A Very Vintage Road Trip: Eureka!

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After leaving the mellow surroundings of Coos Bay I drove south, hugging the coast as ever to my next stop, Eureka. It wasn’t just the silly name that drew me to Eureka. For the most part it seemed a sensible stopping point between Coos Bay and San Francisco but it had the added benefit of housing one of the most well preserved historical districts along the West Coast. I say sensible place to stop but it’s all bloody relative in America. EVERYTHING is far away from everything in that ridiculous country. Driving down the coast feels like being seated at one of those empty stately home dining tables where you have to ask the Butler to pass the salt to your companion 30ft down the other end. Just to give you an idea, it took me over seven hours to drive to San Francisco the next day, along an admittedly scenic route, but still. Seven hours! People in Britain completely acceptably won’t see family members for twenty years if they live seven hours drive away.

Eureka is nestled in Humboldt Bay in the heart of the Redwood area. The Redwood forests were spectacular and I would have stopped the car to take pictures but I was scared that wood elves would appear and drag me into their lichen covered dell to serve as a giant plaything in their cruel Puck-like tauntings, a la Gulliver’s Travels if I did so. Ok, I had been on the road for quite some time by this point but seriously that place has an eerily magical air when traversing it alone. Or it could just be misty. You decide depending on your levels of imagination.

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The bay area was settled by Californian miners and lumber merchants during the booming heyday of the mid-19th century. I say settled but of course it goes without saying that there were people living in the area for thousands of years prior to this, but shhhh, yeah, let’s not talk about those guys eh Western history? Oooh burn.

Eureka’s old town spans 350 acres and estimates vary as to how many historic buildings it has, ranging from 100-1000. Essentially the old town proper runs from 1st, 2nd and 3rd streets between B and M. I realise if you’re British this means nothing to you because we had to build our towns twisted around old Roman Forts or Merlin’s Nook copse or some such place but in America most towns are laid out in a sensible gird pattern, helpfully numbered in a systematic way. This is what happens when you have space.

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Eureka’s historic buildings aren’t in and of themselves particularly spectacular, the fact that they are still standing is. I have found little to answer how or why they have survived for the last 150 years and why Eureka didn’t experience a neighbourhood revival as many other cities did after the Great Depression, such as Los Angeles. Perhaps the residents of Eureka were of a particularly nostalgic persuasion, perhaps the artistic atmosphere of the place prevailed or perhaps it was too much of a faff for big city developers to travel to (not to labour a point but, SEVEN HOURS, and that was in an automatic). Anyway, alls I knows is that when I arrived on a remarkably warm February evening during a pink tinged dusk the old town was glowing with pastel light which bounced off of the macaroon hued wooden structures. It was Friday night and like everywhere I had visited in America thus far, noticeably quiet and empty. Occasionally couples wandered past me and into one of the few local eateries, all bedecked with swirling gold bistro writing spelling out names like ‘The Crock Pot’ or ‘Sam’s’. I saw one family comprising two wholesome parents and their two equally wholesome children, walking down a street of about 100m and looking in the closed shop windows, then crossing the road and walking back up the other side of the street, just as an activity, something to do on a Friday night in Eureka. Most of the coffee and tourist shops were closed at 5pm and I had to remind myself that it was off season. In the height of summer the place was probably heaving with tourists like a bad day in Padstow. But now, at the end of winter it was just locals, and the odd weird English woman on a solo road trip after the breakdown of a 12 year relationship (oh yeah, I haven’t really mentioned that before, but that happened. A few months ago. And it’s ok. No one died, no one was mean and the world is still magical, inspiring and wondrous to me).

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I headed towards the big catch of Old Town Eureka, the Carson Mansion. Carson Mansion is a great Queen Anne cream cake of a building, built in 1883 by San Francisco based architects Samuel and Joseph Cather Newson for lumber baron William Carson and his wife Sarah. The design itself is a mixture of styles, but is predominately in the Queen Anne tradition, so popular with late Victorian American architecture. Queen Anne is the style that Charles Addams plumped for when designing every goth girl’s Barbie Dream house, The Addams Family Mansion. The Carson Mansion, being one of the finest examples of the style in the country, could reasonably be supposed to have served as inspiration to Addams.

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After Carson’s heirs moved out of Eureka the property lay unoccupied for several years until a band of local Eurekan chaps got together to form the Ingomar Club, so named for Carson’s favourite play, Ingomar the Barbarian. Appropriately so it seems as while the Ingormar should be applauded for its single handed maintenance and restoration of the building, it is rather a dinosaur in its approach to female admittance, to the ire of many local female officials who in 1978 had to bring a law suit to court in order to join their male colleagues on official business in the building. Now women are admitted for certain formal functions but only as guests and presumably not for too long for fear that their wandering hysteria may synchronise and form a portal to the underworld dragging the house down to a fiery doom and it’s unsuspecting occupants with it. There have also been cases of sexual harassment bought against the club by staff members and generally the place has a whiff of white rich male elitism about it. In recent years the Ingomar appears to have taken some steps towards greater community inclusion with a website which, while presenting the club primarily as mere custodians of the building rather than talking about the organisation itself, does have photographs of the interior of the property for the first time. However it does seem strange coming from a country where even the Queen allows you to snoop around her upstairs, that a historic property of such renown is closed to the public and experienced by only 300 men paying $120 per month (last known membership dues dating from 1995 – surely this has now increased). As I was standing in the silent evening staring up at the building, a car pulled up across the street and a lady with poufy burgundy hair and a fancy frock and matching drape jacket leaned out.

‘Excuse me, do you know if this is the parking entrance? Here, where it says ‘No Admittance’?’
‘I don’t know I’m afraid, I’m just here taking pictures’. I said, unnecessarily gesturing to the Sony Alpha hanging from my neck like a hipster Flava Flav.
‘Oh Ok, thank you. We’ll back up out of your way.’

Which they did. Because they were a nice American couple, and nice American couples do things like that. Not like us awkward Brits who would rather mummify at the wheel like Norman Bates’ mother before leaning out of the window to ask a stranger a question. After about 10 minutes of snapping I headed back into town. As I passed by them the lady shouted out to me again.

‘It’s wonderful building isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it’s amazing, I can’t quite take it all in. Do you know what goes on inside?’
‘It’s a private members club. We’re only allowed in for dinner tonight because it’s a special function and we’ve been invited by a member. I’m very excited’.
‘I’m sure you are’. I said.

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Across the street from Carson Mansion is The Pink Lady, a house William had built by his architects for his son in 1889 as a wedding present. How fantastically lovely. Near the Carson Mansion is the Carson House Inn which is actually a replica of the 1885 Newson and Newson designed property Murphy House in San Francisco, which was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. It apparently has a fantastic wine selection should you be into that sort of thing.

It was dark by the time I reached the main drag again. I didn’t much fancy sitting in ‘The Oyster Grill’ surrounded by warm, fuzzy folks as I chomped my way through a baby sized portion of unfailingly delicious food, so I headed to Starbucks, bought a massive white chocolate mocha and checked my emails. I had several. I always have several because I have lovely family and friends who relentlessly take the time to write to me in spite of my shameful and unremitting delay in getting back to anyone and everyone I care about. I walked back to my car and the darkness. The streets were completely deserted and I felt ready for my hotel bed. ‘Well, must be about time for lights out’ I thought to myself as I checked the dash. It was 8pm.

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