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Never too late to study the past

I’m writing today about what I don’t know — a vastly larger field of study than what I do know.

Newspapering is a funny business. You hit town, as I did a little over four years ago, and immediately start chronicling its people and places and politics with very little knowledge of what came before.

While still in Colorado, I bought books detailing this area’s hiking trails and the history of the coast redwoods. Once I got here, the world’s tallest trees and the rugged coastline proved to be quite the distraction. Probably the Del Norte County Historical Society Museum is the first place I should have visited.

Instead, my sense of local history has developed in disjointed fashion. I know Crescent City was once a bustling timber and fishing town. And I have pockets of deeper insight — coordinating a six-part series of articles marking the 45th anniversary of the 1964 tsunami gave me a pretty good idea of how that horrific night unfolded, for instance. Observation of another anniversary — 20 years for Pelican Bay State Prison — brought some knowledge of how Del Norte’s largest employer came to be here.

It’s true I researched a bit of the history of the original Redwood Highway through these parts, inspired by the road markings that still exist on what is now the Last Chance section of the Coastal Trail. But following old roads and noting major anniversaries only goes so far in telling you how the place you reside came to be. Sometimes I take solace in the fact that plenty of people who have lived here longer than me know even less about Del Norte’s history — but they’re not editing the local newspaper.

Finally, I’m resolving to develop at least a decent working knowledge of our history. Somehow, a scene Tuesday evening at the Brother Jonathan viewpoint pushed me over the edge — figuratively.

I’d gone there with an old photograph in hand and encountered a guy intent on making new photographs. “I’ve never seen it just like this,” he said as he pointed his lens south toward a Battery Point Lighthouse bathed in surreal light caused by late-arriving sunshine in a sky still full of portable storms.

I was looking north, comparing the Pebble Beach of today with an image of the same scene captured decades earlier. It’s one of the photos on Page B1 today. In it, Preston Island is a hulking sea stack yet to be decimated into rock quarry for the harbor breakwater. There is no Pebble Beach Drive, just heavily wooded bluffs.

The enthusiastic photographer, who has lived here six years but was acting like a kid on Christmas morning, actually broke away from his task to join me in comparing that northward view with the old picture. We noted the smaller rocks that existed then and are still there now. Yup, this was the island of yesteryear.

It was that juxtaposition of fascination with the present and the past that made me realize I want to become familiar with the latter. This place is worth it.

How did they get those busted-up boulders to the jetty construction site? I Googled the question and up popped the cover of a book called “Images of America: Crescent City and Del Norte County.” It featured a photo of a makeshift rail line running from Preston Island on the short trip south, delineating part of the future path of Pebble Beach Drive.

Where else did the rocks come from that eventually created a mile-long breakwater? What about Whalers Island in the harbor – when and why did it quit being an island? And why hadn’t I already acquired that book, a product of the Del Norte County Historical Society?

My quick perusal of the Internet didn’t answer those questions. Better late than never, it’s time to pack up my ignorance and pay the society a visit.

 

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