When Russia Colonized California: Celebrating 200 Years of Fort Ross

A piece of history on the Pacific Coast was almost lost to budget cuts, until a Russian billionaire stepped in to save the endangered state park

About 90 miles north of San Francisco lies Fort Ross, a site chosen to be the Russian empire's only colony in what would later become the contiguous United States. Pictured is a Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross. (George Rose / Getty Images)

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Linda Rath, the superintendent of the California State Parks sector that includes Fort Ross, acknowledges the clash of cultures.

“It’s frustrating for them,” she says, of Renova. “It’s a great opportunity, but it’s hard to explain why it takes so long to get projects even started.”

As its budget has been whittled away, the parks department has postponed more than $8 million in necessary renovations at Fort Ross over the past decade, Rath says. The arrangement with Renova will allow some of that work to happen soon.

Though some Californians may be uneasy about Renova’s involvement, worrying that it means Fort Ross will become a commercial enterprise, Rath says that the conglomerate is not taking over the park.

“State Parks are still managing the parks,” she says. “We’re very careful with the branding. We’re not plastering banners all over the place. We’re not putting a billboard up.”

Fort Ross will retain its character, asserts Sarah Sweedler, the conservancy’s director.

“It’s not an East Coast historical theme park,” she says. “It’s more community oriented and it’s a reflection of the community.”

With the future more secure than it was just a few years ago, Fort Ross enthusiasts are looking forward to July’s anniversary celebration.

On a recent weekend, Robin Joy, the park’s chief interpretive specialist, watches a group of folk dancers with pleasure. She has worked at Fort Ross for more than two decades, through lean times and revitalizations.

“They actually make and create a life for Fort Ross,” she says, of the Russian families. “It’s such a good atmosphere that they bring.”

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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