Ice cold Moscow mule in my hand, the ascension of the final flight of steps to Carson Mansion’s iconic tower/sun room overlooking the city of Eureka, California seems much less daunting. From here, the city of about 25,000 spreads out along the blue water of Humboldt Bay. The waterfront, now a mix of restaurants, parks, and community spaces, was once a maze of lumber mills and shipping ports. This was the domain of a single man who would come to dominate 19th century Eureka, to bring untold wealth to this Northern California town, and to change the natural landscape of the area. And yet, it is his house that continues to capture the hearts – and Instagram feeds – of visitors to Eureka.
In the early days of California, there were many who tried – and failed – to make it rich at gold mining. Willam Carson was such a man. Born in 1825 in New Brunswick, Canada, Carson arrived in San Francisco in 1849, and made his way up the Eel River to the Trinity Mountains in Northern California. His mining claim never panned out (pun intended), but he would forever leave his mark on the Eel River and Humboldt Bay. In 1850, Carson felled a coastal redwood tree, what is considered to be the first for commercial purposes on Humboldt Bay. By 1852, Carson had left mining for good and moved his business interests into lumber, and two years later shipped the first load of timbered and processed redwood to the growing city of San Francisco, again the first to do so.
Over the next thirty years, William Carson’s Dolbeer and Carson Lumber Company – along with partner John Dolbeer – became the world leader in redwood lumbering, producing an incredible 15,000,000 board feet of lumber per year. The mighty redwood forests, which once stretched from the San Francisco Bay all the way into Oregon were reduced by 95% between timbering and clearing for agricultural use, although in the nineteenth century the trees must have seemed an inextinguishable resource. (Conservation of the redwoods began in 1918, six years after Carson’s death.)
William Carson’s lumber company made him – and the town – incredibly wealthy. When he died in 1912, he possessed an estimated $20,000,000 fortune, worth more than $550,000,000 in today’s dollars. Such a man needed to possess a house to match, so he commissioned Carson Mansion on a small rise in the middle of his lumber yard. Designed by the prestigious San Francisco architects Samuel and Joseph Cather Newsom, the home was completed in 1886 at a cost of $80,000 (roughly $2.4 million today), and is one of the best examples of American Victorian architecture in existence.
Slated for demolition in 1950, the building was purchased by a group of local community leaders, and today houses the Ingomar Club, a private club dedicated to the preservation of the Carson Mansion.
For most visitors to Eureka, a street view of Carson Mansion is all that is possible, and what a view it is! You may recognize the facade of the structure, as its outline became that of the Addams Family house, the clock tower on Disneyland’s train station, and more. However, to view the magnificently preserved interior, one must be invited and escorted by a member.
John Ash is a retired architect, specializing in the renovation of historic buildings. He is also a member of the Ingomar Club, along with his wife Delores Vellutini, herself a past president of the club, and only the second woman to hold that distinction. (The club is inclusive, although membership is by invitation only, and women and minority members are welcomed as both members and leaders.) John is also my sponsor and tour guide for my visit to the Carson Mansion. We begin in a beautiful event space, the Ingomar’s main dining room, where we order cocktails and he points out the main features, focusing on how this modern addition to the mansion flows seamlessly into the original structure. As in the house itself, no detail is forgotten. Ornately carved ceilings and handrails, beautiful chandeliers, and even the placement of windows to catch the afternoon light are things perhaps only an architect like John would notice. When combined with the atmosphere – he is greeted as Mr. Ash by every person we pass, and yet treated to a casual and warm smile that belies the formality – it is a place I am instantly comfortable, though I know my stay here will be brief.
The house itself is a masterpiece, with much of the exterior and some of the interior design elements being done in Carson’s own redwood. While photographs are not allowed inside, my mind will be forever emblazoned with images of the huge main staircase, turning at right angles as it leads to the second floor, a huge smooth redwood bannister guiding me upward, and of the soft pastel colors warming the intricately carved ceilings with wooden arches framing room entrances. Many of the rooms have been preserved with 19th century furnishings, and John points out some of the original features like gilded mirrors or ornate heating covers. Some spaces have been converted into comfortable sitting rooms for Ingomar members, while an upstairs ballroom now is a magnificent billiard room. Our server, Cory, tracks us down while we tour, providing nourishment in liquid form. And let me tell you, the Ingomar makes one heck of a Moscow mule!
The Ingomar Club has done a spectacular job maintaining Carson Mansion, and when I get back to our table from my tour, I have the chance to say that to Tim Walker, General Manager of the club. A second Moscow mule arrives, and then a dozen of the best Humboldt Bay oysters I’ve ever had. (Did you know that Humboldt Bay provides more than 70% of the oysters for California consumption? I didn’t, either, but if you are lucky enough to come to the Carson Mansion, try the ones with bacon and butter.) The club, while private, has reciprocal membership privileges with similar organizations all over, and even offers out-of-town rates, which make for a fun – if unrealistic – thought.
Carson Mansion may be the most spectacular, but it is by no means the only stunning Victorian mansion in Eureka. With the immense wealth pouring into the town from its place at the pinnacle of the 19th century lumber industry, fortunes were made for plenty of people who desired homes worthy of their newfound wealth and status. Directly across the street from Carson Mansion is the Pink Lady. Under new ownership who have changed the K to a C (as in Pinc Lady), it was formerly the Carson House, a gift of William to his son for his wedding.
To see a whole block full of incredible Victorian facades, drive over to Hillsdale Street (between C and E, and 12th and 13th). Here, it seems every house is a wonderfully upkept Victorian, each featuring different color schemes and adornments. This is far from the only such spot in Eureka; Victorian homes and buildings are all over, and virtually any drive through the city other than staying on US 101 will have you marveling.
William Carson passed away in Eureka in 1912, and the majority of the family left the area in the 1950s, but the legacy of this baron of lumber remains in his home, the stunning Carson Mansion, and in the beauty of the town he helped to enrich.
Note: thank you to John Ash for the incredible tour, to Tim and Cory at the Ingomar Club for the hospitality, and to Julie Benbow at the Humboldt County Visitor’s Bureau for setting it all up. This was an experience I will never forget!
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