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The Eel River Jockey Club



In my last column I mentioned Rohnerville was once a hub of Southern Humboldt. I did not mean to imply that it still was in the 1960s but certainly it was 100 years earlier. Rohnerville is currently an unincorporated area about 2 miles southwest of Fortuna. The town was originally called Eel River. The Eel River Post Office opened in 1857 but the town name changed to Rohnerville in 1874, named after Henry Rohner, the town founder.

In the second half of the 1800s, Eel River/Rohnerville was a supply center for gold miners heading to the Klamath, Trinity and Salmon rivers, but unlike the other hubs such as Trinidad and Arcata (Union), it did not catch on quite so much. There were two trading posts that did quite well for a time, some blacksmiths, two hotels, a church, a saddle shop and a few more main buildings. There were, of course, saloons and a brewery. An early stage went each day to Hydesville (Goose Lake Prairie), and a later stage went each day to Eureka looking for red lights and other needs. The Wright brothers are said to have lived in Rohnerville for a year or so and attended Rohnerville School in their early teens. John Brown's widow from Harpers Ferry fame moved to Rohnerville as well.

Rohnerville also became home to horse racing, primarily harness racing, at the Humboldt County Fair and the Eel River Jockey Club. Before all the neighborhoods grew up around Kenmar Road, it was easy to find railings and markers of the old racetrack.

Many Humboldt County settlers were horsemen who understood bloodlines and bred some particularly good trotters and pacers, the kind that pull a sulky or cart. They brought into to the area many Standardbreds from the Hambletonian line and Morgans from the Justin Morgan line.

The Eel River Jockey Club was the idea of a physician from the East Coast who moved west named Theodore Felt. Although he was hoping for gold riches, he purchased a claim in Goose Lake Prairie and established a sanitarium for the infirm in the 1800s. His services as a physician were in high demand but he also had a passion for horses. He built a racetrack at his ranch, Felt Springs, where locals brought their horses and carts and raced for fun and wagers — usually just match races with the purse put up by the owners.

To expand, Felt led the movement to start the Eel River Jockey Club and bought a piece of land close to where Kenmar Road is currently and laid a mile-long track in 1866. They ran flat saddle races, but primarily trotting and pacing races pulling a sulky driven by the owner or a family member. Horsemen from all over the state started coming and the purses were around $100 (the equivalent of roughly $1,600 today), paid for by the horse owners and sponsored by businesses. Funding was tough.

The Humboldt County Fair was inaugurated in 1880 and ran until 1896 in Rohnerville. This gave the races more stability. The feature race came on the last day when winners from various heats were pitted against each other for a $300 purse.

Locals and visitors came by stages and trains to the annual Humboldt County Fair in Rohnerville to wander the grounds, look at the exhibits, enter their jams and jellies, and watch and wager on harness races. There was a form of mutual betting where money was distributed into a common pool but nothing compared to the Totalizator system that followed soon after the fair ended. Purses were paid by sponsors but also there was a takeout from the betting pool. The fields were usually just two to four horses per race.

The track was kept in perfect condition and horses were stabled at the grounds and in Hydesville. The races were divided by class and speed. Sometimes the owners drove their own horses; sometimes they hired a driver. These were often very classy Standardbreds and Morgans. Waldstein, who was considered the greatest horse on earth, shipped here but apparently did not race. Another horse that was bred here, Humboldt Maiden, raced in Chicago and was a close second where the winner broke the world record. It is unclear if Sam Adams, at one time considered the best horse in the world, raced here or not. He was stabled for a time in Bridgeville and ran in some meets in Williams, Red Bluff, Chico and Stockton. The Eel River Jockey Club was considered the nicest of the venues in California and was described by the Humboldt Times as "The Paradise of Racing."

There was a story of a fast teenage runner (human) from Alton whose father put him up against an average Standardbred with a driver in a race to the first turn for a rather large bet. Harness horses started slowly at the time, so the idea was to see when the horse caught up and overcame the runner. There was an argument as to who won, as there was no photo finish camera and it was not clear when the horse overtook the runner or even if the bet was on the horse or the cart.

In those times in places like Rohnerville, there were disputes and some fights at the saloons at night. There is however no indication that the horsemen were anything but respectful to each other and had a lot of camaraderie. This was not Dodge City depicted in films.

We know there will never be another race meet at the Eel River Jockey Club, but we do not know if there will ever be races again at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale. When the COVID-19 crisis ends, the fair board will need to establish a semblance of vision, open their meetings and work with local townspeople and press. The fair manager is currently "on leave" and the fairgrounds are broke and broken. The facility needs to be used year-round and the fair manager needs to court and entice the racing people from Oregon and California to bring their horses here to race.

It would be incredibly sad if 100 years from now someone is writing how there used to be a racetrack back on the flats behind Ferndale High School.

Rod Kausen (he/him) is a retired teacher and coach.

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