Samoa California - Eureka Community on Humboldt Bay


Samoa, California Between two Humboldt County's cities, Arcata and Eureka, lies the North Peninsula, a long sandy stretch of land approximately 9.5 miles long and one mile wide. The Samoa Peninsula is the land barrier that separates northern Humboldt Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Once the jewel of Humboldt County, it featured pristine beaches and protected bays. Located on that peninsula is a town called Samoa. Many know and recognize it as a tourist attraction featuring the Samoa Cookhouse. The cookhouse and lumber mill may not have occurred, however, if events had taken a different turn.

Like so many California beach communities of the late 1800s and early 20th century, Samoa was initially purchased by private developers hoping to construct the Coney Island of the Pacific. In 1892, several Eureka business partners formed the Samoa Land and Improvement Company, purchasing 270 acres that included one mile of waterfront extending along Humboldt Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The company drew plans for a beach destination with amusements and over 2,000 residential lots. Competition was tough, however, and beach communities were hard to promote without infrastructure and transportation. Unlike Southern California beaches located in a semi-desert climate, Northern California beaches received three to four times higher average annual rainfall, were on average 10 to 15 degrees cooler throughout the year and were more remote, lacking close proximity to a major city for growth.  In one short year the property was sold before plans for a resort community even got off the ground.


Instead of a beach destination, Samoa was purchased for use as a sawmill. It was sold in 1893 to E.H.& S.A. Vance of Vance Redwood Company. Perched atop a hill overlooking the Humbolt Bay,  huge factory-style buildings were constructed to handle the oversized giant redwood trees that grew so freely in this area that boasts some of the oldest, largest redwood growth in the world. Samoa took shape not as a tourist escape but as a working town with a sawmill factory, Samoa Cookhouse (opened in 1893), modest encampments for the workers.


Sold in just seven years, Hammond Lumber Company took over the operations and expanded, building the largest redwood sawmill with a sash and door factory in the world. In 1912 they purchased additional property and built housing units for the families of lumberjacks and mill workers who could walk to the job in less than 10 minutes. This self-contained community included a molding plant, sorter shed, warehouses and shops. Steamship docks and logging trains running from Little River through Fieldbrook and Arcata to Samoa provided transportation of raw materials and finished goods. Operating for 66 years, in 1956 Hammond Lumber Company closed its doors when it received an offer from the corporate giant, Georgia Pacific.


By 1959, Georgia Pacific completed construction of the world's largest plywood mill at Samoa. It took only four years to expand and begin 500-ton per day bleached kraft pulp production. Georgia Pacific was able to operate the mill in Samoa for 14 years until 1973, when the Federal Trade Commission ordered this huge conglomerate to reduce its lumber assets and properties. Under a trade agreement, Louisiana-Pacific Company operated the Samoa mill  with a full-time maintenance staff until 1998.


For over 100 years Samoa was a company town that experienced its fair share of broken bones, cuts and injuries, as well as births, birthdays and anniversaries. Although several companies bought and sold the mill operations and surrounding housing during that time, local residents were often hired to work for the company acquiring the property.  Children growing up in Samoa received great educational opportunities and many followed in their parents' footsteps, taking jobs at the mill when they were old enough.


A feature story from a 1998 issue of North Coast Journal detailed one such person, Lois Busey, who grew up around the mill during the 1950's. Her father, Merle Annis, worked there and the family resided in Samoa. Lois Busey graduated from Arcata High School in 1967 (there was no bridge to Eureka so Samoa students were bused along the peninsula to Arcata schools) and got her first job at the mill that year. From mail girl to Louisiana-Pacific's Western Division head of PR, she worked 31 years at the company. Jet-setting around the globe, she rubbed elbows with famous celebrities, yet always returned to Samoa. Spending the majority of her life in this mill town, Busey even outlasted all her bosses who were hired, fired or promoted out of the plant. Sadly, she could not overcome the final, inevitable lay-offs in 1998 when the company was sold.


A small cocktail party ended her career at this 105-year Samoa lumber industry location with little fanfare or celebration. Much as the industry itself began to fade from the Samoa landscape, those who lived in its cottages and houses saw the demise of a way of life known for a century.


No longer the lucrative industry providing an economic base and employment to the North Coast region of California, forestry inventories have become depleted, requiring the town of Samoa to re-invent itself in the 21st Century. In 2001, the town of Samoa was put up for sale by the Simpson-Samoa Company and purchased by the Samoa Pacific Group, LLC as a result of an international auction.


The good news is that the Coney Island dream of 100 years ago is a bit closer to the mark, now that Samoa's lumber mill has run its course. During the past 100 years, the population in California has grown from 1,485,053 in 1900 to nearly 36 million today. The most populated regions are near the coast and with little room to grow in Southern California, this northern region looks attractive. Though thrill rides are not exactly on the drawing board, read more about what's being planned for the piece of land overlooking a bay.


Samoa Pacific Group, LLC is a group of local investors who seek to preserve the historical character of the townsite. Acquiring dune lands as well, they own approximately 150 -170 acres.  The land purchased at auction included the town of 98 houses, a restored hostelry, a post office, gymnasium, the Samoa Cookhouse, gift shop, fire house, wood shop, former gas station, the Women’s Club, and an existing sewage treatment system. Samoa Pacific Group also purchased industrial and dune lands. Historical uses of the industrial zoned portion of the site include sawmills, drykilns, lumber and log storage, a bio-mass power plant, rail shipping facilities and warehouses. The site includes a dock with deep-water access. The County of Humboldt has updated its General Plan and is considering a Local Coastal Plan amendment and zoning change to reflect the desired land uses.

Ambitious plans under consideration for this valuable property include housing, tourist facilities, commercial development and a business park. The core of the project area is centered around the town of Samoa and north of the pulp mill.  In August 2002, the applicants submitted a Master Plan for the Samoa town site prepared by RNL Design in collaboration with The Planning Studio of Kevin Young. The Master Plan covers 174 acres of land in and adjacent to the existing town. The Master Plan provides includes tourist-oriented accommodation and retail uses, new and renovated housing, business and industrial uses, historic/cultural/recreational uses, community uses and parks and open spaces.


The Master Plan for town site development presented in 2002 included a Historic/Cultural Precinct focused around the Samoa Cookhouse (including a number of structures housing historic, cultural and museum entities); 365 residential units (including 57 existing residential units) with a mix of  25 high-end custom lots, 136 new lots, 23 multi-family units, 68 affordable housing units and 56 senior housing units; retail boutiques, services, tourist-oriented shops and galleries; a new landscaped town square to be developed on the existing parking lot across from the Samoa Block; renovation of Samoa Block to provide 23,000 square feet for community uses, including a meeting hall, management company/association offices, recreation and professional office space; tourist-oriented accommodation to include a 75-room lodge with 500-person conference center, 250-person performing arts center and spa, 19 vacation cottages, and a 71-space recreational vehicle park; a business park with light industrial, warehousing, showroom, small business/office uses.


Transitions―As 20th Century Samoa mill workers were outplaced in a changing 21st Century landscape, Wiyot Indians who lived on Samoa for centuries previous to this time were removed physically from their peninsula paradise during the 1800's. Often killed or transported to reservations, evidence of a large village on the east side of the peninsula is documented through archaeological finds. Enjoying wildlife, ample food, water and an abundance of building material nearby, Indian artifacts are sometimes discovered on the the beaches and islands surrounding Humboldt Bay even today. The Wiyot gathered shellfish and discarded the shell remains in heaps. The scattered remnants of these heaps may be seen throughout Samoa Dunes Recreation Area park.

Samoa Dunes Recreation Area is a 300 acre park managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as a multiple-use recreation site for hiking, surfing, fishing, sightseeing, beachcombing, off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, picnicking and birdwatching. In the 1850's the U.S. government erected a lighthouse near the center of what is now the Samoa Dunes Recreation Area. The beacon was too low to be seen clearly from the ocean so the lighthouse was abandoned in 1867. Remains of the lighthouse may be seen in the Wetland Protection Area. Also of historical interest are the World War II Coast Guard ammunition bunkers that can be seen near the OHV staging area at Samoa Dunes.


On the northeast section of Samoa Dunes Recreation Area, 40 acres of protected /restored native plant communities contain the endangered Humboldt Bay wallflower endemic to northern California coastal dunes. Several stages of coastal dunes, including seasonal wetlands can be viewed at the recreation area, as well.

Closest to the ocean where sand deposition occurs is the strand. Dry sand from the strand moves by wind to form foredunes that include scant vegetation, wind, salt spray and low soil moisture. As wind moves from the foredunes with increasing velocity, sand scours out deflation plains. Fresh water collects in such low-lying areas during the winter months, forming ponds or wetlands. Here you'll find Marsh hawks in the willow thickets.

OHV enthusiasts can use a staging area with an unloading ramp, restroom, tables, cooking grills and a scenic overlook. From the staging area, riders have easy access to 140 acres of "open" terrain, containing numerous trails and the beach strand. An additional new 75-acre riding area known as Eureka Dunes is open to OHV use and extends about 1 mile north of the park. The rest of the beach and dunes along the peninsula are closed to vehicle use, except by special permit from the county. 


Samoa also is home to Samoa Airport, built in 1943 by the Navy. May 22, 1943 the first Commander was sent, Lieutenant W.W. Bemis, U.S.N. Pilot. The base would eventually house 60 men.

samoa houses and architecture

Houses once used for workers at the lumber mills are solidly built with some of the finest redwood available (top row). Row 2-left is a photo of an empty mill building. Middle photo shows the Samoa Cookhouse.

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