Duncans Mills was a company town, established by Alexander Duncan as part of the Duncans Mills Land and Lumber Company. It was not, however, the first location of the town nor the only lumber company in the town. The brothers Samuel M. and Alexander Duncan were among the first sawmill operators on the Sonoma Coast. They got their start in 1848 when a group of carpenters employed in building the Benicia barracks decided to establish a sawmill, as the price of lumber made this appear to be a profitable enterprise.
They called their company the Blumedale Saw-mill and Lumber Company and located the mill a few miles east of Freestone. By 1850 the price of lumber had gone down and the company was bought out. In 1852 new owners Joshua Hendy and Samuel M. Duncan continued the company under the name Hendy & Duncan. After several moves they brought the equipment to Salt Point, establishing the first steam sawmill in Sonoma County. By 1855 Hendy sold out to Samuel’s brother Alexander, and the company continued under the name of Duncans Brothers.
In 1860 the Duncans moved the mill to the first location of the town, on the south side of the Russian River near its mouth, the location of Bridgehaven today. This site had natural disadvantages, in that logs that were floated downstream to a boom were regularly swept out to sea in bad weather (An Illustrated History of Sonoma County, 1889:192). Shipping from this location was also difficult. The Duncans hauled the lumber by a horse-drawn tram to Duncan’s Landing, about a mile to the south within the Wright Ranch, from which it was shipped to the San Francisco market.
Nonetheless, the small town thrived at this location from 1862 until 1877. In 1874 the town boasted the Duncans Mill Hotel, a store and the post office. An 1874 advertisement for the hotel noted its attractions as “good accommodations for travelers and pleasure-seekers,” with fishing, boating, hunting and attractive scenery (Paulson, 1874:95). However, Alexander Duncan recognized an opportunity when approached by the North Pacific Coast Railroad with the prospect of re-locating the mill inland. The company was re-formed under the name of the Duncans Mills Land and Lumber Company and moved to their present location (note that the mill at the Bridgehaven site burned in late 1877).
In 1877 many of Duncans Mills’ buildings were moved three miles upstream by barge and re- established on the north side of the river, west of the new bridge constructed by the North Pacific Coast Railroad (Thompson, 1877:24). Now the terminus of the railroad, the town was renamed Duncans Mills (Pappe, 1996:50). Duncans Mills was the largest town in the Ocean Township at this time, hosting a post office, an express and telegraph office, and the headquarters of the North Pacific Coast Stage Company. By 1880 it had gained another hotel, a saloon, a meat market, a blacksmith shop, shoe shop, livery and stage stable, and a notion store (Munro-Fraser, 1880:250). The general store held the post office, rooms for lodgers, and a dance hall. Scotta, Ocean, Laurel Hill and Duncan’s Mill School Districts were located within the township as a whole. The population of the town numbered about 250 people at this time.
Most of the town, as well as the mill, were owned by Alexander Duncan. By 1885 his son Samuel M. Duncan Jr. was superintendent of the mill, its accountant, and the postmaster. However, the Sonoma Land and Lumber Company and the Russian River Land & Lumber Company, both of which had large timber holdings in the area, also operated from Duncans Mills, as well as other locations.
In his 1880 history of Sonoma County, Munro-Fraser stated that there was more mill capacity in the Ocean Township than in any other in the county at that time (Munro-Fraser, 1880:251). Timber was the most important product of the Ocean Township, producing lumber, posts, pickets and shingles. In 1889 the Russian River Land and Lumber Company was the largest owner of timber land in the area, with 10,000 acres, which represented all the timber land on old Duncans Mills Rancho within Ocean Township. They owned the Tyrone and Moscow Mills, located south of Duncans Mills on the route of the North Pacific Coast Railroad. In contrast, Alexander Duncan owned 4,000 acres at this time, primarily on Austin Creek. His mill had the capacity to process thirty-five thousand feet of timber per day and employed 75 men (An Illustrated History of Sonoma County, 1889:654). Other major land owners in Ocean Township were dairymen and farmers. Additional products for which the township was known were dairy products, sheep, potatoes, grains and fruit (McKenney:1878-79:240).
Timber harvesting was originally selective, as oxen were required to remove trees to the mills. Railroads accelerated the commercial growth of the industry. The narrow gauge railroad, which was thought to be better able to access the terrain of the Russian River area, reached Duncans Mills in 1876 via a route that paralleled the coastline. While Duncans Mills remained the terminus of the North Pacific Coast Railroad until 1885, short line railroads were constructed throughout the region, extending from centers like Duncans Mills and Markham Mill to more remote areas and mills. Ownership changes occurred within the railroad, contributing to its complex history. The North Pacific Coast briefly became the North Shore Railroad, which was taken over by the Northwestern Pacific in 1906. A broad or standard gauge line reached the Russian River in 1909. This line was eventually extended for an east-west connection from Fulton to beyond Guerneville, with spur lines serving smaller communities beyond the main track. In 1911 the Northwestern Pacific reached Duncans Mills from north, and the yard was retrofitted to accommodate both narrow and standard gauge trains. Duncans Mills Land and Lumber Company timber lands continued to be accessed by the narrow gauge, however, which traveled up Austin Creek to beyond what is Cazadero today.
The railroads facilitated removal of milled timber from Duncans Mills and also the growth of tourism in the area. The railroad company had been advertising its excursions to travelers from San Francisco since 1877. They traveled by ferry from San Francisco and departed from Sausalito by train, traveling up the coast through San Rafael, Point Reyes, Valley Ford and Occidental, and along the River from Monte Rio to Duncans Mills. Until 1885 they would depart from the train and continue to points north via stage. The region was a popular vacation spot and tourist destination in those days, and most of the small towns and waysides hosted hotels and advertised their attractions (Wilson, 2004:71).
The Early 20 th Century
Timber harvesting in the area had slowed dramatically by the turn of the century. Nonetheless, early 20th century directories show that among the common professions in Duncans Mills were railroad worker, mill worker, teamster, blacksmith, and woodsman. By the 1920s, however, mill worker was a less common occupation. Professions that continued were laborer, carpenter, rancher, dairyman, farmer, and proprietors of small businesses. Mrs. DeCarley operated the hotel and general merchandise store in Duncans Mills in the early 20th century and the DeCarley store held the post office from 1915 to 1975 (Pappe, 1996:50).
The railroad’s days were numbered not only by the decline of logging, but by the rise of the automobile which by the 1920s was the primary source of travel to the Russian River. The narrow gauge was discontinued in 1926 and the Northwestern Pacific, the broad gauge line that had been constructed to Duncans Mills in 1911, was discontinued in 1935 (Wilson, 2002:46. (Note that the broad and narrow gauge trains to Duncans Mills shared the same route via a three-track system with the broad gauge utilizing the outer rails and the narrow gauge utilizing an inner rail and one outer rail). Thus changes that began with changes in industry continued with new modes transportation, which in turn affected how business was conducted, where it was located, and the overall form of small logging towns like Duncans Mills.
Duncans Mills Today
The 1897 atlas of Sonoma County shows a plot of the town of Duncans Mills and the location of the railroad and the Duncans Mills Land and Lumber Company. The small town was platted on the northwest side of the railroad track, which is the same route followed by Highway 116 today. Streets consisted of Main and First Streets, and A, B and C Streets (the small commercial center in the town today is located at Main and B Streets). The Orr Brothers owned large lots to the north, an area now occupied by several residences.
The Duncans Mills Land and Lumber Company was located on the southeast side of the main railroad tracks. A spur line of the North Pacific Coast Railroad Company ran east and west between the railroad station and the freight house. Today Steelhead Lane is located where the spur line was previously, the station is still in place (note that this is the second station, as the first one was lost in the 1906 earthquake), and the Russian River District offices of the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation occupy the Freight House. Today the shops along Steelhead Lane are located in alignment with the freight house, on the south side of what was previously the spur line. Historically additional spur lines extended into the main yard of the lumber company and then rejoined the main line. The Russian River Rodeo Grounds occupies what was the main yard historically. The 1936 Sportsman’s Club is beyond the bridge, on the north side of the river.
In the 1970s the 1907 train depot and many other buildings in the town were purchased and restored by Arnold Wallen. As expressed by one writer, he ‘revived the town with western-style shops and cafes’ (Wilson, 2004:46). The train station was restored in 1971 and turned into a museum, with four narrow gauge train cars – a coach, two box cars, and a caboose – on display on tracks in their historic location adjacent to the station. Most of the other historic structures in town are occupied by tourist-oriented uses, including shops and restaurants. A few buildings have been constructed as infill structures. The town was designated a historic district by Sonoma County in 1982. Today the population is 175, very close to what it was at the town’s heyday as a company logging town.
In addition to being considered significant within its historic context, a property or district must possess the physical features necessary to convey that aspect of history with which it is associated. The following is a brief overview of the history and physical features of the town of Duncans Mills. To augment this description, see the Chapter 4 section entitled “Built Environment.”
The Duncans Mills Historic District is a geographically contiguous district consisting of approximately 31 properties located within the town of Duncans Mills. This district consists of commercial, institutional and residential buildings and four trains. It is located north (northwest) and south (southeast) of Highway 116, off B Street on the north side and Steelhead Blvd. on the south side. There are three buildings in Duncans Mills that are individually listed on the Sonoma County Inventory of Historic Resources as Sonoma County Historic Landmarks. These are the Railroad Depot, the Scotta (Duncans Mills) School, and the Superintendent’s House (note that the Scotta School is nearly a ruin at this time). It is estimated that approximately nine properties in the District were previously considered contributing properties (including the three individually listed properties), judging by that fact that a Historic Resources Inventory was completed for these properties and/or subject buildings in the past.
Duncans Mills was established in 1877 by Alexander Duncan as a company town for the Duncans Mills Land and Lumber Company. In 1860 it was located, in conjunction with the mill, near the mouth of the Russian River, at the present location of Bridgehaven. The town moved when the North Pacific Coast Railroad offered to build a bridge across the river at its present location, facilitating the movement of lumber and other goods from the mills in the region. This early history came to a close however in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The town was rehabilitated with additional infill construction in the 1970/1980s to close to its present appearance. A commercial center is located within the historical plat of the town. Another commercial center is located on the opposite side of the highway where the railroad, mill buildings, and lumber yards once were.
Today the community features primarily low-rise, wood-frame, wood-clad commercial and residential structures in the Italianate style, as well as vernacular structures dating from 1877 to the 1980s. Because the town was rehabilitated in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when historic preservation values differed from values today, and because a number of new infill structures have been added, the architectural integrity of the town as a whole is not high. No buildings remain from the original mill, but the 1907 railroad depot has been restored, as well as an early commercial building dating from 1877, John Orr’s Saloon. Several early homes and commercial structures remain as well. However, the town retains an overall character that conveys a sense of its history, and the quality of the infill development is very good. It is primarily this character that is addressed in these guidelines.
The text above is excerpted from the following report on file at Sonoma County PRMD: Survey and Design Guidelines, Painter, Diana J., Duncans Mills Historic District, Duncans Mills,Sonoma County, California, March 2012.
- Drake, Lorna, Just Before Yesterday, A History of Sonoma County, California. Guerneville, CA: 1990.
- Harris, Cyril M., American Architecture An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
- Kirker, Harold, California’s Architectural Frontier. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1986 (1960).
- Gregory, Thomas Jefferson, History of Sonoma County, California. Los Angeles: Historic Record Company, 1911.
- Kyle, Douglas E., Editor, Historic Spots in California. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002 (1932).
- Luca, Mark, A History of Western Sonoma County. Rohnert Park, CA: Pine Press, 1995. Illustrated Atlas of Sonoma County. Mt. Vernon, IN: Windmill Publications Inc., 1998 (Reprinted from Reynolds & Proctor, Santa Rosa, California, 1897).
- An Illustrated History of Sonoma County, California. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1889.
- McAlester, Virginia & Lee, A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
- Menefee, Campbell Augustus, Historical and descriptive sketch book of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino . . . Napa City, CA: Reporter Pub. House, 1873.
- Munro-Fraser, J. P., History of Sonoma County including its Geology, Topography, Mountains, Valleys and Streams. San Francisco, CA: Alley, Bowen & Co., 1880 (reprinted by Charmaine Burdell Veronda, Petaluma, CA, 1973).
- Papp, Richard Paul, Bear Flag Country: Legacy of the Revolt; A History of the Towns and Post Offices of Sonoma County. Analecta Publishing, 1996.
- Thompson, Robert A., Historical and descriptive sketch of Sonoma County, California
Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1877.
- Thompson, Thomas H., New Historical Atlas of Sonoma County. Oakland, California: Thos. H. Thompson & Co., 1877 (reprinted by Sonoma County Historical Society, 2003).
- Wilson, Simone, The Russian River. Chicago, IL: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
- California Polk-Husted Directory Co.’s Santa Rosa City and Sonoma County Directory 1908.
- Oakland, CA: Polk-Husted Directory Co., Publishers, 1908.
- California State Farmer’s Directory Sonoma County. Sacramento, CA: Farmer’s Directory Company, 1922.
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- The Press Democrat Publishing Company, 1905.
- Paulson, Luther L., L. L. Paulson’s Hand-book and Directory of Napa, Lake, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. San Francisco: L. L. Paulson, 1874.
- McKenney's 8-county directory of Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt, Yolo, Solano, and Marin counties 1884-1885.
- San Francisco: L.M. McKenney & Co., 1883.
- McKenney's district directory of Yolo, Solano, Napa, Lake, Marin and Sonoma Counties 1878-1879.
- San Francisco: L.M. McKenney & Co., 1878.
- McKenney’s Pacific coast directory for 1883, Oakland, CA: L.M. McKenney, 1882.
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- The Press Democrat Publishing Company, 1913.
- The Press Democrat’s 1924
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Government and Other Documents
- Andrus, Patrick W., National Register Bulletin 15: How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. Washington DC: US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1997.
- California Office of Historic Preservation, California Office of Historic Preservation Technical Assistance Series #6, California Register and National Register: A Comparison, n.d.
- California Office of Historic Preservation, Instructions for Preparing Documentation for Nominating Historical Resources to the California Register of Historical Resources. July 2001.
- California Office of Historic Preservation, Instructions for Recording Historical Resources. March 1995
- Division of the State Architect, State Historical Building Safety Board, California Historical Building Code, (Title 24, Part 8), 2007.
- Grimmer, Anne E. and Kay D. Weeks, Preservation Briefs 14: New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings: Preservation Concerns. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 2010 (1986).
- Grimmer, Anne E., et. al., The Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation & Illustrated Guidelines on Sustainability for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. Washington DC: National Park Service, Technical Preservation Services, 2011.
- “North Pacific Coast Railroad Western Sonoma County Sawmills.” Allan Tacy Collection, Northwestern Pacific RR Historical Society, Inc. (source: 1897 Historical Atlas).
- “Open Space & Resource Conservation Element,” Sonoma County General Plan 2020. September 23, 2008.
- Sherfy, Marcella and W. Ray Luce, Guidelines for Evaluating and Nominating Properties That Have Achieved Significance Within the Past Fifty Years. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 198 (1979).
- Weeks, Kay D. and Annie E. Grimmer, The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring & Reconstructing Historic Buildings. Washington DC: US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1995.
- Winter & Company, Historic District Guidelines Public Review Drafts. Sausalito, CA: City of Sausalito, March 2011.
- US Census, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920.
- “History of Duncans Mills,” Historic Duncans Mills, California,
- “Historic Preservation,” Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department, accessed April 2011.
- “The Standards for Rehabilitation,” Incentives, A Guide to the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program for Income-Producing Properties. https://www.nps.gov/tpS/tax-incentives/incentives/index.htm, accessed April 2011.