Mendocino Redwood Company


First Mendocino Sawmill

The winter rains had not wholly ceased and the river bank full,its slight ripples meeting the verdure of the shore, the tall redwoods with their great symmetrical trunks traveling toward the skies, with the bright colors of the rhododendrons profusely scattered over the hills....and over all the hush and solitude of the primeval forest...and as I recall the beauty of this picture, I cannot but regret the part it appeared necessary for me to enact in what now looks like a desecration.
E. C. Williams, Owner of Mendocino Lumber Co.(1872-1906)

The first sawmill in Mendocino County, which appears as the large barn-like building in the photograph on the left, was built on the Mendocino Headlands for Henry Meiggs as part of the California Lumber Manufacturing Company, incorporated June 20, 1852. Meiggs was a colorful San Francisco businessman, regarded by some as an entrepreneur and others as a hustler. Meiggs sent Jerome Ford to scout a location for a new mill, while E. C. Williams, a veteran of the Mexican War and friend of Kit Carson, sailed from the East Coast on the Ontario with the mill itself, the mill machinery, and 40 mechanics and laborers to put it all together. David Ryder, who wrote the history of Union Lumber Company (a company that would purchase these early Mendocino timberlands in 1906), reconstructed Ford's journey from very brief entries in Ford's diary.



Ford took the boat from San Francisco to Benicia, and went from there to Napa, and then to Sonoma by stage. At Sonoma he remained long enough to buy or hire three saddle horses and two pack mules. Also to witness a fight in which one of the adversaries pulled a gun and shot half the other man's teeth out without killing him. Ford then rode to Bodega Corners and stayed a day or two with Captain Smith; buying eight yoke of oxen, and hiring two men to help him with the mules and oxen. From there the party proceeded up the Coast by slow stages, camping wherever night overtook them. There were no roads—only rough, narrow trails—and they had to swim the swollen rivers. Crossing one of them—probably the Gualala, boundary between Mendocino and Sonoma counties—one mule drowned and the other swam downstream, got ashore and ran away. This was a real calamity, for, besides losing the mules, the party lost all its provisions and blankets. Thereafter they had only saddle blankets—"sweat cloths" Ford calls them—to sleep under, and for thirty-six hours they had nothing to eat but some berries they gathered along the trail. Then they reached what Ford referred to as "The Portuguese Ranch," near the Navarro River, and there got their first square meal in nearly two days, replenished their provisions, and rested for two days. Finally after ten days of hard, slow travel, they reached the mouth of the Big River, which Ford alternately called the "Rio Grande" and the "Bull Don." The former name was the one used by the Spanish and the latter his own version of the Indian name, "Booldam," which likewise meant "large stream. (Ryder, 53)

Ford finally arrived at Big River on June 16, 1852 and E. C. Williams one month later on July 19th. In a reminiscence that Williams, in his 80s, wrote for the Pioneer Western Lumberman in 1912, he recalls the early days.

The difficulties connected with the building of the mill were many and great. Our millwright proved wholly incompetent; men became dissatisfied and left at a moment's warning, and their places could only be filled by our sending to San Francisco and bringing men overland up the Coast. Before the mill had its roof on, the storms began; and for years the memory of that winter came to me as a horrible nightmare. But Spring came at last and the mill was finished, and we began shipping its output to market at the rate of 50,000 feet a day. (Ryder, 56)

The 50,000 feet of lumber that Williams refers to would fill about one railcar or two truck and trailer loads.

With Henry Meiggs heavily in debt, the California Lumber Manufacturing Company suspended operations on October 10, 1854. The private banking firm of Godeffroy and Sillem filed a lien against the mill for debts owed, as did Jerome Ford and E.C. Williams as well. Ford, Williams, and the banking firm would resurrect operations in Spring 1855 with a second mill on the Big River flats. The name of the company was the Mendocino Saw Mills. Ford in a letter of 1865 remarks that the mill is now producing about 15 million feet of lumber a year and bringing in $250,000 in sales (Bear, 2) Eventually Ford and Williams managed to pay off both Meiggs' creditors and Godeffroy and Sillem, becoming the sole owners of the sawmills. Jerome Ford moved to Oakland in 1872 and his son, Chester, took over the Ford interests in the company. E.C. Williams and Chester Ford became partners in the re-christened Mendocino Lumber Company. In 1902 Chester Ford sold his share in the company to Captain Asa Simpson. Williams and Simpson remained the owners of Mendocino Lumber Company until its sale to Union Lumber Company in 1906. David Ryder summarizes the importance of the Mendocino saw mill in its various iterations:

It was lumber from the Mendocino Saw Mills (later re-named the Mendocino Lumber Company), that helped materially to rebuild San Francisco after its many conflagrations in the [1850s]. It was the Mendocino Saw Mills that had what is claimed to have been the first railroad in California—a mile of track over which oxen pulled carloads of lumber from the mill up to the chute on the Point. It was the Mendocino Saw Mills that provided the first cargoes of lumber for the little two-masted schooners which became so much a part of the life and the history of the Mendocino Coast. And it was the Mendocino Saw Mills that founded the town of Mendocino and made it for years the most important shipping center and community on the whole Mendocino Coast. (Ryder, 57)

Ryder's summary mentions chutes and lumber schooners. Those, like Henry Meiggs, who were part of the pioneer timber industry in northern California needed a fast and efficient way to get lumber to San Francisco. There were no accessible roads, no railroads. Transportation had to be by sea. Meiggs built his sawmill on a promontory, called today the Mendocino Headlands. The problem Meiggs and others faced was, first, how to get a ship close to the coastline and, second, how to load lumber from a bluff— 75 ft or more high—to a ship below that at any moment could be carried by wind or sea swells onto jagged rocks or out to sea. This was dangerous, even life threatening, business. There were no harbors in Mendocino County, no breakwaters, no wharves—no such thing as "safe anchorage." In fact, the coast at Meiggs sawmill was nothing more than a shallow cove, often called a doghole because there was only room, the seamen said, for a dog to turn around and lie down.

The first part of the solution to the problem came from the design of the ship itself. The early Mendocino timber men used schooners that were shallow drafted, sitting high in the water and moving more surely over the submerged reefs. Because of the narrowness of the hull, however, cargo space was limited.The second part of the solution was to use an "apron chute" or adjustable slide to lower the lumber onto the deck of a ship. This technique is shown in the rare photograph above. Workers on the bluff slid the lumber, piece by piece, down to deck hands who "caught," packed, and lashed the lumber on the schooner .Sometimes the lumber was slid to a lighter, similar to a log raft, and then transferred to the ship (Jackson, 141). Around 1900, wire and steel cable was used to transfer a large load of lumber onto a ship in one swing.

The photograph below shows the lumber schooner, Ella Florence. The Mendocino Saw MIlls—later the Mendocino Lumber Company—was the owners of the Ella Florence. According to a database of the California State Lands Commission, the Ella Florence was stranded in 1868 off the coast of Mendocino and also parted its moorings there in 1872. The photograph supposedly documents that last incident. This may account for the team of oxen, barely visible in the center of the photo. Perhaps the oxen were there to pull some cargo off the ship resting on the sand.

At the San Francisco Maritime National Park, visitors will have an opportunity soon to see one of the old lumber schooners, the C.A. Thayer. Currently being restored, the Thayer was built in 1895 in a northern California shipyard. With a deck length of about 156 ft and a depth of 11.38 ft, the Thayer is typical of the small ships that carried redwood along the northern coast to San Francisco. Her cargo capacity was 575,000 board feet, about the equivalent of ten railroad cars. Manning the ship was generally a crew of about eight or nine men. They lived and slept in the forward part of the bow in conditions that would seem cramped even to an experienced submariner.


Photo Credits

First sawmill from Robert J. Lee Collection (Ukiah).

Lumber schooner photo from Robert J. Lee Collection (Ukiah).

Secondary Sources

Bear, Dorothy and Beth Stebbins. Menodcino: Book Two, Gulf Press: Privately printed, 1977.

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

Ryder, David Warren. Memories of the Mendocino Coast, San Francisco, CA: Privately Printed, 1948.

Mendocino County Historical Society (MCHS). Mills of Mendocino County: A Record of the Lumber Industry (1852-1996), 1996.

Williams, Edward C. "The First Redwood Operations in California." Pioneer Western Lumberman 58 (July 1912): 9-13.



 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California