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History of the Department


Eureka Police Department's 125th Anniversary Newsletter Series

Issue 1, Issue 2, Issue 3, Issue 4, Issue 5

Researched and written by Captains Jay Bryant and Murl Harpham, 1979.
Updated in 1996

Eureka's Early Days
In 1850 when James Talbot Ryan (Ryan Slough) first arrived on Humboldt Bay there was very little around except a lot of trees and a few Indians. Although Mr. Ryan made friends with the Indians, not everyone who followed did.

Soon after the first exploration parties had settled in Eureka, they were followed by criminal whites seeking gold and land. These outlaw types were hard on the Indians and murders became a daily occurrence in and around Eureka.

It didn’t take long for the Indians to retaliate. Many of these white settlers who had murdered the Indians were themselves murdered in their homes located around Eureka. In their defense, the Indians had picked up the art of murder; however, they could not differentiate between the good and bad whites, and so many decent white settlers were also slain and burned out.

In January 1853, the Army dispatched 87 men of the US 4th Infantry from Benicia, California to establish a base on Humboldt Bay to control this lawlessness. Under the command of Colonel Robert C. Buchanan, Fort Humboldt was established at its present location. The Army then assumed the duty of stopping the wholesale slaughter of whites and Indians.

The U.S. Army was the only law enforcement in Eureka until 1858. Eureka, being a seaport with timber, had drawn people to seek land and employment. It also drew miners, as it was a jumping-off place for people seeking gold in the Trinities.

First Marshal Appointed
As bars sprang up in Eureka to service the lumber workers, miners, and sailors, a law enforcement problem developed. Thus, on January 15, 1858, the Eureka Board of Trustees (as the Council was called in those days) appointed Charles Frost as the first town Marshal, but at the meeting on January 23rd, he refused the job. City records indicate he was unable to post the necessary bond.

The Board accepted the refusal and appointed John Atcheson as Marshal. They directed him to enforce the following:

  • Enforce laws against “rowdies” and drunks.
  • Enforce laws against the lumber mills that were piling sawdust on the streets of Eureka, and he was empowered to levy fines against the sawmills.
  • Keep all hogs, pigs and shoats off the streets and fine the owners $1.00. If the owner did not claim the animal, it was to be sold at public auction.

At the March 27th, 1858 meeting, the Board expanded Marshal Atcheson’s duties to include keeping the dock clear and safe and collecting wharf fees. He was also to serve legal papers and be the town Fire Chief with the authority to hire all persons needed to extinguish any fire.

Mass Murder on Indian Island

On February 20, 1860, a group of citizens calling themselves the "Home Guard" went to Indian Island and “punished” the Indians by killing seventy-seven members of the Wiyot tribe. The victims included many women and children.

Even with the presence of the Army, it was still unsafe to wander outside Eureka. There were still a lot of outlaw whites in the area and they had taken to hiring Indians to kill for them, then make land claims on the murdered person’s property. When this practice of stealing homesteads came to the attention of President Cleveland, he dispatched a Special Agent to the area. As a result, two hundred land claims were cancelled, totaling 60,000 acres.

The Marshal and the Army took care of law enforcement until 1865, when Fort Humboldt was decommissioned. Eureka’s population was at 600. For the next ten years, law enforcement was handled by the Marshal, but the town was growing fast and bars along the waterfront were established at a rapid rate. Twenty-three bar permits were approved at a single Council meeting. Prostitutes moved into the area to take care of the growing male population.

Night Policeman Appointed

Nighttime activity was increasing rapidly in 1875, so at the July 6 Common Council Meeting (the term Common Council replaced the Board of Trustees) a “Night Policeman” was appointed. This officer was assigned duties as follows under Ordinance 15 of July 6, 1875:

  • Work from 2 hours after sunset until sunrise.
  • Light and extinguish the city’s street lamps.
  • Arrest vagrants.
  • Arrest suspicious persons.
  • Arrest and take before the Police Judge any person who committed any breach of the peace.
  • Pay was to be $60.00 per month with 24 hours off duty per month.
  • Be paid $2.00 per arrest with the arrestee paying the fee.

City Prison Established

On September 4, 1876, a city prison was established at Engine House No. 2 for the Marshal and night policeman. The Marshal worked days and the policeman worked nights.

On June 9, 1887 the council enacted Ordinance 110 and designated the Marshal as the Acting Chief of Police. This ordinance increased the size of the police force and gave the Chief the following duties:

  • Keep his office at the City Hall, which was also to be the police headquarters.
  • Have the power to assign policemen to duties.
  • Keep records.

Ordinance 110 also established some guidelines for the police force as follows:

  • Every appointee will be a citizen of the United States.
  • Be a qualified elector.
  • Be diligent in their patrols.
  • Suppress all riots, duels, frays and disturbances of the peace.
  • Not to visit (unless on duty) any drinking saloon, bawdy houses, houses of ill fame, theatres, circuses, or other place of business or amusement.
  • Be given one day off per month.

First Eureka Police Chief Appointed

On July 8, 1895, H.B. Hitchings was named the first full time Chief of Police of Eureka. Four other officers were also named. They were: Ed Conant, F.G. Barnum, E.A. Chamberlain and J.A. Armstrong. Hitching wanted his officers in uniform, and a month later on August 5, 1895, the council adopted a uniform ordinance.

The first policemen in Eureka were selected for their size and ability to handle themselves in fights rather than for their intelligence. Most were ex-loggers and of good size.

During the early 1900’s, problems in the United States had a huge effect on the City’s police force. The population of Eureka grew from 600 in 1865, to 13,000 in 1912. Burly policemen were added as the population increased.

World War I and the Spanish Influenza

In April of 1917, the United States entered into World War I. The next year, the deadly Spanish influenza spread across America, killing over 200 people in Humboldt County alone, most of whom were young men. Several soldiers from prominent families died on trains while traveling across the country to enter the war.

These two events are reflected in the types of arrests made by Eureka officers during these times. Many arrests were made for “failing to wear masks while in public,” a law enacted to prevent the spread of the flu.

Another common arrest was for “spitting on the sidewalks”. There were three reasons for this law:

  • To prevent the spread of the flu.
  • Because women wore full length dresses and they tended to drag on the ground.
  • Many of the sidewalks were made of redwood and they became slippery.

Prior to entering the war and during the war there were many arrests for “going north of fourth.” These were always persons born in Germany or Italy. These nationalities were not allowed near the docks. Beginning in 1915, there had been incidents of sabotage on the docks in other cities. The fear was that it could occur here.


The Volstead Act in 1919 made it illegal to sell alcohol until its repeal in1933. However, even prior to the Volstead Act, it was illegal to sell alcohol to Indians. The Police blotters were rife with persons charged with selling alcohol to Indians or to “half breeds.”

During the prohibition period there were many “speakeasies” in the area now known as “Old Town.” In fact, some of the old iron gates which were erected in an attempt to keep the police out (or at least slow them down) can still be found today in the alley behind Second Street. The first female mayor, Emily Jones, was known to accompany Police Chief George Littlefield on raids on the speakeasies with her hatchet.


There have always been prostitutes in Eureka, and early on they were arrested for being “sporting women.” The prostitutes thrived in Eureka but were relegated to houses in what was called the “red light district.” They became street walkers in the early 1950s, after then Attorney General Edmond Brown closed the houses in the State, which helped to propel him into the Governor’s office. The fear at the time was that the east coast Mafia would take over the industry.

Prior to their closure, the women were under the control of a madam, were not allowed to drink while working, and were checked regularly by doctors. Drugs did not exist. Many of the houses were very plush. Sgt. Robert Wiley and his night crew would raid the houses (19 houses within several blocks of the police station at Third and G Streets) and would load the ladies onto buses bound for San Francisco. District Attorney Harold Hammond filed red light abatement proceedings and the houses closed forever. Eureka was the last bastion of open prostitution in California.

With the women on the street and without their madams looking after them, pimps took over and drugs soon followed. For several years the girls were street walkers with pimps looking after them. In the early sixties as the liquor licenses were moved out of the area by Alcohol Beverage Control and Police, the bars were replaced with all night coffee houses, some of which did not open until after 2 a.m.

These coffee houses are where men could find the girls and after hour alcohol from bootleggers. The joke at that time was that more alcohol was sold in the coffee houses then when they were bars. One such coffee house, the Rainbow club, was targeted by Sgt. Murl Harpham who used officers from outside agencies to pose as “Johns” to arrest prostitutes out of that club. In an eight month period of time 67 girls were arrested and the place was closed under the Red Light Abatement law which had not been enforced since 1954.

In his book, “ The Last Days of California”, author Curt Gentry wrote glowingly about Jackson, California and its two houses of prostitution which were closed in the early 1950s. He was missing a bet about not writing about Eureka since there were seventeen more such houses.

Labor Riots

Another major event in Eureka’s history which affected the Police Department was a major strike-turned-riot at the Holmes-Eureka Sawmill in 1935. The Holmes sawmill was situated on the property where the Bayshore Mall is now located. When a major fight erupted between the strikers and the strike-breakers, Chief Littlefield and other officers responded. During the fray, five officers were overcome and beaten, and three persons were shot and killed.

Fallen Officers

Eureka Police had its’ heartbreaks over the years with the loss of officers acting in the line of duty.

On Halloween Night of 1947, the only two police units on duty were both responding to a jail break at Juvenile Hall at 6th and I Streets. Police radios would not come for several years, so the units had no communication. When they did not hear each other’s sirens, they collided at the intersection of 7th and H Streets, killing Officer Pete Carroll, age 55.

On December 1, 1974 there was a major riot at Eureka’s Municipal Auditorium. All on-duty EPD officers, as well as several CHP and Sheriffs’ units, were busy at the riot when a silent burglary alarm sounded at Cannam’s Market at Huntoon and I Streets. Two off duty officers, Sgt. Fred Keplinger and Officer Pat Mitchell, happened to be in the station, and since all on-duty personnel were at the riot, they volunteered to respond to the market. They were southbound on H Street when a vehicle leaving the auditorium ran a stop sign at 16th Street, broad siding the officers’ car. Their car burst into flames, trapping Pat Mitchell inside. He was 26 years old.

On November 21, 1996, Detective Charles Swanson (a lifelong friend of Pat Mitchell) and Detective Pat Freese were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on a subject wanted for rape, molestation, and burglary. When the suspect attempted to flee in his vehicle, he crashed into a ditch. He then attempted to flee on foot, with Swanson in close pursuit. When he and Freese caught the suspect, there was a struggle. Once the handcuffs were on the suspect, Detective Swanson, age 47, fell dead of a heart attack.

Eureka Police Department Buildings

The original city hall was located at 3rd and G Streets which is now a parking lot. It once was home for the Police Department, Fire House, City Courts and all other city offices. It was damaged beyond repair in the 1954 earthquake and everyone was ordered to vacate the building except the Police Department.

The Police Department remained in the condemned building until July 1, 1960 when they moved into the first floor of the new County Courthouse at 4th and J Streets. The old court house had also been condemned in the 1954 earthquake.

The Police Department remained in the County Court house for 21 years until December 15, 1981. At that time they moved in with the firemen at the main firehouse at 6th C Streets while the new police department was being planned and constructed across the street.

The Eureka Police Department moved to the present building at 6th and C Streets in November of 1986