Crescent City is the last town along the northern coast before you reach the Oregon border. So named because it sits along a crescent shaped bay, it’s easy to miss since the town is foggy much of the time and has a mere 7,643 inhabitants. Small, this is exactly the kind of town that resonates with the impact traveler because it has some vital history to share.
Here’s the single most crazy fact about Crescent City: Twice in its history, the inhabitants have been victims of a destructive tsunami.
Crescent City saw a devastating tsunami sweep from the Pacific Ocean in March 1964. It started in Alaska with a 9.2 earthquake that reportedly had 2,000 times the power of a nuclear bomb. The earthquake sent a tsunami rippling across the Pacific Ocean. Because Crescent City sits on a ‘crescent’ shoreline, it was a magnet for the tsunami. City officials had been warned, but they didn’t react since they received many such warnings in the past and nothing had materialized. That was a big mistake.
Several surges occurred, including a 21-foot wave that swept into the harbor and wrecked buildings before pulling the debris and people back into the ocean about 100 yards or more. The business district was completely destroyed along with most of the rest of the city. Eleven people were killed.
Fifty years later, in March 2011, Crescent City was struck once again. After the 9.0 subduction earthquake 80 miles off the northeast coast of Japan, nine hours later Crescent City was hit by several surges. Sixteen boats sunk and the commercial boat basins infrastructure was destroyed. The damage totaled $32 million and thousands of cubic yards of silt were deposited within the basin. A placard along the harbor details, hour by hour, what happened and shows pictures of the destroyed harbor.
Today, seals peacefully bark along here and the lighthouse stands in the distance.
Battery Point Lighthouse
Along the far end of the city, Battery Point Lighthouse was built in 1856. The 10th lighthouse on the West Coast, it was designed in Cape Cod style. It opened in 1856 and ran until 1965 when it was decommissioned. The lighthouse was reactivated in 1982 as a private aid to navigation and still has a keeper in residence. Today, visitors can go inside only if the tides are low. If the tides are high, the causeway disappears and the lighthouse looks like it stands on an island. The bookstore inside the structure touts interesting titles such as: Women Who Kept The Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers.
From here, you can drive down to the park by the harbor, which is windy and foggy most of the year. Along the grassy field stands the hull of the S.S. Emidio a petroleum corporation tanker, which on December 20, 1941 became the first casualty of the imperial Japanese Navy’s submarine force action on California’s Pacific Coast. The ship was attacked about 200 miles North of San Francisco and five crewmen were killed. The broken vessel drifted North and broke up on the rocks off Crescent City. The bow drifted into the harbor, where people salvaged the remains in 1950 and created a commemoration.
Look for the Crescent City Visitor’s Center near the park and they will give you a short cut of how to get to Stout Memorial Grove, part of the Jedediah Smith Redwoods, which is unusually both a National and State Park. The drive itself is amazing, going through a one-lane dirt road through redwood trees that date back thousands of years and reach heights taller than the Statue of Liberty.
The Redwood trees have a magnificent history of their own, which I’ll be covering during “Tree Month” (in December, of course!).
Walking along Stout Grove, you’ll also find Smith River, the only un-dammed river in California.
Finally, turn on your AM radio while driving along the main highway and then seek out the Roosevelt Elk that usually grazing within grassy fields. Once almost extinct in California, you can find them foraging for food in the ecotone areas (where the forest meets the grassland). They might be trampling vegetation, rolling around in mud wallows or clashing with rival bulls. In late spring, pregnant females move away from the herd to give birth in calving areas in thickets at the edge of the meadow.
Watch out, though. Elk can be unpredictable and charge people!