Mendocino Redwood Company


Big River Dams

Big River is the site of the earliest logging camps and dams in Mendocino County. The first saw mill was built on a promontory near the mouth of Big River, called, today, the Mendocino Headlands. As one might expect, the early lumbermen initially cut the trees that were most accessible to the saw mill. In the virgin forest, towering old growth was everywhere—in plain sight. Bull teams pulled the logs up an incline to the sawmill; later iron tracks and rail cars did that job.

As logging progressed to areas more and more remote, the mill became dependent upon Big River for transportation, since, as yet, there were no railroads in the Mendocino forests. In seasons when there was sufficient water, harvested logs could be floated downstream to enclosures at the mouth of the river, called booms; sometimes logs broke loose from the enclosure and floated out to sea. Eventually dams were constructed to artificially raise water levels in drier seasons. Water was collected behind the gates of a splash dam. When a gate was tripped, a flash flood would move the logs downstream. Dams could be synchronized to trip their gates at just the right moment in order to maximize the flow of water downstream. Occasionally, there were log jams, in some cases lasting 2 or 3 years. The only solution was to blast the jam and in the process blast boulders, fish, vegetation, and anything else in the river channel. The first dam on Big River, Little Northfork, was 11 miles from the saw mill; the furthest dam, 48 miles. (Jackson, 2).The Mendocino Mill Company (1855-1872) and its successor the Mendocino Lumber Company (1873-1905) used "river drives" more extensively than any other timber operation on the North Coast (Graham Matthews 3).

In his book, Big River Was Dammed, W. Francis Jackson documents at least 27 dams on Big River. Jackson recalls how he walked the river banks and reminisced about his many relatives who had worked on Big River and filled a young boy's head with stories of logging camps, bull teams, and log rafts. The largest of the dams that Jackson documents used over 1 million feet of timber in its construction (Jackson, p.2). The dams, which were major threats to aquatic wildlife, are gone. The last log drive and operation of the dams was in 1937; the result was a log jam (Jackson 104). Some dams fell into ruin over time, although there is lingering evidence of their presence. The California Department of Fish and Game called for the destruction of others in order to allow for the migration of fish.

Many of the locations of the historic Big River dam and logging camps are on MRC land. The logging dams and their approximate construction dates are listed below; locations in red are either on MRC land or very close to our property boundary (Jackson, 4):

1. Little Northfork (1860)
2. Chamberlain Creek (1860/1870)

3 .James Creek (1860/1870)
4. Milliken (1860/1870)

5. Lower East Branch (1860/1870)
6. Lower Two Log Creek (1860/1870)
7. Upper Two Log Creek (1870/1880)

8. Upper East Branch (1870/1880)
9. 36-Mile (1880s)

10. Martin Creek (1883)
11. Dougherty Creek (1885)
12. Lower Gates Creek (1886)

13. Handley Halfway (1887)
14 Upper Ramon Creek (1888/1890)
15. Northfolk of Ramon Creek (1888/1890)

16. Upper Gates Creek (1892)
17. Soda Creek (1892)

18. Horsethief Creek (1893)

19. Johnston Creek (1900)
20. Russell Brook (1907)
21. Lower Ramon Creek (1909)
22. Hellsgate (1913)

23. Johnston (1914)
24. Mettick Creek (1915)
25. Anderson Gulch (1917)
26. Valentine Creek (1919)
27. Big Northfolk (1924)

Jackson provides numerous photographs in his book on the Big River dams. Below, however, is a rather unusual photo showing the wheel and cable to open the dam gate.

Author: DMS

Photo Credits

Transporting logs on Big River. Robert J. Lee Collection.
Dam gate, Kelly House (Mendocino) Collection.

Secondary Source

Jackson, W. Francis. Big River Was Dammed. Mendocino, CA: FMMC Books, 1991.


 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California