Mendocino Redwood Company


Big River

The face of the river, in time, became a wonderful book . . .which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it had uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Compared to Mark Twain's mighty MIssissippi, Big River is not big at all. The Big River watershed is about 181 square miles; the Mississippi's, 1.2 million square miles. Mark Twain knew, however, that a river, especially in 19th century America, was more than just meandering water. Its social impact could not be measured in river miles or watershed size. A river was a wild stream of dreams and destinies, of stories waiting to unfold. For the logging pioneers of Mendocino County, Big River became their dream and their destiny—the entrance to the forest by the sea. With the help of Big River, these individuals pitted themselves against both the forest giants and the treacherous sea. They tackled the earth's biggest trees with only hand axes and saws, often taking a week or more to fell one tree. Oxen, yoked together in teams of eight or twelve, dragged the immense logs to the river's edge, where they were collected behind splash dams, and then floated downstream to a sawmill. From there the cut lumber was loaded onto schooners lying just off the jagged Mendocino coast. The primeval forest, that must have seemed at first so impregnable, stretching out further than eye could see or eagle could fly, fell one tree at a time to human determination. Only individual old growth trees or groves, too inaccessible for the early technology or judged undesirable for milling, remain—scattered about the shadowlands, lonely reminders of a giant forest that once touched the sea.

The pioneer lumbermen of Mendocino County never heard of "the American Dream." That term was coined by an American historian, James Adams, in 1931, ironically during the Great Depression when many Americans, out of work and out of luck, thought the dream had died. The Big River lumbermen, however, embodied the very essence of the American dream, namely, that with hard work, determination, and audacity, anyone could achieve wealth. Wealth represented freedom—freedom from want, freedom to have more, freedom from the past. Like the immigrants before them, they were part of an inexorable push of Americans to expand, to tame, to build, and to succeed.

Men like Jerome Ford and Edwards Williams, the entrepreneurs or adventurers who started logging operations at Big River, as well as all those who came after them in Mendocino County for the next 100 years, were so successful that they almost destroyed what they first admired. The National Park Service estimates that about 3% of the ancient redwood forest remains, while most coastal redwoods, except for those in state and national parks, are second and third growth. "Why did they take it all?" That question nags many of us. One answer is that the early lumbermen in northern California could not have known how old the redwood trees were that their sweat and ingenuity toppled. Archaeological tree-ring dating started about 1917 with the work of an astronomer, Andrew Douglass, although the practice took several decades to be widespread. Before that, we were dependent on human memory. In the 19th century, a Philadelphia merchant might point to a spreading oak tree in the court house square and say, "Son, your grandfather told me this tree was here when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776." Jerome Ford arrived at Big River to lay plans for the first sawmill in Mendocino County on June 16, 1852—just 76 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. How could he know that the trees he stared at in disbelief were 500, 1500, or even more than 2000 years old? Even with the help of science, our minds have difficulty comprehending the life span of an ancient redwood. Would the loggers have stayed the swing of their axes if they had known the age of the redwood forest? Not likely, any more than they would have stayed their picks to let the gold lie quietly beneath the earth. Today there are many get-rich dreams to latch onto, including the workingman's favorite—winning the lottery. In the 19th century, the land and its resources were the ready means to wealth.

We also cannot ignore the fact that, while there were individuals in the early 19th century who wrote about the beauties of nature, there was not a general environmental consciousness. George Stewart, often called the Father of Sequoia National Park, wrote editorials as early as 1876 about the destruction of the giant sequoias, trees in the same botanical family as the coastal redwoods. As a result, the U.S. government created Sequoia, Yosemite, and General Grant national parks in 1890. John Muir matured his conservation philosophy while working in Yosemite Valley from 1869-1871. Muir, in fact, operated a small sawmill near Yosemite Falls to lumber wind-felled trees. Not until 1892, however, did he become one of the founding members of the Sierra Club to save America's last wilderness. Around 1903, the Sempervirens Club managed to acquire 3800 acres of coastal redwoods at Big Basin near Santa Cruz, California and have the area declared a park. As the influence of such groups grew and environmental concerns became a movement, more pressure was put on government agencies and lumber companies to act responsibly about the remaining redwood old growth, but by then America was well into the 20th century and most of the old growth redwood was depleted.

Deforestation, as reports from the U.N. and environmental watch groups remind us, is a global issue. This was also true in 19th century America. In his book, A Forest Journey, John Perlin observes that "forests always recede as civilizations develop and grow." For over 5,000 years, wood was the primary material for housing, fuel, furniture, ships, bridges, carriages, wagons, carts, mine shafts, waterwheels, spears, tool handles, wine barrels—the list goes on and on. As their own forests receded, England and Europe looked to the "New World" to supply their need for wood. In the 19th century, while we were shipping lumber to England, West Indies, and other places, Americans placed their own considerable pressures on our forests as our population rapidly grew. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were about 3.9 million people in U.S. states and territories in 1790; 7.2 million in 1810; 23.1 million in 1850; and 50.1 in 1880. Many Americans saw the forest as standing in the way of houses, villages, and agriculture. Their goal was not saving or managing a forest but pushing it further and further back. Tench Coxe, an early American economist and associate of Alexander Hamilton, wrote in the preface to the 1810 U.S. census that "our forests [en]cumber a rich soil, a hundred or two hundred miles from the sea, and prevent its cultivation" (Perlin, 360). He advised Americans to reduce the forests to cabinets, furniture, gun stocks, casks, shingles, charcoal, and fuel. The forests east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio were the first to recede. Frederick Marryat, a 19th century English novelist, observed in his travels of upstate New York that "the giants of the forest, which had for so many centuries reared their heads lay prostrate before civilization" (Perlin, 356). In early America, it was not simply the redwoods that grew to large size. Perlin cites reports from the early 1800s of oak that was over 140 ft high and 6 ft in diameter, walnut trees 7 ft in diameter, and sycamore almost 13 feet in diameter (Perlin, 325-6).. The Eastern states had supplied high-priced lumber to San Francisco merchants as population and construction exploded there following the Gold Rush. The discovery of the redwood forests of northern California opened a new, less expensive supply of wood for Californians.

Today Mendocino Redwood Company owns about 30% of the Big River watershed, near its headwaters. This amounts to 34,114 acres of which less than 500 acres have scattered old growth trees. The next largest owner of the Big River watershed is Jackson Demonstration State Forest with 22,714 acres. The top photo shows Big River snaking toward the sea, the ocean breakers pushing back its spillage. The first sawmill in Mendocino County was built on the Mendocino headlands, rising about 95 ft above the ocean—the site just visible in the bottom center of the photo. A later saw mill was built on the river flats, not far from the mouth of the river. This photo was digitally manipulated to show how Big River might have looked to the early lumbermen. Mouse over the photo to see a more recent view. The bottom photo is a picture of the steamer, "Big River," towing log rafts.



Photo Credits

Aerial color photo off Mendocino Headlands courtesy of California State Parks.

Big River from Robert J. Lee Collection (Ukiah).

Secondary Sources

Big River Watershed: Sediment Analysis Report, Graham Matthews and Associates (July 2001).

Perlin, John. A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.


 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California