Often times I find that my travel destinations are chosen from a great historical story that calls to me so much so that I have to go to the place where it happened. Other times, all it takes is a photo.
This was the case for Ferndale, CA; the small northern California town that proudly calls itself a Victorian village. The photo was taken from atop a sweeping hilltop cemetery that looked down upon the town that felt way more New England than Californian. There was no way I could not go find this Victorian haven for myself. Two days later, I was on the road.
So what’s the deal with this town? First, let’s start at the beginning. Ferndale,CA is the southern most city on what they call the “Lost Coast” in reference to the rapid depopulation of the 1930s.As with everywhere, the land had been inhabited for thousands of years by Natives, this area was home to the Wiyot tribe but as with most of our history, is marked by the settling of the first white settlers. Ferndale was “first settled” by Willard Allard and Seth & Stephen Shaw in 1852 when they borrowed a canoe from the Wiyot’s and set across the Eel river, clearing 5 acres of land and building the first cabin.
Things progressed rather quickly in the town and soon the small cabin was full of 12 men all bringing their own trades and putting them to use to start a fledged town. Two years later Seth Shaw built and moved into what is now known as the gothic historic Shaw house; a beautiful B&B you can now enjoy for yourself that also happens to be the oldest B&B in California. The grounds of this property struck me and I can’t exactly tell you why because the house itself, although large and at the time I’m sure very impressive; didn’t necessarily move anything within me. The grounds however, carried with it a lingering heaviness that has sat with me since I’ve left. The home over the years served as the first polling place in town, post office and courthouse so….its seen a sh*t ton of history.
Although the Shaw house is the oldest standing in the town, it is definitely not the most impressive. The Gingerbread mansion (also now a B&B) was originally called the Ring House for Doctor Hogan J Ring whom had the house built for him and his family in 1899. Although I can’t find any written reports of hauntings at the Ring home, the house DID serve as a public hospital for years and was also the home to 10 Ring children so I can only imagine it has some lingering spirits…..
Now, for my own personal experience.
Driving into Ferndale was sort of a mind blowing experience because every single building and home is Victorian….they were not lying when they called this a Victorian village. I truly felt like I’d somehow Marty Mcfly’d my way back to the 1890s. I parked, mouth gaping in front of the Victorian Inn; an impressive building built in 1890 by banker Ira C. Russ built entirely of native Redwood. The ornamental massive structure serving as the crown on top of Main street. My first mission was to find coffee which I did in the warm and delightful Mind’s Eye Manufactory and Coffee Roasters. Part coffee shop, part artist workshop, it was exactly the kind of coffee shop i’d hoped to find in a town like this. You had the young and quirky barista, the old man who was probably a lifer with his newspaper in the corner and the quiet yet observant artist who suspiciously shuffled into his workshop. After coffee I started my journey down Main street. The shops were slowly opening in the historic buildings and each one was more charming than the next. I made my way past the Repertory Theatre; the only place in Ferndale that is actually talked about as being haunted.
According to the story, a woman named Bertha is the in house ghost whom usually takes the form as a cat, wandering up and down the aisles. Additionally, she is known to haunt the bathrooms. Why there are SO many reported hauntings in bathrooms will never cease to amaze me…it’s not like public restrooms aren’t already terrifying or anything…..
I was fortunate enough to come to Ferndale just days after Christmas which meant all the Christmas trees each shop puts out were still up. Ferndale also boasts that they have the largest living Christmas tree but you can only see it at night so…I missed that.
Caffeinated and charmed I set off to find my reason for coming to Ferndale, the cemetery. The old arched wire sign sits just off the street behind a red church (there are about a million churches in Ferndale just FYI.) The first thing I noticed was how much concrete there was. Each plot had it’s own little wall, many of the graves had stone slabs over them and there was an impressive staircase that climbed up the small hill leading to the Shaw family crypt. However, I had no way to prepare for the stunning sight that awaited me atop the small hill.
Once I reached the crest, the wind was literally knocked out of me. The cemetery reached so far up the giant hill, you could barely make out the top. Plots and headstones peaking up through the greenery, hugged by forest, it was so exquisite I could barely handle it. Being up north, it was wet, and the ground was littered with fallen leaves, moss, patchy grass and mud. I (stupidly) was wearing heeled boots and the cemetery went up very high, steep hills but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I carefully climbed through plots, using headstones at time for leverage until I finally reached the reason that I came here - the view.
It was as stunning as I’d hoped it would be and next to Waverley cemetery in Sydney, Australia the most impressive Victorian cemetery i’d ever walked through. Funny enough, just like Waverley, many of the locals used this place of rest to exercise which I have to say is still an odd thing to me. I spent an hour reading headstones, learning the names of many of Ferndale’s fallen residents. I saw families with multiple young children plots, others whom lived surprisingly long lives for the time. The entire time I spent at the Ferndale cemetery I felt grateful, grateful for this beautiful piece of preserved history that allowed me to learn so much and for the town it was in, whom despite 2 fires, an earthquake and the hands of time, was able to preserve so much for me to now experience.
I wrapped up my trip to Ferndale with a trip to the Ferndale historic museum where I had an amazing conversation with the volunteer and got to see the oldest working seismograph in California still in action. As I left Ferndale I knew the town had made an impression on me that I will carry forever. From the beautiful architecture, to the incredibly friendly residents; this Victorian village should be a must for any historian or history enthusiast who desires to meet face to face with the past.
Scroll through the photos below to explore more of Ferndale!