Fort Compound and Beyond
Structural History & Reconstruction – Excerpted from Fort Ross, published by the Fort Ross Conservancy, 2001
The fort is situated atop a mesa which is surrounded by ravines which abut the sea. It is constructed of redwood planks (there is no other wood used in any of the structures) and forms a palisade. It is four varas high, uniformly, and is surmounted by a beam set with pointed stakes intended to dissuade any assault. It has three gates: one to the northeast, one to the west and one to the southeast… Diary of Fr. Mariano Payeras, 1822.
“It was called Ross by its commander and founder Kuskov,” writes Father Payeras, whose diary contains some of the earliest descriptions by an outsider after the fort’s completion, September 10, 1812 (modern calendar). A report by Lieutenant Mariano Vallejo to Governor Figueroa in 1833 says its “walls form a quadrangle of exactly 100 varas square.”
The fort’s formidable appearance was enhanced by two well-gunned blockhouses, and sentries on the two corners without blockhouses, “from which the sentinels chime bells each hour.” In spite of these defenses, erected against the natives and Spanish, the cannon were never fired in defense. Inside the stockade were “the commander’s house, two warehouses… another warehouse filled with provisions for the fort; a barracks and three officials’ houses…” A “draw-well” was dug inside the stockade, in case of siege.
The chapel was added a few years later (circa 1825); the set of three suites for clerks (officials) described by Payeras is believed to have been remodeled around 1836 for Manager Rotchev. Two buildings were added between 1836 and 1840, the “new kitchen” and “new warehouse.”
Only seven buildings may be seen in the fort today—the original Russian-built Rotchev house and six reconstructions. The compound is aligned on the compass slightly east of magnetic north. Outside the stockade were a bake house, bathhouses, threshing floors, two windmills with grindstones, a tannery and a brickworks (until 1832 when it was moved to Bodega Bay). There were large barns and corrals, the houses and gardens of the Russian artisans and promyshlenniki, and the low, possibly semi-subterranean dwellings of the Aleuts.
In 1833 Mariano Vallejo reported as residences “59 large buildings more or less…arranged without order or symmetry.” Near the sandy beach were a smithy, boathouse and shipways. All of this has disappeared.
The elements are harsh on the California coast. A Bostonian visiting in 1832 described the structures as “weather-beaten.” Baron von Wrangell, governor of Russian America, wrote in his official report of 1834 that all the fort buildings “are neatly and orderly maintained and look comfortable, even handsome. However, almost all the buildings, as well as the stockade wall and watchtowers, are so old and dilapidated that either they need repairing or else they should be replaced by new structures.” Some were indeed repaired, but most had to wait a century, until they became a California state park!
The State acquired the fort just before the earthquake of April, 1906. At this time seven Russian buildings and some of the stockade were still standing: two blockhouses (not in very good shape), the chapel, the Rotchev house, the officials’ quarters, and two warehouses (the “old” and “new” warehouses mentioned in the 1841 inventory had been combined into what was known as the “Dance Hall”). The chapel was knocked down in the earthquake, but its restoration was not begun until 1916. In 1925 the State appropriated $2,500 to rebuild the stockade and blockhouse and repair the Rotchev house.
The first caretaker/ranger, William Turk, was hired in 1930, although funds for preservation were very limited from the 1920s until after World War II. Beginning in 1948 Curator John McKenzie initiated the restoration of the Rotchev house and the seven-sided blockhouse. In October, 1970, an intense accidental fire destroyed the chapel. A few months later an arson fire burned the roof of the Rotchev house. These calamities spurred the state to action, and the era of reconstruction began which produced the restorations seen today.
The Fort Compound –
The Stockade Walls – The fort is in a constant state of deterioration…. The walls and buildings are constructed of weak timbers insufficient to withstand any attack except by the natives who have no heavy arms, only bows and arrows. The walls could not withstand a cannon ball of any caliber. Report by Mariano G. Vallejo, 1833.
Set upon a hill with a sharp descent to the sea, and upon a smooth, clayish terrain, the wooden stockade is shaped in a rather large square, which forms four right angles. In two corners, diagonally opposed to each other and connected to the stockade walls, two watch towers have been erected with guns that protect all sides of this so-called fort. Nevertheless, it appears quite strong, and perhaps even unconquerable, in the eyes of the Indians and the Spanish here. Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell’s Report 1834.
A square fort, surrounded by a row of posts 172 sazhens long by 2 sazhens high. There are turrets in two of the corners. Inventory for Mr. Sutter, 1841.
So the formidable facade did not fool the Spanish or Mexicans (who had few “heavy arms” themselves). And from the beginning, the heavy redwood posts, hewn, carried and set in 1812 by the Russian and North Pacific workers without “beasts of burden,” must have rotted at an alarming rate. In 1830 a 75 foot section was blown over during a heavy wind. Baron von Wrangell was concerned in 1833. Photographs from the ranch era, from about 1865 on, show very little of the original stockade standing.
After the fort became a state park, the stockade walls were restored a portion at a time. In 1929, the east, south, and part of the west walls were rebuilt. Archaeological excavations were undertaken in 1953, and a year later the west and east walls were completed. In 1972, Highway One was rerouted to bypass the fort; in 1974 the stockade was completely enclosed, as it had been during the Russian occupation. Visitors from the 1940s to the 1970s who remember the eastern sally port gate, always open, will find it now often shut. The southern gate is the major opening, and gives access to the cliffs and coves below. Based on archival and archaeological evidence of its original location, the sally port gate in the west stockade wall was moved about ten feet to the north, and now opens to a trail leading to the Visitor Center. The walls have been rebuilt with foundations of structural steel and concrete—not as historically accurate, perhaps, but expected to be more permanent than redwood posts stuck into damp ground. In 1989 a portion of the east stockade wall was also rebuilt, after archaeological investigations found that the spacing of stockade posts should be corrected to comply with the Russian gauge. The north stockade wall was rebuilt in 1996-97.
The Blockhouses – …two bastions, one in the northern corner of the square mounting five cannons on two floors, and another bastion in the southern corner mounting four cannons. Diary of Fr. Mariano Payeras, 1822. In the two corners opposite each other, one overlooking the mountains and the other overlooking the sea, are mounted 12 pieces of artillery up in two towers or lookout platforms. Each piece is of eight caliber and six are located in each tower. Report by Mariano G. Vallejo, 1833.
The two blockhouses were noticed by priest and soldier alike, but apparently no visitor observed that one is seven-sided (the northwest) and one eight-sided (the southeast). Both towers stood, quite decayed, for many years.
Twenty-seven days after Fort Ross officially became a historic site of the State of California, the massive earthquake of April 18, 1906 struck. Due to the fort’s proximity to the San Andreas fault, all of the historic buildings suffered structural damage. The Russian blockhouses and the chapel, which had successfully withstood the wind and rain for nearly a century, were now in a state of collapse. The southeast blockhouse was not renovated until 1930. Original floor boards from the officials’ quarters were set in this eight-sided blockhouse floor; they are still in place. In 1948, ruins of the northwest blockhouse were removed, and it was reconstructed in 1950-51 using Russian joinery techniques. In 1956-57, the southeast blockhouse was again repaired.
The Kuskov House – The old house for the commandant, two stories, built of beams, 8 toises [sazhens] long by 6 wide, covered with double planking. There are 6 rooms and a kitchen.
This building served as headquarters for the first manager, Ivan Kuskov, and as a storeroom for arms and other valuables. It must have been one of the first of the Russian buildings to be lost; there are no pictures or reports of it from the following ranching years. Archaeological investigations found a line of postholes to aid its reconstruction. The substantial building was carefully designed based on the 1817 stockade layout, visitors’ descriptions, and on other Russian American buildings of similar use. It stands in its original location, built by 20th century craftsmen using old joinery techniques.
“In one corner of the commandant’s living room there was on a canvas two feet high a painting of St. Peter and St. Paul and another very small one below it of St. Nicholas. Writings of Mariano Payeras, 1822.
The first room we entered was the armory, containing many muskets, ranged in neat order; hence we passed into the chief room of the house, which is used as a dining room & in which all business is transacted. It was comfortably, though not elegantly furnished, and the walls were adorned with engravings of Nicholas I, Duke Constantine, &c… An (anonymous) Bostonian’s description, 1832.
The replica Kuskov House was completed in 1983. It has a furnished armory and storerooms on the ground floor, and a trade room and attached living quarters upstairs. From the second floor “dining room,” one can see the sea, and any approaching ships through the old-style hand-made glass. It is now the most spacious room in the fort, and worth a climb up the stairs, over which heavy doors were installed in the reconstruction.
Also upstairs is a small room on the northeast corner designed as a scientific study. The Russian naturalist Ilya G. Voznesenskii spent part of 1841 at the fort, collecting and sketching; the lab is arranged as he might have used it. Several local plants and animals are named for Voznesenskii, and his watercolor of Fort Ross is one of the most accurate and valuable visual representations of the settlement.
The Officials’ Quarters or Officers Barracks – The house for Company employees, which has 10 rooms and 2 corridors; 10 sazhens long by 31/2 wide. Inventory for Mr. Sutter, 1841.
Probably the first building constructed after the fort walls were erected, the long, sturdy Officials’ Quarters parallels the sea just inside the stockade. An anonymous account of Fort Ross under Kuskov reports a “communal barracks” constructed within the first year of the fort’s existence; however this could also refer to the main soldiers’ barracks which was located on the east side of the stockade area. The officials’ quarters now seen in the fort is reconstructed on the location of one of the longest surviving original Russian buildings. Its demise began only when its timbers were used to reconstruct the chapel in 1916. Its reconstruction was completed in 1981. The building now contains a dining room with an adjacent Russian stove for warmth and bread baking. There are a storeroom, a wood shop, a metal shop, a “jail room,” and several individual sleeping rooms. Exhibits in this building do not necessarily reflect the activities which took place in the “officials’ quarters.” The office of the Fort Ross Conservancy ELP Instructors may also be found in this structure.
The Chapel – The chapel is constructed from wooden boards… It has a small belfry and is rather plain; its entire interior decoration consists of two icons in silver rizas. The chapel at Fort Ross receives almost no income from its members or from those Russians who are occasional visitors. Journal of Father Ioann Veniaminov, 1836.
The most notable structure at the fort, the chapel, is unusual for North America and often photographed. With its landmark “small belfry” a familiar sight along Highway One, the chapel is a mecca to visiting Russians. The greatest efforts made over the years in maintenance and preservation at Fort Ross have been for the chapel. It was constructed by the resident Russians about 1825 with their own funds, and funds donated by visiting Russian officers and crew of the Kreiser. The chapel was never consecrated and there was no permanent priest; but one Company official, Fedor Svin’in, appeared to act as a lay deacon, according to Father Payeras. It was used and revered during the Russian tenure, as it is today. “The chapel with a cupola,” as it appears in the Russians’ inventory for Mr. Sutter in 1841, is not anywhere extensively described by early visitors to the fort. The earliest photographs of the original Russian chapel are from the 1880s.
In the 1906 earthquake the chapel’s old walls completely caved in and the floors and foundation were reduced to rubble. The roof and the turrets came to rest over the foundation virtually intact. In the spring of 1916 the State Legislature appropriated $3,000 toward its reconstruction. George W. Call’s son, Carlos, a strong advocate of the proposal, was appointed supervisor of the rebuilding. The chapel’s reconstruction mainly involved giving the building a new foundation and walls and bringing the original roof into position. Carlos Call and his local carpenters solved the practical problems of increasing the building’s structural integrity, but the chapel’s original appearance was changed.
To replace the building’s broken supports, original Russian-cut timbers and planks were taken from the officials’ quarters and part of the old warehouse. Since the upright wallboards from the officials’ quarters were over a foot too short for the chapel walls, the floor was raised to make the chapel roof the correct height. It was then necessary to add a small porch and step to the front of the chapel to make it easier to enter. From historic measurements and observations of similar chapels in Russia, such an addition was reasonable, and in fact there once may have been an extended shed-roofed porch or kryltso, typical in similar Russian chapels.
Due to the damage sustained by the ceiling joists and roof beams, an extra side wall stud was added for stronger support. This increased the number of panels on the south wall, and thus the number of windows, from three to four. Later it was found that in this 1916-18 reconstruction the north and east walls of the chapel were not aligned with the original stockade; this was subsequently corrected.
A serious error with theological implications occurred when the roof of the cupola was restored in a different style and a Roman, rather than Russian Orthodox, cross was erected on the bell tower. In 1939, a Russian Orthodox cross replaced the Roman cross; however, it was put on the bell tower upside-down due to a carpenter’s misinterpretation of a pattern given to him by a visiting Russian Orthodox bishop. A letter to the governor of California signed by several hundred people noting the mistake was forwarded to the carpenter, and in 1941 the Russian Orthodox cross was put up correctly!
Although the Park staff was aware of the changes in design and recommended their correction, the alterations produced by the 1916 reconstruction remained for nearly forty years. Only as public interest in Fort Ross grew and the study of its building construction became more intensive, was the state persuaded to appropriate new funds to bring the building into closer conformity with the original. Finally, in 1955, a second restoration was funded. The walls of the chapel were rebuilt with three windows and the building was correctly aligned with the adjoining stockade as indicated by archaeological excavation, but the elevation of the floor was still high. In 1960, the cupola was replaced with a more authentic Russian roof style, and a small cross was added. This cross was later replaced by a tall Russian Orthodox cross.
On October 5, 1970, the restored Russian chapel was entirely destroyed in an accidental fire that swept through the building, leaving nothing but a few charred timbers. Once again supporters of Fort Ross quickly organized to promote a third rebuilding of the chapel. Funds were obtained from a variety of sources; local residents, Russian American groups, and government agencies all contributed. The Department of Parks and Recreation conducted a comprehensive study of the building site based on new archaeological techniques, and developed updated historical data and additional detail on floor alignment, configuration, and use of building materials. The chapel that emerged in 1973 is what is seen today in the compound.
When the Russians left Fort Ross in 1841, they apparently took all the icons with them. They left one large bell, a candelabra, a candle stand and a lectern which were destroyed when the chapel burned in 1970. All have been replaced with replicas. The bell that hangs today outside the rebuilt chapel was recast, using the original bell’s materials and a rubbing which had been made from the original. It bears the inscription: “Cast in the St. Petersburg Foundry of Master Craftsman Mikhail Makharovich Stukolkin.” The bell’s deep, resonant chime can easily be heard across the stockade, and twice a year it announces to the public the Orthodox services held in the chapel.
The Rotchev House – The new house for the commandant, built of square beams, 8 sazhens long by 4 wide. There are 6 rooms and a vestibule. Inventory for Mr. Sutter, Dec. 20, 1841.
Along with the chapel, the structure of most historical interest at Fort Ross is the Rotchev house, an existing building renovated about 1836 for Alexander Rotchev, the last manager of Ross. It is the only surviving structure which contains construction techniques dating back to the Russian era. This structure was known as the “Commandant’s House” from the 1940s through the 1970s. It was titled the “new commandant’s house” in the 1841 inventory to differentiate it from the Kuskov or “old commandant’s house.”
The Rotchevs apparently lived in comfort—or with as much style as they could manage in the wilderness of the California coast. One visitor commented on their “choice library, French wines, a piano, and a score of Mozart” (Duflot de Mofras, 1841). All these refinements disappeared with the Russian inhabitants in that year; the house as it exists now is stripped to its bare walls.
About two years after the Russians departed, William Benitz took up residence in the building. When he married, he enlarged the house by building a two story addition to accommodate his growing family.
The Benitz family sold the ranch in 1867. The house was also used as a dwelling by James Dixon for a short time after his purchase of the fort in 1867, and by Ada Fairfax, her mother, and her entourage, after her husband’s death in 1869. The Russian Rotchev house was the George Call family’s dwelling from their purchase in 1873 until early 1878, when they built their own house. It then became a hotel, and was so operated into the early 1900s. It was later occupied by a caretaker family.
By the early twentieth century, the building was beginning to fall into ruin. Beginning in 1925, steps were taken to restore the Rotchev house to its original appearance. It received a new foundation and a new shingled gabled roof. A kitchen and the two-storied addition were removed in 1926. Other repairs and modifications were carried out after World War II. The long front porch was removed in 1945, a Russian-style hipped roof of long boards replaced the gabled roof in 1948, and new windows and concrete piers were added. In 1971, the Rotchev house was damaged by an arson fire. At that time it was being used as the Fort Ross Museum, and had many artifacts stored in the attic. The roof burned and most of the artifacts were damaged, lost or stolen. A comprehensive plan was then drawn to guide its restoration. A new hipped roof was constructed, but the original wall timbers, floor timbers, and ceiling were retained along with the original window and door frames. In 1974, the Rotchev house was reopened to the public, its structure restored as carefully as possible. Future plans may include the restoration of the building’s interior as it might have been when the Rotchevs lived there.
The Magasin or Fur Warehouse – This two-story Russian-American Company warehouse, or magasin, functioned both as company store and as a warehouse where supplies for agricultural operations and hunting were documented, assessed and stored for distribution. Reconstruction of the fur warehouse (“magasin”) and interpretive display was completed by California State Parks in 2012. Click here for the warehouse brochure.
Goods stored in the warehouse reflected extensive Russian trade with Spanish and later Mexican California, as well as Britain, the United States, Europe and China. The Pacific Coast as far north as the northern boundary of the current state of Washington was claimed by England and Spain. In 1812 the Spanish had no settlement north of the Presidio of San Francisco.
The Governor of Spanish Alta California, José Joaquin de Arrillaga, was friendly with the Russians, and profited by trade. After his death, the Spanish took a harder line, demanding the removal of the Russian colony. While trade with the Russians was strictly forbidden by Madrid, the Spanish colonists found ways to get around the rules, and trade between Settlement Ross and the Spanish colonies flourished. Eager to buy goods made by the Russians, the Spanish traded food grown in the Missions, which was sent to the Alaskan settlements. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, trade with Ross assumed even greater importance as the Russians provided military goods to the former Spanish colony, which no longer had a mother country to supply it.
Other Structures – Early visitors counted up to nine structures inside the stockade. They are all on the Inventory of 1841. The seven buildings seen today, the two blockhouses, the Kuskov house, chapel, Rotchev house and officials’ quarters, along with the well, represent only a sample of the once rich and vibrant life around the fort, when up to 300 men, women and children and thousands of domestic animals lived here. The variety and complexity of the community is strikingly revealed in the Inventory given to Sutter in 1841.
Other structures inside the stockade lost after Sutter’s 1841 Inventory, and some of whose locations are uncertain are: “The granary, built of planks, 7 sazhens long by 4 wide” (this building is also called the new warehouse in the Spanish version of the Inventory prepared by Vallejo in 1833); “A kitchen, 4 sazhens long by 3½ wide;” “A storehouse for provisions, planked, 6 sazhens long by 4 wide,” (this last was probably one of the three storehouses mentioned by Father Payeras). This building between the southeast blockhouse and the south gate had an “attached jailhouse.” In addition there were a barracks with 8 rooms and 2 vestibules, 11 sazhens long by 4 wide, and a well 2½ sazhens deep. (Inventory for Mr. Sutter, 1841)
There were many important Company buildings outside the fort as well: In the “box canyon” above Sandy Cove mentioned in the Report by Vallejo in 1833 were “a beautiful house and shipyard for building ships.” (The shipyard had been abandoned by 1825, but smaller boats were still constructed later.) The Inventory for Mr. Sutter calls it “A shed for the baidarkas, on beams, 10 sazhens long by 5 wide.” Mentioned in the 1841 Inventory were: a “forge and blacksmith shop,” “tannery,” “cooperage,” and “public bath, 5 sazhens long by 2½ wide,” all at the foot of the bluff by the creek. “Around the fort,” the Inventory continues, but probably a bit farther away, were a “public kitchen,” “two byres [for cattle] built of beams, 20 sazhens long…,” “a corral” 28 by 20 sazhens, two sheds for ewes and swine, a dairy, a carpentry shed [with sawmill?], a cordage machine and a well.
The Report by Vallejo of 1833 was particularly impressed with the “two fine grist-mills, one powered by wind and the other by water…[off] the box canyon.” They were still there in 1841, with their grindstones; the wind-powered mill had a capacity of “20 fanegas/day” [A Spanish fanega is about 11/2 bushels]. Associated with these were a “planked floor for winnowing wheat, a wooden threshing floor, and a storehouse for cleaning wheat.” Another threshing floor and shed were some 500 sazhens (about 1166 yards) away.
Scattered around the fort was a haphazard collection of domestic buildings and gardens, arranged in “a confusing and disorienting perspective,” said Vallejo in 1833, who counted almost sixty dwellings. The 1841 Inventory lists twenty-four planked dwellings with glazed windows, a floor and a ceiling; each had a garden. There were eight sheds, eight bath houses and ten kitchens. All have disappeared. Probably their valuables were taken to Sitka by the Russians, their timbers and fences used by Benitz or burned by the Kashia, following their tradition of burning the grasslands to renew the seed plants.
Although all the above structures have disappeared forever, one Russian enterprise left strong traces for several decades—the Russian orchard on the hillside north of the fort. The Russian Inventory of 1841 lists 260 fruit trees—apples, peaches, pears, quince, cherries. Some of these plantings survived well into the ranching times; their scions may yet live on in the orchard which the Park maintains today. (The Russian orchard was greatly increased by the ranchers; William Benitz planted over 1700 trees.) There was a house at the orchard in 1841, and a “white house” up the Fort Ross Creek where lumberman James Dixon lived after 1867.
The Old Russian Cemetery – “To the northeast at a cannon shot’s distance they have their cemetery, although unfenced. In it there is a noteworthy distinction… [a] mausoleum atop a sepulcher of three square steps, from larger to smaller. Above these was a pyramid two yards high, and over it a ball topped off by a cross, all painted white and black, which is what most attracts one’s attention when you descend from the mountain. Over another burial of an individual de razón they placed only something like a box, and over the Kodiaks a cross… All of the crosses we saw are patriarchal; a small cross above and a larger cross nearby like arms, and below, a diagonally placed stick…”Payeras, 1822.
The only outlying facility to survive in some visible form is the old Russian cemetery. It is situated across the ravine on a bluff east of the fort. The several monuments seen in the early photographs no longer exist. A cemetery restoration project conducted in the early 1990s by the University of Wisconsin and the California Department of Parks and Recreation discovered over 150 individual burials in the old Russian cemetery.
The Historic Orchard – The Fort Ross Orchard is situated on Fort Ross Road, up hill from the Fort Ross main parking lot. The original Fort Ross orchard was started by the Russians in 1814 with a single peach tree; it was further expanded with grapes in 1817 and again in 1820 with apples, peaches, cherries, pear, quince and bergamot. On the left – Planted in 1820, this Capulin Cherry from the Santa Cruz Mission lives today.
Russians started the orchard in 1814. Trees began to bear fruit in 1828, and helped prevent scurvy, which had been a problem in the Fort’s early years. By 1840 there were two orchards planted. Both were located on the steep sunny hillside, about a half mile up the slope above the Fort. The orchard had a redwood stockade fence. By 1841, when the Russians left, there were 260 trees planted. During the Ranch era, these orchards were expanded greatly, and became a cash crop. Much was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, though a small portion was kept in production by Carlos Call until 1932.
On the left – Bellflower apple tree was probably planted by the Russians between 1814-1842