The Pomo date back about 3,000 years on the North Coast. They built their main village of redwood bark houses at the mouth of Big River. The Pomo hunted large and small game, caught fish and shellfish, and gathered seaweed, acorns, and various seeds. Whatever they could not obtain locally, they acquired in trades with other groups; in times of plenty, native groups often gathered to share the bounty.
When Russian and Aleutian fur trappers arrived here in the early 1800s, they were likely the Pomo’s first contact with non-natives. When the Pomo were drawn into the mission system in the early 1800s, their way of life was forever altered. Within a generation or two, direct conflict and exposure to European diseases nearly decimated them.
Today about 5,000 Pomo descendants, who still occupy parts of their ancestral lands, gather the raw materials to make some of the world’s finest Native American baskets and to pass on this ancient skill to the next generation of artisans.
Russians who established Fort Ross (50 miles south of Russian Gulch) in 1812 were probably the first non-native people to explore and chart this area. U.S. government surveyors may have later given the name Russian Gulch to this area in honor of these early pioneers, or the name may have come from a fort deserter who settled in the area.
In 1852 Harry Meiggs, a San Francisco engineer and promoter, erected a sawmill at Big River just south of Russian Gulch. This mill initiated the redwood lumber industry on the Mendocino Coast.
Soon other mills were popping up in all the little inlets, or "dog holes” like Russian Gulch. Since the sea was the only means of travel, these dog holes were regular stops for the schooners traveling from San Francisco to Humboldt Bay. They would bring freight and passengers on the way north and pick up lumber and passengers on the way back. This was a very dangerous operation in bad weather, and many of the ships were lost. Some rusty old iron rings used to hold the high lines that loaded lumber on the ships can be seen anchored in the rocks along the headlands.
Redwood was considered excellent material for railroad ties, and Russian Gulch produced many of the ties used on the transcontinental railroad. Shingles were also produced here. One of the first redwood shingle mills in this part of the country was built on the site where the recreation hall stands today.
In the early 1880s, several homesteaders filed claims on the land, and some of it was farmed. Until well into the 1900s, Russian Gulch was a fishing boat harbor and a stop for freight and passenger ships. In the mid-1920s, F. O. Warner, a Los Angeles real estate developer, purchased land around Russian Gulch to open a resort; visitors realized that Russian Gulch was an ideal place to spend hot summers.
In August 1928, the Mendocino Beacon reported that the Native Sons of the Golden West had launched a movement “to have Russian Gulch . . . set aside for one of the proposed State Parks.” In 1933 the state acquired the land, and on October 21, 1934, Russian Gulch State Park was dedicated.
The infrastructure, original buildings, and campgrounds at Russian Gulch were built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). From 1933 until World War II, the young men employed by the CCC were given the chance to do this useful work and support their families during the Great Depression. Designed in the "park rustic" style of native stone and timber, the park recreation hall, restrooms, campstoves and tables, bridges, roads, and trails testify to the lasting legacy of the CCC.