Redwoods in Stout Grove

Historic Redwood Logging

Lumber Industry in Humboldt County 1850 - 1860

Continued from: Largest Coast Redwoods

This page is one of a 6 page set on historical redwood logging. See:

Historic Coast Redwood Logging Equipment and Machinery






The Season

Logging in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties usually began for the season in the '80s and '90s soon after the Christmas and New Year's holidays, providing the season had not been unusually wet. A crew of a dozen men or more was sent to each logging camp. This crew usually consisted of a cook, several choppers, a few sawyers, and others to peel and ring the trees after they were felled.

The First Sawmills

In Humboldt County the redwood zone extended in 1850 in an irregular belt 108 miles in length, varying in width from two to 20 miles, and embracing an estimated 500,000 acres. This territory included level river bottoms, plateaus, rolling land, and steep hillsides. Foresters in 1902 calculated that an average of 50,000 merchantable feet of lumber could be harvested from an acre, in addition to railroad ties, fence posts, shingle bolts, refuse, etc.

Lumbering commenced in Humboldt County in 1850, but five years were to pass before any attention was paid the redwoods. The pioneer lumbermen were easterners from Maine and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, who were accustomed to the pine, spruce, and fir of their homes. They were familiar with these, and their kindred species, and their adaptability to the manufacture of lumber for use in the building trades, but because of the "in capacity" of the mills to handle the huge redwood logs and their ignorance of its adaptability for lumber, no redwood was shipped from Humboldt Bay until 1855.

The first sawmill on Humboldt Bay, the Papoose, was built and put into operation in the summer of 1850 by Martin White and James Eddy. Their mill failed within the year, as did several others, including the Luffelholz. The first cargo of lumber shipped from Humboldt Bay was sawed at the Papoose and loaded aboard James H. Whiting.

On February 24, 1852, the first "really successful mill in the county was established by James T. Ryan and James Duff." Ryan was an interesting character. Born in Ireland he had emigrated to the United States and settled in Massachusetts where he became a successful contractor. The lure of gold drew him to California, and in 1850 he reached Humboldt Bay.

In 1852 Ryan bought the steamer Santa Clara and entered into partnership with Duff. The inexhaustible timber resources of the Humboldt Coast had made a lasting impression on Ryan. The little steamer was loaded with sawmill machinery at San Francisco, and she headed out the Golden Gate and up the coast. As she was crossing the bar at the entrance to Humboldt Bay, some of the machinery was washed overboard by the breakers. Undaunted, Ryan had Santa Clara anchored, while a crew was turned to digging a slip. A full head of steam was then raised, and the ship driven agroundóbows onóin the slip.

The ship's engines would be used to power the sawmill that Ryan & Duff constructed on the beach. Within a short time, Ryan & Duff were sawing several thousand feet of spruce, fir, and pine a day. In June, Ryan & Duff loaded their first shipment on the brig, John Clifford. Beating her way across the bar, the brig grounded and was pounded to pieces. Several days later, Ryan & Duff sent off the brig Cornwallis, only to see her meet a similar fate. Ryan then got Hans H. Buhne to take out a third shipment in the bark Home.

On July 4, 1852, Home hoisted anchor and made sail, but she was doomed not to reach San Francisco and was driven ashore on the south spit. Despite these blows and the destruction of their mill by fire, Ryan & Duff continued in business.

One of those who went to work for Ryan & Duff was William Carson, a Canadian who brought the first ox team to Humboldt County. He was employed to oversee woods activity near Freshwater. In 1854 Carson left Ryan & Duff and purchased the Hula Mill. Within a year, by selecting the smaller logs, and not handling anything that exceeded five feet in diameter, he shipped 20,000 board feet of redwood lumber to San Francisco aboard the brig Tigress. In San Francisco the redwood was almost an instantaneous success. Because of its rot-resistance it soon commanded premium prices. Carson's Hula Mill was small, capable of producing only 5,000 feet of lumber a day, and operated by three or four men using a slash saw in place of the gang saw.

The Humboldt Lumber & Manufacturing Co.

By 1854 there were nine mills operating on Humboldt Bay. As early as 1852 a commission had been named consisting of Ryan and W. H. Kingsbury on the part of management, and Carson to represent the loggers, to adopt a standard of measurement for scaling logs. The commission determined that all logs 12-foot long and up to 30 inches in diameter were to be measured by the Spaulding Scale, while those in excess of that size were to be measured by the Scribner scale. These guidelines for measurement applied to spruce, pine, and fir, but no standards were adopted for measuring redwood, because of its great size, shape, and peculiarities of its timber. Until after the turn of the century, redwood was scaled by a method drawing upon both the Spaulding and Scribner rules, combined with the judgment of the scaler.

It was soon apparent to management that the local market and that at San Francisco were too limited to consume the entire out put of the growing Humboldt Bay lumber industry. To foster trade with Atlantic Coast ports and to secure other markets abroad, the operators determined to pool their resources. After a series of meetings, a number of mill owners united to form the Humboldt Lumber & Manufacturing Co., with a capitalization of $380,000. James T. Ryan was elected president and Martin White vice president. At the outset prospects were excellent.

In 1854 the company exported 20,567,000 feet of lumber. Unfortunately, the operators were better production experts than businessmen. There was a financial crisis, when a number of customers failed to meet their obligations. In December 1854 the blow fell; many mills were compelled to suspend operations. Notices of sheriff's sales soon appeared in the Humboldt Times, and in April 1855 the mills of the association were turned over to their creditors. A new policy was instituted, which permitted only cash transactions, and limited operations were resumed. Recovery was slow, however.

After considerable litigation, the California Supreme Court awarded Duff the ownership of Ryan & Duff in 1859. He put the mill back in production at a cost of $11,000 and ran it until October 7, 1862, when the mill was destroyed by fire.

Other Millsó1852-1860

Another mill established soon after Ryan & Duff's was Martin White's Bay Mill on Front Street, between L and M Streets, at the fringe of Eureka. White joined the Humboldt Lumber & Manufacturing Co., and after the association went bankrupt, his plant was sold in 1856 to John Dolbeer and his three partners, Daniel Pickard, Isaac Upton, and C. W. Long. Charles McLean of San Francisco bought out Dolbeer's partners in 1859 and continued the business in partnership with Dolbeer. Disaster struck on September 1, 1860, when the mill was destroyed by fire. Dolbeer rebuilt the mill (known as Bay Mill No. 2), but as he was short of capital he signed a partnership agreement with William Carson on April 17, 1863.

McLean had died by this time. In 1852 the second largest mill on Humboldt Bay was owned by Ridgeway and Flanders. Their plant was at the foot of G Street and employed 31 men. The next year, John Vance and Garwood purchased the operation for $65,000. In 1854 Vance refused to join the Humboldt Lumber & Manufacturing Co. His mill therefore was not involved in the litigation that affected most of the early plants. When Garwood was drowned in the capsizing of Merrimac at the entrance to the harbor, Vance was left without a partner. Vance died in 1892 and left his estate, including his mill, to his sons.

In 1853 the Pine & Bean Mill was situated near the foot of H Street, James C. Smiley became a partner, and the plant became known as the Smiley-Bean Mill. The same year it was gutted by fire, and Smiley and Bean sold their interest in what remained to S. L. Mastick, who rebuilt and operated the mill until 1860. At that time it was purchased by John Kentfield and D. R. Jones. Jones in 1861 introduced the carriage, a device still used in mills to pull the log past the saw. This enabled Jones to expand greatly the plant's production. The operators soon were handicapped by a shortage of space, and they searched for a more favorable site. It was found on Gunther's Island, and construction of the new facilities was started on September 1, 1866.

Status of the Industry in 1860

When the enumerator for the Eighth Census visited the Humboldt Bay area in June 1860, four sawmills were in operation. They were: Dolbeer & Co., John Vance, Titlow & Price, and Lyman Fish & Son. Dolbeer told the enumerator that he had invested $8,000 in his company, which in 1859 had turned out 2,050,000 feet of lumber, 450,000 laths, and 100,000 pickets, valued at $24,275. At his mill he employed nine men and operated four steam saws. John Vance valued his mill at $20,000. In 1859 his plant, employing 18 men and 36 steam saws, had cut 4,336,700 feet of lumber, worth $52,041. The two other mills reporting, Titlow & Price and Lyman Fish & Son, were smaller operations and located in Union Township.

By 1860 Humboldt was the second ranking California county in production of lumber, sawing 30,000,000 feet per year. In Humboldt the principal lumber sawed was redwood, spruce, and fir, and small quantities of cedar. Most of the Humboldt lumber was shipped to the San Francisco market. Most of the mills were on the shore of Humboldt Bay, which was bounded by flats about five to six miles across. Through these flats meandered tidal sloughs, into which fed rivers and streams coming down out of the hills. The land had been in Federal ownership and, subject to preemption, could be bought. Lumbermen, owning claims along the sloughs, dragged their logs to the water and tumbled them in.

Those owning claims along the ravines at the head of the sloughs built wooden tramways (pole roads), consisting of small logs laid crossways on a roadbed to serve as ties. Then 6-inch trees were pegged together, and placed on the ties to serve as rails. On these tramways, they ran four-wheel wagons, each wheel of solid wood, eight inches wide, and from two to three feet in diameter, made of a traverse section of a tree. These wheels were hollowed in the center.

The "cars," the weight of which was often nearly as much as the weight of the load, were pulled by eight- or six-horse teams. On these "cars" one or two logs were placed, and the team hauled the load down the grade to a slough. After the logs had been dumped into the water, the "cars" returned for another load. The tramways and cars were easy to build and did not require many materials shipped in from the outside. By 1854 there were 20 miles of tramways in the Humboldt Bay area.

The thickness of the logs hauled varied from 16 inches to nine feet, with the average diameter four and one-half feet. Seven feet was the most common diameter of redwood to be sawed. The greater the diameter, the shorter the log was cut. The ordinary lengths of saw logs were 14, 16, 18, 20, 24, and 32 feet. Redwood was rarely sawn into more than 20-foot lengths.

A good lumberjack could fell a tree of three-foot diameter in an hour; a tree five feet in diameter in three and one-half hours. Ordinarily two choppers worked together, one on each side of the tree. They used the American axe and axe-handle; the handle being about a foot longer than that used in Michigan and Maine. After the tree was down, it was cut into saw-logs with a cross cut saw, managed by one man. It had been found that one man could make a longer stroke than two, and as the length of the stroke was a matter of much importance to "clear the saw," or throw out the saw-dust, one of the handles was knocked off, and the saw held like a handsaw.

After the logs had been rolled into the slough, they were made into rafts of from 50 to 100 feet in length, and from ten to 40 feet wide. The outer logs of the raft were fastened to each other at the ends, by small chains with a dog at each end, and a dog driven into each log. Ropes were used to keep the raft from spreading in the middle. When the tide ebbed, the raft was floated to the mill. If the tide turned before the raft had reached Humboldt Bay, it was made fast to a stump or tree on the shore, and the loggers waited the next flood tide.

Every mill had a boom for logs. This boom consisted of large, long logs chained together and floating on the surface of a slough or cove. When the raft arrived, the boom was opened, the raft pulled in, and surveyed. This was done by a bonded estimator, who received ten cents per 1,000 feet of lumber, one-half to be paid by the loggers and one-half by the mill. The thickness of the log was taken at the small end, and one-fourth was thrown out as waste.

On several of the smaller streams flowing into Humboldt Bay, dams were built, so that a combination of the water stored in the pool and spring flooding could be employed to push the huge logs into the bay, where they could be rafted. When cutting commenced on Mad River, a narrow canal, eight feet wide, was cut from the river into the north arm of the bay. A boom was thrown across the mouth of Mad River to arrest the logs as they came down, after which they were shunted through the canal.

There was no place in the United States where the average thickness of the logs sawn in the mills was as great as in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, and the mills were built with reference to this situation. The frames were large and strong, and the saws of proportionate length. Four types of saws were used: the single-gate, the gang-saws in a gate, the muley, and the circular. The single-gate was secured in a frame, which played up and down. This saw was used for sawing small logs. The gang-saws were a set of saws fastened in a frame parallel to each other. In some gangs there were 24 saws side by side, and they cut a log into boards at one movement. Gang-saws moved slowly and produced smooth lumber. Boards, planks, joists, rafters, and studding were cut with gang saws.

A three and one half-foot log was the largest that could be cut with gang-saws in the 1850s. The muley-saw was an upright saw, fastened at the lower end to a shaft connecting with a steam engine or waterpower, while the upper end was loose, playing in a groove to keep it straight. The muley was employed to cut the largest logs into bolts and to take off slabs, so as to reduce logs to a size suitable for gang-saws. The muley made 300 strokes a minute, whereas the gate-saw made about 100. The circular saw was used to cut all the thin siding, pickets, and laths.

The largest circular saws in 1860 were 52 inches in diameter, leaving about 24 inches on each side of the axle. When large logs were to be cut with circular saws, one saw was put above the other, and one cut into the log from above, and the other from below, and in this fashion they could cope with logs up to four feet in diameter.


The information on this page is from:

REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK: History Basic Data, Del Norte and Humboldt Counties, California - 1969 / 1982

National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service Division of History Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation.