used as a log deck for storing lumber. In 1950 the neighboring oxidation pond was built and in 1965 the present marsh project site was diked off to create a landfill.
The landfill was located on the raised area where the trails and bird observation blinds are now located. In 1973 problems with leachate entering the Bay as well as other public health problems threatened to close the ‘dump’. At this time the wildlife of the area consisted of rats. About 100 cats and 1,500 – 2,000 glaucous wing gulls. A Caspian tern nesting area on a neighboring island was depredated because of raids from the gulls. There are also reports of burrowing owls at the landfill site.
An enlarged sanitary landfill was proposed for the area in 1973 and an EIR (Environmental Impact Report) was required. The alternative to the project was to close the area and cap the landfill. This was the course taken. Bay mud was removed from the area of the recreation lake to lay a three foot cap on the landfill.
There was a proposal for a marina in the near vicinity (where the parking lot and boat launching ramp is located). This proposal entailed dredging a deeper channel and building a couple dozen berths just north of the boat ramp. The area would have a beach, picnic tables, a restaurant and tackle shop. Proposals for the landfill area included a golf course, baseball field, motorcross area or a nature center – marsh restoration area.
The marsh restoration alternative was chosen. The idea was soon integrated with several other projects such as the salmon aquaculture project and the alternative waste water treatment project. The Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary was dedicated July 4, 1981.
* The population of the Wiyot was reduced by approximately 93 percent between 1850 and 1890. In the 1910 census only 150 Wiyot were listed. The reasons for the reduction are complex and include: new diseases, alteration of lifestyle, diet and clothing, displacement and hostilities.