Fort Ross
Partners in Preservation

Partners in Preservation

Citizen Participation in the Development of Fort Ross by Maria Sakovich

Excerpted from Fort Ross © 1998 Fort Ross Interpretive Association (Fort Ross Conservancy) ISBN # 1-56540-355-X


Since prehistoric times when the Kashaya Pomo Indians inhabited the grassy marine terrace and surrounding hinterlands of “Fort Ross,” people of many diverse cultural groups have been the caretakers of this remote and beautiful area. Fort Ross State Historic Park exists today because of the contributions of innumerable people who have worked to preserve and reconstruct the Russian settlement. Without the efforts of these caretakers, the spectacular but harsh natural environment would have long since claimed the remnants of the old Russian fort, as it has destroyed the extensive settlements which once surrounded the fort itself. Considering the destructiveness of natural and human forces, it is amazing that today we have as much of the fort as we do. Over the years redwood timbers decayed in the damp foggy salt air; earthquakes and fires took their toll. Following the Russian withdrawal, ranchers restored, re-used, or tore down structures as they were needed. At the time of its acquisition by the State of California, Fort Ross was in danger of disappearing entirely.

For many years following the Russian presence, Fort Ross was preserved and maintained as a single large holding by its successive owners. The site was operated as a rancho through the Sutter and Benitz periods (1841-67), as a logging operation during the Dixon/Fairfax years (1867-73), and as a ranch, port and social center during the century that the Call family lived at the fort (1873-1979). Although land use changed over time, its continuous status as a large holding helped to bridge the transition from a ranching community to the 3,386 acre state historic park we have today.

In the 19th century Fort Ross had a port in the northwest cove which was used extensively by ranchers in the surrounding community. There was a store, a post office and a telegraph station; the old Russian buildings housed a hotel, a dance hall and a saloon. It was one of several social centers for residents of the area. Fort Ross continues to be important to local residents, and many have volunteered their time, resources and expertise to assist in the park’s development and growth.

Fort Ross and its Russian heritage are very important to visitors from Russia, Russian Americans, and members of the Russian Orthodox Church. All have made many contributions as Fort Ross has changed from a ranching community in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the popular state historic park of today.

Citizen Participation in the Development of Fort Ross by Maria Sakovich

The story of Fort Ross as a state historic monument and park is one of passion and politics, the dedication of particular individuals, and the hard work of volunteers. In various ways and often with different motivations, Americans and Russians have worked to preserve and partially restore the site occupied by the Russian-American Company. As this endeavor has taken place over the past century the unpaid work of hundreds of individuals has been crucial.

Initial interest in preserving this historic site came from Russian Orthodox hierarchs of the Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska headquartered in San Francisco. For these clergymen, as for subsequent Russian immigrants and today’s Russian visitors, Fort Ross was a sacred place. During his visit, probably in 1891, Bishop Vladimir made a proposal to owner George Call to purchase the old chapel and the cemetery with the intent of safeguarding them from further deterioration. Nothing came of this offer. But perhaps this along with later visits and publications by novelist Gertrude Atherton and Charles Greene, editor of the popular magazine, the Overland Monthly, encouraged Call to start thinking about preservation. Certainly their writings contributed to the growing interest in this historic spot. During his pilgrimage in March, 1897 Bishop Nikolai also tried to obtain the chapel and cemetery of Fort Ross, but his efforts, too, came to naught. By September Call had donated lumber for the restoration of the chapel for the use of a recently organized Sunday school. The first steps toward the preservation of Fort Ross had been taken.

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s many Californians began to be interested in the state’s history. There were an increasing number of historical books and periodicals and newly created historical associations. Restoration work began on several missions and on Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. In June, 1902 the California Historical Landmarks League was incorporated representing sixteen organizations, including the Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West. In 1903 the publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, William Randolph Hearst, sponsored a citizens’ campaign through his paper to raise money to save several historic landmarks, including Fort Ross. He himself subscribed $500. The work of the League and the success of the Examiner’s campaign allowed the purchase of several landmarks, including the stockaded portion of the Call property, in July, 1903. The Landmarks League held the title to these sites until March, 1906 when a state agency was established to administer them. Then, less than a month after Fort Ross became an official historic site, the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906 damaged the old buildings at Ross. It would be ten years before funding would be available for repairs.

What began as an effort of private citizens evolved into an informal partnership with state government, a pattern which in one form or another continues to the present day. While the State began restoring some of the Russian buildings, the local Sebastopol chapter of the Native Sons took an interest in the maintenance of the chapel. For several years they celebrated the Fourth of July at Fort Ross, picnicking and taking care of the chapel and grounds. In 1925 they invited the Russian Orthodox congregation of Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco to their Fourth of July celebration.

By 1925 the Russian population in San Francisco had grown with the arrival of refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution. For these Russians whose country had been destroyed, Fort Ross was a special place. The America to which these immigrants came felt very alien; Fort Ross represented something familiar, at least symbolically. Not only was this site viewed as a part of their lost homeland, but it would become a focal point for the preservation of Russian culture. The Orthodox Church in America continues the annual July Fourth pilgrimage to this day.

In 1928 Fort Ross became one of five historical monuments in the new State Parks system. During the difficult years of the Depression and World War II, interest in the old Russian settlement continued. In 1936 a small group from the Russian community in San Francisco, calling itself the Initiative Group for the Memorialization of Fort Ross, began publishing articles in Russian newspapers in San Francisco, Harbin, and Shanghai about the history of the Russian colony in California. In 1937 they created the Russian Historical Society in America. In 1945, new members of this society found the lost bell of Fort Ross, which had been gathering dust in a dark corner at the Petaluma Adobe. Together with the Native Sons of Petaluma and Sebastopol they brought it back to the chapel in a special ceremony on Labor Day, 1945. Finding what remained of their pre-revolutionary heritage in California meant a great deal to émigrés.

The end of the War in 1945 brought renewed restoration efforts at Fort Ross. It also brought the Cold War and a new generation of Russian immigrants to California from China and Eastern Europe. Curator John C. McKenzie welcomed these newly arriving Russian refugees, many of them members of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, who began making pilgrimages to Fort Ross. Eventually they would choose Memorial Day for an annual service in the chapel. Without access to Soviet scholarship and archives, McKenzie relied on the knowledge of Russian Americans for help in interpreting the history of the Russian settlement.

Fort Ross became a State Historic Park as well as a National Historic Landmark in 1962, when the State purchased 353 acres from the Call family. State Highway One still divided the stockade. On Monday morning, October 5, 1970 a fire destroyed the chapel, its intense heat melting the bell. The loss was keenly felt by all and offers of help after the fire were forthcoming from a variety of sources. Another fire set by an arsonist less than a year later burned the roof and attic of the Rotchev house.

These fires proved to be the beginning of a new era at Fort Ross. First, the state took action that would result in greater safety: a new water supply system was built and plans were revived (and carried out in 1972) to reroute Highway One. Second, federal money was now available for restoring historic sites. And third, various communities became active participants in planning, funding, and developing what would become a major reconstruction project. The partnership of state and private citizens was entering a new phase which would reconstruct not only the chapel but a new “old Fort Ross.” Many groups and individuals throughout the state mobilized to raise required matching funds for federal dollars, including a matching grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Sea Ranch residents just up the coast from Fort Ross spearheaded the movement with their Restore Fort Ross Fund. Several Russian-American as well as other California groups helped raise more than the amount needed.

State Parks Director William Penn Mott, Jr. was a great advocate of citizen participation in the development of the state’s parks. In April 1972 he appointed the first members of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Fort Ross State Historic Park, a group representing local residents, Russian Americans, and the Kashaya Pomo. A change in philosophy of interpretation at historic sites was made—from a static, single period to a “flow of history.” At Fort Ross this included the Kashaya, Russian and American ranch periods. While the Russian period remained primary, and the focus of reconstruction, Fort Ross now represented three eras. Henceforth, the Advisory Committee and later the Fort Ross Interpretive Association (FRIA) effectively lobbied, planned, researched, wrote, and provided cultural oversight in the reconstruction that took place over the next twelve years. Again, hundreds of hours of volunteer time were donated, including establishing contact with Soviet scholars.

Always important to the Advisory Committee was the building of a visitors’ center where the three historical eras could be explained to the public. Construction of this building required that some of the funds come from private citizens; Californians raised part of the $800,000. On July 20, 1985 there was much to celebrate at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Visitor Center. Although reconstruction of one of the Russian warehouses was planned for 1986, the funds were not forthcoming. The abundant state monies were drying up. This period of many restorations had come to a close.

With the emergence of glasnost’ in the USSR our knowledge of Russian history in California also expanded. Visitors and scholars who had previously been unable to travel to the United States began to come in unprecedented numbers. A much greater exchange of information and further research have resulted, some of it sponsored by FRIA.

In 1990, the Citizens Advisory Committee was dissolved after some 20 years of hard work. The Fort Ross Interpretive Association, a California State Park Cooperating Association, continues to assist the State with the interpretation of Fort Ross history. As we head into the 21st century the need for partnership between State Parks and private citizens is essential. All the effort of the past one hundred years to preserve and restore Fort Ross represents experience of great value for the next one hundred years. Though the specific challenges may be different, the basic tasks of preservation, understanding and transmitting the past remain the same.