Humboldt County History

The discovery of gold in California ushered in the most unimaginable, dramatic, immediate and rapid growth of the lumber industry. California’s population grew four fold between 1850 and 1860. San Francisco’s population grew from 2,000 in 1849 to 59,000 by 1855. People had to have lumber–for homes, for stores, for industry, even to build sluice boxes to pan gold. Prices for a very limited supply of lumber shot up from $50 to $500 per thousand board feet in a single year. New England sea captains filled their holds and piled their decks high with lumber which they sold at enormous profits in San Francisco.

The irony of bringing lumber thousands of miles when the entire Northern California, Oregon and Washington coast was carpeted with large trees was not lost on entrepreneurs. They explored the Redwood Coast including Humboldt Bay as well as the more accessible Puget Sound area. Humboldt Bay, with its surrounding forest of giant trees was first reached by land when Josiah Gregg and his party looked for a shorter supply route to Trinity River gold miners in 1850. The first sawmill opened up the same year. By 1854 there were nine mills on the bay. Though only three years old, Eureka produced more lumber than any other Pacific area. By 1859, the area around Humboldt Bay was “the most extensive lumber district in the state”, according to a state report. Within 30 years the North Coast had 400 mills cutting some of the largest trees in the world. Eureka and surrounding areas are here because of lumber. The fancy Victorian homes were built by people associated with the timber industry; the banks, railroads and ships were owned by timber people. The city’s political leaders were also timber barons. Men, women and children from every class, nationality and education level were here because of timber.

Cutting, moving and milling trees the size of redwoods had never been done before. People from this important timber growing area had to figure out how to do it. The first redwoods were cut by two men with axes, sometimes taking as long as a week. The axes were improved with double cutting edges and longer handles. The crosscut saw was lengthened considerably with handles at each end to take over half of the cutting work. A steam powered portable saw was tried as early as 1875. A 200 pound gasoline drag saw was invented in Eureka. Later other Eureka brothers developed a lighter 95 pound drag saw. Logs were moved using screw jacks, were floated or towed in nearby rivers and bays at first. Horses and oxen pulled logs longer distances on skid roads. Logging railroads, primitive at first, began hauling logs to mills. Some of the first railroads in the state were here in Humboldt County. Sawmills initially used a single blade moved up and down by a crank, then a longer sash saw, then the sashgang saw which had two or more saws in the sash cutting at the same time. Saws to cut redwood had to be made stronger and more durable than saws used elsewhere. Fast circular saws invented locally replaced the reciprocating blade saws. Then came the double circular saw. Blade sizes increased from 12” to eventually as much as 72”. Double circular saws were replaced by newly invented Third Saws where four saws worked in tandem to cut one even larger log. Finally the first band saw on the Pacific Coast was used here.

The most significant invention in the timber industry was the steam donkey in 1882. This adaptation of steam power to move large logs revolutionized the industry in the West and beyond. John Dolbeer of Dolbeer & Carson Lumber Co. in Eureka was the inventor. His inventiveness was not limited to just one “big breakthrough” either. He invented a circular saw to better cut lumber in 1860, a tallying machine in 1863, a steam powered portable felling and bucking saw in 1875, an improved vertical spool donkey in 1883 and a logging locomotive which doubled as a donkey engine, also in 1883. John Dolbeer was not alone in his innovations and inventions. There was N.E. Pine, Percy and Bethune Perry, David Evans, John Vance, Cliff Merrill and a tremendous number of other local pioneers who invented and adapted things large and small to better accomplish the task at hand.

The redwood forest was unique because of the size of these giant trees, some 20 feet across. Early photographers pictured whole school student bodies standing atop one stump. Early local towns constructed dance floors on a single tree stump. Redwood was unique in that it was not only beautiful, but was less susceptible to rot, insects and fire. It was used for railroad ties, tunnel timbers, ornamentation on Victorian homes. Redwood rebuilt San Francisco seven times after fires. Redwood homes were noted as less likely to burn in the 1906 San Francisco fire, so homes rebuilt with redwood required no permit. Redwood was used on many notable projects such as the long redwood pilings used in building the Golden Gate Bridge. Redwood was exported all over the world. Large local redwood lumber companies had offices and some had retail yards all over the U.S.

The largest redwood lumber companies anywhere developed here. Two company towns built by some of these large companies remain today. Conservation, better timber practices, preserving and protecting forest lands, timber wars, environmental protection advocacy all started here. The history of timber is not only of local importance, but has national significance and the many stories need not only to be preserved, but need to be told.