History of Rio Dell

History of Rio Dell

Alonzo Painter

“When Alonzo Painter arrived in Rio Dell in 1870 he made plans for Rio Dell to become a city. He laid out the map and named the streets. The actual incorporation did not take place until 95 years later.”

“Lorenzo D. Painter purchased several acres of land from William Shively who had moved to Bluff Prairie. Painter was a man of foresight having had much experience in his previous 53 years. He was raised in Ohio and left home as a teenager to make his own way. After working as a carpenter for a time he engaged in the lumber business. His first wife and the mother of his four daughters was Elizabeth Bousman.”

  • The Bluffs Around Us, pgs. 5, 10-11

“There is no "dell"--a small wooded valley---in the community of Rio Dell. Nor was there any good reason to use the Spanish word for river when referring to the nearby Eel. Yet these facts had no effect on Lorenzo Painter, apparently a man of poetic impulse, when he named his newly built hotel the Rio Del House. Painter's establishment sat upon a hillside, but his choice for its name started the locale down a slippery slope of nonsensical nomenclature that resulted in the still-bewildering name the town holds to this day.”

“The site of Rio Dell-to-be was a prairie set upon a broad benchland, the latter having formed within a bend of the Eel while the far side of the river was busy trying to erode away the Scotia Bluffs. It was a hospitable  location, where a village belonging to the Bear River (Nekanni) tribe occupied part of the flat. The tribe's name for the village is not known, but it was called Tokemuk by the Wiyots, some of whom lived there.”

“In August 1911, A Bartini bought 12 acres of land from Selvage and laid out a townsite, which was called Wildwood. At first the new community was hardly more than a name. But it was invitingly close to PL's company town at Scotia, especially when the first Rio Dell bridge replaced the ferry in 1914. Those who chose to live in Wildwood could own their own homes, establish their own businesses, and live without the restrictions that PL placed on its residents. Some combination of a love of freedom and defiance of authority motivated many people to move into the new town. When Prohibition took effect in January 1920, it was easy for Wildwood to find its true calling-Scotia's Sodom, the high-powered hub of illegal activity on the lower Eel It was Prohibition that truly put the "wild" in Wildwood. The town's main businesses were gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging, with fighting and the occasional murder serving as diverting pastimes. According to chronicler Julio Rovai, "the communitywas entirely without law."

“…Italians, many of whom were hired by PL to work in its new Mill B, [built] their homes along Wildwood Avenue, which later became the route of the Redwood Highway, and also on Monument Road. Soon Wildwood gained the nickname "Little Italy," while a sizeable group of Portuguese also came to live there.”

“And then, during the 1940s, the number of residents increased rapidly. The Rio Dell elementary school, built in 1940, when fewer than 150 students were in attendance, grew so quickly it was forced to operate on split shifts in 1944. By 1949 there were over 250 squirming scholars crammed into its confines. The following year more than 300 students were in attendance, with construction of a much needed new school nearly ready to start. The population continued surging after the war, increasing from 900 residents in 1947 to nearly 2,000 in 1950. The large flat that was once Eagle Prairie invited residential expansion, and the 1949 conversion of the Redwood Highway to four lanes where it ran through town was seen as a stimulus to the business district. Wildwood, the raucous community down by the riverside, was now linked more closely to Rio Dell, the older, hillside community centered on Pacific Avenue. And Belleview Park, at the north end of the flat, was rapidly filling with homes… There was talk of incorporating the area at least as early as 1949.”

  • Both Sides of the Bluff, pgs.  37-48

“In the early 1960's Rio Dell had shown such a rapid growth that county officials suggested that Rio Dell incorporate, as county services were unable to cope with the increased demands. A group of citizens met regularly at the home of Angelo Barsanti where plans for incorporation were discussed and finally formulated. Attorney Harold Neville Jr. worked closely with this committee and became city attorney. Melba Buckovic was the first city clerk. Incorporation proponents were John Baratti, Angelo Barsanti, Grace Close, Lawrence Francesconi, William Herndon, Ray Jensen, Guy Maxwell, Evelyn McCormick, Dr. Kurt Munchheimer, Elmer Nyberg and John Vevoda. At an election on February 26, 1965 Rio Dell became an incorporated city with the following city councilmen: Angelo Barsanti, William Herndon, Guy Maxwell, Dr. Kurt Munchheimer and Merel Ritter. Maxwell was chosen mayor by his fellow councilmen.”

  • The Bluffs Around Us, pgs. 5


Rio Dell’s current downtown was known as Wildwood prior to incorporation. Photo from 1940.


  • “The Bluffs Around Us” by Evelyn McCormick, 1981. Available at the Library.
  • “Both Sides of the Bluff: History of Humboldt County Places: 1” by Jerry Rohde, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-964-0261-3-1 Please contact City Hall to find out how to purchase.