The Easygoing Attitude of Downtown Dunsmuir
By Jon Lewis
Right on TrackMay 2015
Story and Photos by Jon Lewis
Like a lot of its residents, Wayne Meredith, a longtime business owner, enjoys the small-town pace of life in Dunsmuir and points out that nobody spends time waiting in line at the stop signal.
“Of course, we’re not waiting at stop signals because we don’t have any,” the former mayor adds with a knowing smile.
That easygoing and friendly attitude is prevalent throughout Dunsmuir’s colorful downtown, where life is, indeed, slow and steady—like the Union Pacific trains that chug along the tracks adjoining Sacramento Avenue.
The railroad was central to Dunsmuir’s history and it remains a big presence. The town began to flourish in the 1880s when railroad tracks were laid along the upper Sacramento River canyon. A rail yard, complete with a turntable for re-routing steam engines, was quickly developed and Dunsmuir remained a railroad hub well into the 20th century.
Celebrities enjoyed traveling to Dunsmuir by train to take in the fresh air and relax at resorts along the river. During his campaign, President John F. Kennedy stopped and spoke from the back of a train. Clark Gable was on his way to the William Randolph Hearst compound on the McCloud River and stopped to chat with folks in the late 1920s.
A small railroad museum and adjoining display room are next to the Amtrak Depot on Sacramento Avenue, and both are open on the third Saturday of each month to tell of the city’s railroading heritage through photos, books and artifacts.
(Alexander Dunsmuir, a British Columbian coal magnate, was so impressed with the town that he offered to donate a fountain in exchange for renaming the town to honor his family. The fountain, donated in 1888, is located at the entrance to Dunsmuir City Park and not far from where a vintage locomotive is parked.)
Sacramento Avenue, with its brick buildings and quaint businesses—the Dogwood Diner and Brown Trout Vintage Emporium are perfect examples—attract railroad buffs, North State history fans and curious shoppers throughout the year. Peter Arth, a retired Public Utilities Commission attorney from San Francisco, fell in love with Dunsmuir and relocated in 2007. Since then, he has made it his mission to acquire and preserve as much of the city as he can, including his two-story brick home on Sacramento Avenue. So far, he has acquired 17 properties in Dunsmuir.
A self-described “amateur” fisherman, Arth was drawn to Dunsmuir by its clean air, fresh water, “the history of the town and its links to the railroad and the river.” He hopes his efforts can prevent Dunsmuir from experiencing the same fate that befell his home town of Redlands, which he says lost a lot of its old buildings and small-town feel in an effort to become more modern.
Arth’s partner, Debra Day, who operates the Brown Trout, says Dunsmuir’s charms are simple and sincere. “It’s just a nice community. It’s so nice to walk down the street and be next to world-class fishing and to hear the sound of the river.”
Kate Chadwick, Dogwood Diner’s chef, brought her culinary skills to town in late 2011 and joined Arth in opening the restaurant in 2012. Her previous stops include New Orleans, Santa Rosa and Eureka, where she owned Hurricane Kate’s.
“I fell in love with this building and I love living in this little canyon. I think it has potential. It’s getting on people’s radar, and not just for fi shing,” Chadwick says.
While not exactly modern, Dunsmuir features a slightly updated look on its other main street, Dunsmuir Avenue, where a lot of the homes and other buildings date back to the early 1900s. The California Theatre, which opened in 1926, still maintains a regal air. The theater is open on weekends for the screening of vintage films.
Linda Price, a volunteer at the Siskiyou Arts Museum on the east side of Dunsmuir Avenue, says a little research led her to her new home. Having spent three years in Ashland, Ore., in the 1980s, Price says she couldn’t wait to move back aft er she retired in San Diego. However, after a quick look at Ashland’s real estate market, she realized she couldn’t afford to pursue that dream.
Instead, she began scouring the Internet for towns in the area and discovered Dunsmuir; she made the move 10 years ago. “It had everything I liked about Ashland,” she says, including a mountain setting, an urban stream, historic brick buildings and a beautiful park. “And I like that when you go for a walk and you know just about everybody. Plus we’ve got the best restaurants,” Price says.
Dunsmuir’s offi cial motto is “Home of the best water on Earth,” and Meredith says that’s more than a simple brag. A quartet of springs just north of town provides the city’s water, which is delivered at a brisk 40 degrees year-round through a gravity-fed system. Th e water is believed to originate deep within Mt. Shasta and is fi ltered through miles of lava tubes before it bubbles up to the surface near Mossbrae Falls.
“I was talking to a guy who lived here in the ’60s, who was a former mayor, and he said the government sent a team out to test the water. They went to the council to give a report and said, by far, it was the best water on Earth,” Meredith says.
Dunsmuir is rightfully proud of its water, and generous too. A pair of public drinking fountains is constantly fl owing, off ering locals and visitors alike a refreshing sip or an opportunity to fill a jug. (Lest anyone think Dunsmuir is being wasteful during California’s prolonged drought, Meredith notes that unused water from the fountains simply continues into the Sacramento River and eventually into Shasta Lake.)
A visit to downtown Dunsmuir isn’t complete without checking in with Bob Grace at the Ted Fay Fly Shop, either for fishing tips or some thoughtful ruminations on modern-day life, and a stop at the Dunsmuir Brewery Works for a bite to eat and a pint.
David Clarno, the brewery’s co-owner, remains optimistic about Dunsmuir, especially when he sees more families choosing to settle in the small town. He’s also heartened by the emergence of small companies like FireWhat, a GIS and technology company focused on wildfire management, and Pusher, Inc., a creative design and Web development company.
“There are a lot of young, intelligent people moving in,” Clarno says.
May 9 – National Train Day, 10 am-4 pm at the Amtrak Depot
May 23 – Dogwood Days