The Wye

The Wye intersection at Main and Lansing in Mendocino, 1957. Courtesy of Bette Duke.

For about a hundred years, Highway 1 came right through the town of Mendocino. Not around it as it does today. It wasn’t until the 1960s that today’s wide pavement was built, zipping cars at 55 miles per hour around the east side of downtown. Before then, your southbound highway journey would have been slower, because Lansing Street was the highway. From Agate Cove, the two-lane road took you slowly up a rise in elevation to the crest of “Catholic Hill” and the cemetery. There at the top, you can look down Lansing, crowded on both sides with stores and houses, and see the waters of Mendocino Bay shining in the distance. It’s a short cruise, just a few blocks, to get through town, passing Mendosa’s on the left and the Masonic Hall on the right. At the bottom of the hill, Lansing Street ends and you have to turn onto Main Street at the Wye.

The Wye is that small triangular piece of land that sits between the curving road segments at the intersection of Main and Lansing. The turn to the left is where Lansing hands off to Main those cars continuing south on the old highway. The turn to the right sends traffic along Mendocino’s other commercial avenue. There wasn’t always a forked road here, though. In earlier days, Lansing didn’t stop at Main but crossed it, continuing toward the Bay before turning east below the Presbyterian Church and down the hill to the low bridges that crossed Big River.

The Wye is also a sort of nexus. The street addresses proceeding west along Main Street change at Lansing from 44xxx to 45xxx. The Kelley Building, located across from the Wye, is a re-set address point for the structures west of it. This county-wide numbering system, adopted in the 1970s, has a geographic basis. The numbers are not random, but signify that the Kelley Building, located at 45000 Main Street, lies 45 miles west of Ukiah, the county seat. This distance is reckoned not by the crow’s flight, or by traveling via Highway 20 (a 63-mile journey) or the Highway 128/253 route (60 miles), but by the old route to the courthouse via the Comptche-Ukiah Road. (You can check this on Google Earth.)

Before there were phones or phone books or Google, old directories for our area used a similar geographically based location system. The 1874 edition of L. L. Paulson’s “Handbook and Directory of Napa, Lake, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties,” listed the names, occupations, place of business and residences of citizens like this: “William Heeser, merchant, Ukiah Street, Mendocino City, residence at 45m W of Ukiah.” That’s 45 miles west of Ukiah.

Looking at this 1957 photo, the Wye wasn’t much to look at back then. But it soon became the object of civic beautification when in 1965, the esteemed Mendocino Study Club decorated the first civic Christmas tree here with weather proof ornaments made by Cub Scout Pack 87. According to the December 17th issue of The Mendocino Beacon of that year, “The tree chosen is of special interest to most of us in that it was selected, a tiny Beach Pine, from the forest and transplanted to its present site by the late beloved Dr. Russell Preston.” (This is the same Dr. Preston for whom Preston Hall at the Presbyterian Church was named.) That pine tree is still there today.

However, one month after this festive event, a tragedy brought this little patch of land into sharper focus when a local boy, 14-year old Michael James Hill, was lost to the ocean while surfing off Big River beach in Mendocino Bay. Mike was an excellent surfer and had spent time teaching others the sport. Apparently, a huge wave overtook him and presumably knocked him unconscious. Skin divers on-scene looking for him said, “The rip tide was exceedingly strong and could suck a human under and carry him for some distance before releasing its hold.” His surfboard was found that night, broken in half, but his body was never recovered.

Before his untimely death, Mike had been instrumental in landscaping the Wye with his church youth group. In his honor, many people and several civic groups created a memorial in this small garden space. These included the Mendocino Fire Department, the Study Club, the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship and the Spartan 4-H Club. For him, they placed a bronze plaque attached to a boulder under Preston’s pine tree, reminding us of his name and the short window of time he spent on this earth.

Since that time, the boy’s family has looked after the Michael James Hill Memorial triangle at the Wye. Taking over from his mother, Charene Miles, when she passed away, Mike’s half brother, Dean Miles, still maintains this garden and his roots here in Mendocino, where he grew up and graduated from high school, though living now in Dana Point. His own son will likely continue this practice. For many years now, the Wye hasn’t been just a fork in the road, but a beloved place, a tended wayside, with a log seat that overlooks the shining waters and pounding surf of Mendocino Bay.