Fort Bragg — A Quaint Town with a Rough Edge

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on January 25, 2004

Sixty years ago a glass bottling plant stood as a sentry on a wind-swept California coastline. It wasn’t all-picturesque and pleasantries. For decades, local citizens and plant workers used the cliffs behind the plant as a dump. With each tide, crashing waves turned glass shards from trash to treasure.

Today, Glass Beach in Fort Bragg (pop. 7,026) sparkles like a jewel. Among the seashells and sand, jagged pieces of glass have been polished into brightly colored gems of amber, green, blue and red.

“Years ago the Union Lumber Company opened the street to the ocean and suggested people get rid of their garbage over the bluff,” says Don Nelson, director of the Guest House Museum.

Built in 1892, Guest House Museum, located downtown, was the first house on the coast with electricity, as it was part of an old lumber mill. “Visitors to the museum are charmed by the 12-foot coffered ceilings, redwood paneling and stained glass windows,” Nelson says. “There’s a sense of history here.”

Not far away from the museum is the Skunk Railroad, one of the most popular attractions in town.

“There are few places in America today where steam engines roll through town,” says Robert Pinoli, vice president of the Sierra Railroad. “Fort Bragg gives you a true sense of Americana.”

The Skunk Train, whose name originated from its early aromatic gas engines, runs roughly 40 miles between Fort Bragg and Willits. Originally built as a logging railroad, the train, which is expected to re-open this spring, has followed the coastal Redwood Route since 1885. Skunk Train’s rail offer glimpses to parts unseen from the road. Passengers may see deer, mountain lion, bobcat or brown bear.

Fort Bragg was founded as a military outpost in 1857 to maintain order on a nearby Indian reservation. Abandoned by the military, sawmills were established to mill the redwood trees into the lumber that created the town.

“Fort Bragg is a quaint town with a rough edge,” Pinoli says. “It’s still a working town. We have the fishing village of Noyo Harbor, where you can see boats going to sea.”

The harbor also is home to a bit of television trivia. The series Murder, She Wrote fooled many viewers into believing star Angela Lansbury, who portrayed Jessica Fletcher, was on location in Maine when actually Cabot Cove was really Noyo Harbor. Her character’s cozy seaside Victorian home was actually Blair House, an antique filled bed-and-breakfast inn on the Mendocino coast.

Built by Elisha Blair, a local banker, Blair House is a prime example of a home built in 1888. Innkeeper Norm Fluhrer says, “All of the houses in town retain the name of the person who originally built them.”

The area also is home to Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, a 47-acre track of theme gardens. “There are 14,000 public gardens in the continental United States, but Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is the only one with ocean frontage,” says Rich Owings, executive director of the gardens. “It is a unique climate here with coastal fog in the summertime and spring and fall bring sunshine.”

Like a picture book scene, “visitors can stand on the bluffs during fall and spring to watch the whale migration and witness seals playing in the water,” Owings says.

On the third weekend in March, Fort Bragg welcomes everyone to town for the Whale Festival. “The whales get very close to shore and you can watch them without going out on a boat,” says Dave Martin, former Committee Chair for the Whale Festival.

Fort Bragg is blessed with small town Americana charm and the graciousness that welcomes guests, a job the locals have been doing for decades.