A curious glimpse into Tsarist Russia’s exploration of the California coast, the salt-washed buildings of Fort Ross State Historic Park offer a fascinating insight into the pre-American Wild West. It’s a quiet, picturesque place with a riveting past. If you pass by on a winter weekday when the fort is sometimes closed (due to budget cuts), you still may be able to walk down and have a peek inside if a school group is there.
In March 1812, a group of 25 Russians and 80 Alaskans (including members of the Kodiak and Aleutian tribes) built a wooden fort here, near a Kashaya Pomo village. The southernmost outpost of the 19th-century Russian fur trade on America’s Pacific Coast, Fort Ross was established as a base for sea-otter hunting operations and trade with Alta California, and for growing crops for Russian settlements in Alaska. The Russians dedicated the fort in August 1812 and occupied it until 1841, when it was abandoned because the sea-otter population had been decimated and agricultural production had never taken off.
Fort Ross State Historic Park, an accurate reconstruction of the fort, is 11 miles north of Jenner on a beautiful point. The original buildings were sold, dismantled and carried off to Sutter’s Fort during the gold rush. The visitor center has a great museum with historical displays and an excellent bookshop on Californian and Russian history. Ask about hikes to the Russian cemetery.
During the Fort Ross Festival, the last Saturday in July, costumed volunteers bring the fort’s history to life; check www.fortross.org or call the visitor center for other special events.