Fellow Book Benders
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    This is the 32nd edition of Fellow Book Benders, a free monthly online newsletter about the ridiculous truth and historical tidbits of San Francisco, the Russian River and beyond.  This month we take a peek at the early days of Duncans Mills along the Russian River.  And don't forget, 'tis the season. Would a nostalgic novel of yesteryear put a smile on a loved one's face for the holidays?  All major credit cards accepted.  Free shipping and handling.  For more information, visit
         December, 2018                                     Vol. 3, No. 12
Duncans Mills, Part 1
      The early days of Duncans Mills along the Russian River tells a tale of greed, international tension and fate. Once upon a time it was part of Alta California, which was under the Mexican governorship of Pio Pico (far left photo). He was often ridiculed for his physical deformities resulting from acromegaly, a disease caused by the unregulated release of hormones causing abnormal growth of hands, feet and face. One newspaper critic called him the “ugliest man in the territory”.  It is easy to understand why Pico developed a tough skin. He scorned his enemies and protected his allies. When the Russians abandoned Fort Ross in 1841 and sold the surrounding land to John Sutter, Governor Pico issued the sale “null & void” and in its place created the Rancho Muniz Land Grant.      
         Sutter had his own militia and the fear of violence was very real. With the cession of Alta California to the U.S. following the Mexican-American War, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo provided that this land grant  be honored. Part of this land was later sold to Alexander Duncan (near left photo).  Without one politician's vanity, who knows what the future of Duncans Mills might have been.
       Some say that Alexander and Samuel Duncan were the first sawmill operators along the Sonoma Coast. They originally founded a mill just east of Freestone before relocating near the mouth of the Russian River near today’s Bridgehaven. But there were disadvantages to this location as well. Many a log, which floated downstream to the site, would wash out to sea in bad weather. Also, the lumber would have to be hauled by horse-drawn tram to Duncan Point (just south of Wright’s Beach near Bodega) where waves, currents and weather often did not cooperate with the loading of timber onto waiting ships.
         Two events in 1877 changed the town’s destiny forever. A fire burned much of the mill, and the North Pacific Coast Railroad was approaching inland.  The brothers decided to move the surviving buildings by barge upstream three miles to the present-day locale. By 1880 Duncans Mills was the largest town along the lower reaches of the Russian River, boasting a post office, telegraph office, train depot, two hotels (far right photos), saloon, meat market, blacksmith shop, shoe shop, livery stable, dance hall, school and a notion store. The population of the town numbered about 250 souls at this time. According to the 2000 census, the town now claims seventy-five fewer residents. Some would consider that progress.
            Sidebar: Jean Singer recalls that her grandfather worked at one of the old sawmills in Duncans Mills before it burned down.
   The first train arrived in the new town of Duncans Mills in 1877, becoming the northernmost terminus of the North Pacific Coast R.R. (NPC).  The NPC operated almost 93 miles of track while a ferry connected San Francisco's Embarcadero to Sausalito (upper left photo) where the line began. The railroad carried lumber, local dairy, agricultural products, express and passengers.    Old Engine No. 20 often headed a thirteen-car train on the three-rail portion west of Monte Rio down present-day Moscow Road (upper right photo), continuing across the Russian River (lower left photo) to the depot at Duncans Mills, (lower right photo).
          The NPC developed into the North Shore Railroad (NSR), which later became part of the North Western Pacific (NWP). During the 1906 earthquake, Duncans Mills lost its Victorian hotels. Essentially the entire village was destroyed and left to the sprouting weeds for years to come. Not too soon after the town rose from the ashes, Mother Nature dealt another cruel blow.  On September 17, 1923 a moonshine still blew up, igniting a blaze that roared through the lumber mills from Guerneville through Cazadero and Duncans Mills to Jenner.  But the good citizens of Duncans Mills carried on. 
         With the lumber trade on the fritz, passenger service picked up the slack over a standard gauge track.  Service existed to and from Duncans Mills with a daily patron average of nearly 225. The NWP offered “dollar days” on weekends with a roundtrip fare of $1.25 from San Francisco to any point along the Russian River.  And then the Depression arrived in earnest to challenge the town once again.  With the railroad running over a million dollars in the red, the town slowly faded.  Standing nearby today on narrow-gauge tracks (36″) are the restored NWP coach, two box cars and Caboose #2 (lower right photo), which were part of the last train to Duncans Mills in 1935.   Much of the town underwent a major restoration in 1976, enabling the citizens of the area to once again raise their glasses in a hearty salute to survival.
          Sidebar: Jean Singer remembers her childhood vacations to Duncans Mills always included a visit to an elderly man who lived in an old train car he had converted into his living quarters.
NEXT TIME we will visit Duncans Mills Part II along the Russian River. Take care and stay out of trouble (if only I could remember how).  Cheers!
Reviews for Don't Stop the Music:
        “For those who remember the era (Summer of Love), Don't Stop the Music is a delicious summary of memory.”
         San Francisco Museum and Historical Society
        "John McCarty has put together a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love (1967) that is cheerful and entertaining and even pays tribute to the beauty of west Sonoma County..."
          Sonoma County Historical Society

          “A trip back in time to the 1960’s San Francisco Fillmore District, up through the Marin & Sonoma coastline to the Russian River hippie heyday and the peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.  A nostalgic read.”
            Russian River Historical Society

            "Somehow McCarty manages to build sympathy for his motley crew as they embark on a classic road trip from San Francisco to rural northern California."
            Northern California Fulbright Association

         "Familiar folks, home-grown scenery, and candid attitudes will put you happily in the middle of all the action."
            Stephen Gross, The Press Democrat

           "All along there is danger, excitement, budding love and a number of unrighteous brawls.  The author knows what he writes about.”

            Bob Jones, Sonoma West Times & News

Attributions & Asides:
       A special thank you is due to anonymous subscribers for sharing their memories of  North Beach.   Also, a note of appreciation goes to the following individuals and organizations: Jean Singer, Robin Monroe (website designer), The Press Democrat, Card Cow Vintage Postcards, Sonoma County Historical Society, Russian River Historical Society, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, and Wikipedia.
                To subscribe a friend to this newsletter go to and scroll to the bottom of any page to "Subscribe To Our Newsletter".
                 Your privacy is important to me.  Be assured that I am not sharing your email or any other personal information. As Red Skelton used to say, "Good night and may God bless."   JMc
Copyright © 2018 John McCarty, All rights reserved.

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