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Darby Building has a long, varied past

The Darby Building was one of the first permanent buildings in Crescent City, constructed in 1854 on the corner of Front and F Streets. It was a two-story structure built of red brick, which was manufactured on the Walton Ranch. (Photo courtesy of the Del Norte County Historical Society).
The Darby Building was one of the first permanent buildings in Crescent City, constructed in 1854 on the corner of Front and F Streets. It was a two-story structure built of red brick, which was manufactured on the Walton Ranch. (Photo courtesy of the Del Norte County Historical Society).

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

It took a blaze so hot that firefighters and onlookers had to back a block away to endure its heat to destroy Crescent City's Darby Building at F and Front Streets

years ago this Sept. 9.

The building, during its 113-year existence, already had withstood tides so high that driftwood floated against it, wind storms (reportedly including a tornado), Del Norte rains and the 1964 tsunami.

The Crescent City American reported Sept. 13, , that city police were investigating the sighting of two youngsters leaving the area of the building just before the fire.

Del Norte Historical Museum's research room contains no information indicating whether that lead panned out, however.

The two-story brick building was erected in 1854 "by Darby." Peter Darby is the first settler whose 1850 arrival in the area was documented by author A.J. Bledsoe, author of "History: Del Norte County, California, with a Business Director and Traveler's Guide" published in 1881.

Publisher of the former Crescent City American newspaper Wally Griffin found in his old bound editions that the building likely was built by Enos J. Hayes and finished by Peter Darby.

Originally built to house a ground floor store, it served instead as a Wells Fargo Express office on one side, Darby and Saville Saloon on the other, and an upstairs theater whose capacity was 200 people.

The theater attained a near-permanent place in local history when Lotta Crabtree, dubbed the "Darling of the Gold Fields" by her admirers, performed in 1857 and 1858.

According to an undated article written by a Rev. Don Chase, Crabtree was "such a hit ... that a leading local family named their little girl after her."

Crabtree was not, however, the the theater's only performer. Darby Theater was home for a short time to the local amateur theatrical troupe, The Crestonians.

It also gave a venue to Knights of Pythias, Woodmen of the World and other local lodges. During the 1920s, the Senior Social Club began holding its dances there, a practice that lasted for years.

Over the years, the Darby Building was also home to a creamery, Crescent City's first telephone company and a store, Griffin's archive edition states.

John L. Childs and his wife purchased the then-52-year-old building in 1906 and re-named it the Childs Building.

During that iteration it was occupied by the Crescent City News, a weekly that published on Thursdays. The Childs owned the newspaper, according to Ralph Hughes, a Hiouchi resident who contributed to Del Norte Historical Society's newsletter.

Its press was "an old Franklin type," and all work on it was done the old-fashioned way: by hand.

"It took a man and a boy to operate the press – a boy to ink the rubber roller and shove it across the bed of type while the man took a double sheet of paper and put it in the frame and pressed it down on the bed of type, thus completing the printed pages," Hughes wrote.

The process took two hours to print the weekly edition, which was then folded, addressed by hand, put into six canvas bags and delivered to the post office.

The storied building "witnessed all the varied history of Crescent City from 1855 to the present day," at the time Chase jotted down the article that has become part of Del Norte Historical Society's "Darby" file. "Today is survives as one of the two oldest buildings in the City by Crescent Bay."

Chase wondered in the writing about the building's future. He knew its re-conditioning would come with a high price, but added "this venerable old building can be saved."

About a month after the 1964 tsunami swept over Crescent City, the old building's "fate was in the hands of local civic leaders as they fit it into their overall plans of the ‘new town,'" a photo caption published by the Crescent City American stated. The photo is also included in the historical society's Darby file.

At the time of the fire that ended the old structure's existence, it had been purchased by the downtown redevelopment agency and likely was to have been torn down.

Griffin's archived edition noted that its demolition had been ordered.

Wally Griffin, publisher of the former Crescent City American helped research this article.

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