Mendocino Redwood Company

Roads to Destiny

Technology proceeds apace, delivering the marvels that knit our world together . . .
[like] the "information highway" that will soon enable all of us to retrieve information and
communicate with one another in ways so instant and complete that
they would dazzle those who built the Roman roads, the first great information system.

Thomas Cahill

The road to success is always under construction.
Lily Tomlin

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

The joke is an old one. Lost, a driver stops his car at the side of a country road and asks a farmer, walking some cows to pasture, how to get to his destination. After many verbal starts and stops, the farmer scratches his head and says, “Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here!” In actual fact, history has largely been the story of how individuals and societies, often relentlessly, sometimes unexpectedly, got from here to there.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, our perceptions of distance have been altered by air travel, wireless cell phones, television, the Internet, email, space shuttles, space telescopes, and other technological advances that shrink our world and even our universe. Cisco Systems, a leading player in computer and communication networking, welcomes all of us to “a network where being here is being there.” In view of all this new global connectivity, we often take for granted the achievements of earlier times and technologies that underpin our modern world. For most of human history, it was simply roads that brought us together, foot by foot, mile by mile.

The earliest evidence of constructed roads dates to about 4000 BC in the stone paved streets of the ancient city of Ur in present-day Iraq. From its dawning, civilization has been built around roads and empires around road networks. What has become a proverb was once a truism for Western civilization: “All roads lead to Rome.” Master engineers of the ancient world, the Romans built over 53,000 miles of roads, primarily to support their military and political operations. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there were, as of 2005, a total of 46,608 miles in the entire U.S. Interstate Highway System—a fact that underscores how amazing the Roman feat actually was.

From ancient times, roads were simply an engineering solution to the problem of bringing humanity together, exerting political control, moving armies, promoting trade, extracting natural resources, and transporting people and materials. Now, worldwide, roads are sometimes perceived as a threat—to fragile ecosystems, to historical preservation, and to human civility. Inevitably, as the human enterprise expands over the earth, there are those who applaud the human gains and those who grieve the environmental losses, often in the same breath. The term that economist Joseph Schumpeter applied to entrepreneurs, "creative destroyers," could also, in some sense, describe engineers and architects, or scientists and artists. In the end, individuals and societies decide whether the value created by human initiative justifies the value destroyed, judgments that often change with time.

Clearly, though, without logging roads, the timber industry, which played a major role in the development of Mendocino County, would have stopped within eyeshot of the north coast. On Mendocino Redwood Company land alone, there are about 2400 miles of logging roads. Still visible today, the old dirt and gravel logging roads of Mendocino County attract hikers, bikers, and some Sunday drivers, although one travel guide warns northern California tourists that only the boldest drivers “would dare to tempt fate and test these logging roads” often with “thousands of feet of nothing” at your side. One can almost hear in the background a Paul Simon chorus: “You know the nearer your destination/The more you're slip-sliding away.”

Masonite Road is an exception to this image of narrow, unpaved, even treacherous logging roads. Winding approximately 36 miles from Ukiah to Highway 128 near the Mendocino coast, Masonite Road was started in June 1948 and completed about 15 months later to the tune of $4,130,000. At the time of its construction, Masonite Road was "one of the biggest private road projects on record" (The Redwood Journal, November 1, 1948). According to Charles Marston, a consulting engineer for Masonite, the road did not follow the most direct route to the coast. That was not its intent. Instead, its twists and turns enabled loggers to reach deep into thousands of acres of redwood old growth as crews and machinery gnawed their way through one of Mendocino County’s last remnants of wilderness. Several million cubic yards of earth and rock were excavated during the construction of Masonite Road. The excavation did not simply cut a path through a dense forest but created a road grade that was safe for log hauling. If a grade is too steep, a trucker must brake going downhill and chug going uphill. Road grading entails filling in gulches and leveling out hills. As a result of the bulldozers and the steam shovels, grading on Masonite Road fell within the “good” range for hauling. Eastbound the road had a maximum grade of 6%; westbound, 8%. The picture below shows the extent of earth-moving typically needed to achieve these grades.

Construction of Masonite Road actually began in two directionssimultaneously—from the west and from the east. On the western end, there was Navarro Camp with cabins for the workers within a half mile or less of Highway 128. On the eastern end, Low Gap Camp provided tents for the workers. Workers at the Low Gap Camp likely received supplies via an old Indian trail, later known as the ranch road, Windy Gap (Sweeley).

The Low Gap construction crew did not break ground at the Ukiah terminus of the Masonite Road but several miles further west. It was not until February 9, 1949, that “a new steam shovel was set up at the junction of the Orr Springs road three miles west of Ukiah and bulldozers broke the first ground” to connect Ukiah with the rest of the construction (The Redwood Journal, February 10, 1949).

Finally on July 14, 1949, the power shovels of the Low Gap and Navarro crews faced off as they met close to Wholy’s Pass, named after the general manager of Masonite Corporation, E.T.F. Wohlenberg. Two months later, Masonite Corporation had its completed logging road. Not until 1952 was Masonite Road oiled and sealed, taking on the hard-top surface that is familiar to local residents today (Ukiah Daily Journal, March 11, 2001). Shortly after the completion of Masonite Road, an article in the Humboldt Times (September 3, 1950) touted the construction of the “super” logging road and its benefits to the off-highway trucker.

The road cuts through hills and along the sides of mountains. It was built by Utah Construction company which had to move more than five million cubic yards of earth and rock. Several cuts exceed 60 feet in depth and one gulch is crossed by a fill 84 feet high on the center line. No bridges are used and some steel culverts are nine feet in diameter. The roadway is 40 feet wide with a 30-foot finished surface of gravel twelve inches thick. Calcium chloride will be used to lay the dust. The road has been described as a ‘trucker’s dream’ and permits loads of more than 20,000 board feet, compared with the highway maximum of 5000 board feet per load. The highway width limit for the bunks on which logs are laid is eight feet but ten and twelve foot bunks are used on Masonite’s private road. Trucks operating on the private road are not required to pay a license or a gas tax.

In the construction of Masonite Road, several million board feet of right-of-way trees were felled. Road crews cleared not only Masonite timber stands but those of other cooperative land owners like the Standish and Hickey Company and the Union Lumber Company (The Redwood Journal, March 29, 1948). On October 4, 1949, the first load of logs—100,000 pounds of right-a-way logs—made a 27.5 mile trip over Masonite Road from the Navarro River to the Masonite plant north of Ukiah in 1 hour and 20 minutes (Redwood Journal Press, October 5,1949). The Douglas-fir and redwood logs onboard were not the "giants" that were to follow. Later that month the Redwood Journal Press (October 24, 1949) would report the first "he-man load"—approximately 100 tons—to traverse Masonite Road for its destination at the Hollow Tree Lumber Company in Ukiah.. The weight of the logs, the truck, and the rigging was about 250,000 pounds in total.

Less than a year after this big haul, Jack Sweeley joined Masonite Corporation in July 1950 as a young forester out of University of California (Berkeley). More than 30 years later, he retired as chief forester of Masonite Corporation. In 2006, while tearing down a shed at his home in Ukiah, Sweeley discovered the historic photograph shown in the 1949 news article. At an interview in the MRC Forestry Office in January 2007, Sweeley, with the experienced eye of an oldtime forester, recounted details about the photo that a casual observer would overlook ( wm 5.7MB)

As interesting as the construction details of Masonite Road may be, so also is the history behind its construction. Masonite Road owed its existence to three companies each of which was a leader in its own industry—Southern Pacific Railroad, Masonite Corporation, and Utah Construction Company. Find out more.

Author: DMS


Theron Brown shared with Mendocino Redwood Company, in January 2007, photos of the Masonite Road construction that he obtained from the Stewart Library at Weber State University in Utah. Stewart Library, in turn, gave MRC permission to use the photos for our history web site

Secondary Sources

Baldo, Chris and Theron Brown. The Masonite Road: The Creation of a Resource. Willits, CA: Roots of Motive Power, December 2006.

Sweeley, Jack. Interview at MRC Forestry Office (Ukiah, CA), January 12, 2007.

The Humboldt Times was founded in Eureka, CA in 1854, underwent later name changes, and finally merged in 1967 with the Humboldt Standard. Archived copies of The Humboldt Times are at Humboldt State Univesity. Some articles from The Humboldt Times related to the Masonite Road are on file at Held-Poage Memorial Home and Research Library in Ukiah, CA.

The Redwood Journal was founded in 1860 as a weekly publication. Known as the The Redwood Journal until 1954, it eventually became, after other interim name changes, the Ukiah Daily Journal. Archived copies of  The Redwood Journal and the Ukiah Daily Journal are at the Held-Poage Memorial Home and Research Library in Ukiah, CA.


Video interview of Jack Sweeley, MRC Ukiah Forestry Office, 12 January 2007, conducted by Doris M. Schoenhoff and Roger Krueger


 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California