My wife and I first explored Mendocino County during a long distance bike trip in the mid-1980s. On one particularly hard day of riding dominated by stiff headwinds, we stopped short of our intended destination in Mendocino village and decided to stay in the tiny town of Elk. Drawn by the rugged and often savage beauty of the coast, we would return to Elk many times after that. While Elk has an interesting story of its own, this post is about an older settlement a mile to the north, a ghost town named Cuffey’s Cove.
We first learned about Cuffey’s Cove when we were complaining half-jokingly to our Elk innkeeper that we had become so familiar with the area that we were running out of things to do. He raised a cynical, disbelieving eyebrow and asked, “Have you been to the old cemetery?” He said little about it other than where we could find it.
Intrigued by the innkeeper’s oracular behavior, we set out the next day on foot, heading north on Highway 1. Past the Blessed Sacrament Church near the edge of town, built in 1896. Past the Greenwood School that always looked so isolated and lonely on its little bluff. Past naked cliffs, rolling pastures and resolute stands of eucalyptus that had been twisted by the wind over time into something rather haunting. We eventually came to a rustic wooden fence with worn stone pillars and wrought iron gates. It was a large, rambling plot of land with a decorative wooden sign that proudly proclaimed: Cuffy’s Cove Catholic Cemetery.
As we explored the grounds, we realized there were actually three conjoined cemeteries. One was the Catholic cemetery. Another area cordoned off within the first was the Druid’s Cemetery. Farther back toward the ocean and a bit south was the Community Cemetery.
At the time, there were about 150 people living in Elk. Why did they need such a large, sprawling cemetery? And why did it bear the name Cuffy’s Cove rather than Elk? Was the Druid cemetery reserved for actual Druids, those Celtic wizards of old? And why were the Catholics separated from the rest of the community?
Over the next few years, I casually researched the history of the area using a variety of local and regional histories. Most of these were written by residents, often elderly. There were numerous inconsistencies and many of the texts contradicted each other.
Cuffey’s Cove (the more frequent spelling) was a thriving town that reached its peak in the 1870s. It had hotels, saloons, boarding houses, homes, stores and, most importantly, a wharf. Cuffey’s Cove was a shipping point for the lumber operations that began dotting the coast beginning in the mid-1850s.
So who was Cuffey or Cuffy? That’s another very disputed fact. One story says that a local pioneer, Charles Fletcher, saw a bear sow cuffing one of her cubs on the bluff. Another says that Fletcher, who was Scottish, called bears cuffeys and, since the area was swarming with grizzly bears at the time, the cove was named for the abundance of bear. The third story, and the one that seems most plausible to me, is that Australian or British sailors that stopped in the area, possibly on a regular basis, used that name to refer to another of the original settlers, an African American man named Nathaniel Smith. “Cuffey” was a popular British and Australian pejorative for black people during that time. Smith was the first non-Native American to settle on the bluff, most likely in 1852.
So what happened to Cuffey’s Cove; why is the cemetery the only thing left? What happened to the town?
In 1887, an up and coming lumber tycoon by the name of Lorenzo White, who had started successful lumber mills in several places along the coast, desperately wanted to increase the capability of the Cuffey’s Cove shipping point. He offered to buy all the property in town that was then held by a man named James Kenney, who had been instrumental in the town’s development. White offered Kenney $40,000. Kenney, determined to make a killing on the deal, made a counter offer of $75,000. But land was cheap and lumber was plentiful, so White decided to build his new shipping point elsewhere. A modest settlement named Greenwood had sprouted up a mile to the south and the land holders there were much more reasonable in their demands. White settle in Greenwood, now known as Elk, and built the biggest wharf, mill and shipping point on the Mendocino coast.
White’s operation quickly expanded, Greenwood continued to grow, and people steadily moved from Cuffey’s Cove to the more prosperous new town. Several fires ravished the remaining buildings and, within twenty years, there was little left of Cuffey’s Cove save a few houses and the cemeteries. It’s a story that would play out along the Mendocino coast time and time again during the logging era. Towns would pop up around a logging operation, become a home for hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, then quietly fade away when the lumber boom moved on, leaving little or no evidence behind of their existence.
What about those Druids? Were there spooky Celtic mystics prowling around back then, working spells on unsuspecting folks?
That, I’m afraid, is a story for another time.