Meacham Hill is the rise on Highway 101 between Petaluma and Cotati. Much of the view from the freeway was once owned by Harrison Mecham (original spelling), a man who followed his dreams west.
Born in upstate New York in 1833, Mecham and his family had already moved a thousand miles to Iowa by the time he was 12. Soon after, he met a party of mountain men who told such “marvelous tales of grizzly bears, elk, wild cattle and horses” that he was inspired to join them, J.P. Munro-Fraser wrote in the 1880 book “History of Sonoma County.”
Without telling his parents, 14-year-old Harrison left home with only the clothes on his back and no money in his pockets. Somehow he made it 200 miles to Fort Kearney, in modern-day Nebraska. Meeting up with the mountain men, he was hired to drive an ox team. When they left, in April 1848, he was outfitted with a new buckskin suit and revolver, Munro-Fraser wrote.
Mecham’s journey was full of hardship and danger. Climbing the east slope of the Sierra, they passed through the Donner Party’s camp and saw the horrifying evidence of what had happened there. A Mormon party heading to Salt Lake told of the discovery of gold in California. Reaching the Sacramento Valley in September, Mecham and a few companions decided to try their luck panning for gold. By the spring of 1849, still only 15 years old, he had amassed $10,000 (about $300,000 today). A few years later, Mecham married Melissa Stewart, who had also come west as a teenager, and settled in Sonoma County. Young as he was, Mecham seemed to know what he was doing.
By 1880, his ranch covered 7,000 acres. The operation was harvesting 100,000 bushels of grain a year, planting 1,000 acres of potatoes and grazing 7,000 head of sheep. He did so well that he moved into Petaluma and supervised his ranch from there.
Few pioneers realized their dreams as fully as he did. When the man who started with nothing died in 1909, he was a millionaire and the director of six banks. Known for their generosity, Harrison and Melissa Mecham started the Mecham Relief Fund, which is still going strong today.
In the 1970s, another couple brought a vision to Meacham Hill. After years spent crossing mountains of bureaucracy, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Running Fence” landscape art project became a reality. Eighteen feet high and made of white fabric, it ran for 25 miles, from Meacham Hill to the ocean.
“It seemed to me that I’d never truly seen the topography of the land until I saw it with the fence undulating across it,” Judy Lewis Maestas, who lived in Marin County at the time, wrote in a comment on a 2010 Smithsonian Magazine story about the Running Fence. “What a wonderful memory.”
It was a whole different kind of westward dream.