timber pioneers at Rockport, California were not far removed
from the early pioneers that opened the American West. Their
task ahead— logging giant redwood trees from mountain
slopes and shipping them from a lonesome rock in a threatening
sea—seemed impossible, as often did their own survival.
Hardships, discoveries, ingenuity, determination—this
was all just part of the "pioneer spirit." The man
who took up the challenge of building the first sawmill at
Rockport was William Ramsey Miller.
Born in Scotland on May 2,
1832, Miller emigrated to the United States at the age of
24. Within two years, he was a new California resident. In
the early years, he described himself as a merchant; though
later he would become a "lumberman." Just about
the time that he was embarking for Rockport, a reporter interviewed
Miller and described him as "a man of great energy, polite,
and very hospitable" (Douglass, p. 78). He and his wife
had lost their first child, Ida Florence, in 1874 when she
was 7 years old; a second daughter, Henrietta, was born in
1873 (Douglass, p. 78). His last child, William David, would
be born in 1879 and grow up in Rockport (Douglass 129).
1876, the schooner David and Edward set sail for
northern California with the mill machinery on board. Rather
inauspiciously, the ship ran aground on the beach. However,
for now, the damage to the equipment was minimal and work
on the new sawmill quickly got underway. With a double circular
saw, edger, and planer, the new mill had a daily capacity
of 20,000 board feet. One of the outstanding features at the
mill site was a 270 ft suspension
bridge, built in
1877 by Pacific Bridge Company of San Francisco—likely,
at the time, the longest suspension bridge on the California
coast. The bridge reached from the shore to a small islet
in the ocean—sometimes referred to as Pelican Island.
The mill shipped its first consignment of lumber on October
9, 1877—140,00 ft. (MB 13 Oct 1877). Less than
two months later, the bridge was battered by a severe storm.
The Mendocino Beacon reports on December 1, 1877
that a bridge brace was knocked out, lumber piled on the bridge
was washed away, and "a house and about 8,000 feet of
lumber" on the "island rock" were carried out
In addition to
the suspension bridge, there was an apron chute—so called
because it resembled a woman's apron held out by its lower
corners—projecting from the southern end of the islet.
A half-mile tramway ran from the mill over the bridge and
across the isle to the chute. Lumber was lowered from chute
to an awaiting ship. All this equipment was, as one researcher
has said, "an astounding financial and technological
investment for a redwood coast sawmill" (Douglass, p.
Another interesting feature of
the sawmill operations was the large mill pond for collecting
and sorting logs. Apparently, the pond was created by damming
Cottoneva Creek and extended for about half a mile to a depth
of 12 or 13 feet:
mill will start up shortly; they have about 2,000 logs
barked and sawed, and thirteen men employed. At this place
they have a substantial dam that backs water about 800
or 900 yards, drawing 12 or 13 feet of water that distance.
During the storm [MB, 1 Dec 1877] the wire suspension
bridge here received a severe test as to its solidity.
The spray flew all over it without effect. Travel to this
place by land is out of the question just now. There is
no wagon road, and this is a matter that should be looked
after, as the place is gradually being settled and a mere
trail over the mountains to connect with a wagon road
will not answer the wants of the community.
As early as 1876, a William McGowan
and John Crranston were raising and experimenting with salmon;
they planned to build a hatchery near the Cottoneva Creek
that ran alongside MIller's sawmill and opened into the ocean.
Noting this in his report, the Rockport correspondent, nicknamed
"Wanderer," also boasted in the Mendocino Beacon
(10 Dec 1879) about the Miller sawmill and suspension bridge,
and the fact that a new hotel was about to be built near the
original residence of L. Dodge, supposedly the first "white
settler" at Cottoneva Creek about 1863.
knows, but that one day is not far distant when we may
have such a things as a post and express office right
in the town of Rockport. One thing we can boast of,
and that is, of having as fine a saw mill and suspension
bridge as can be found on the coast; and the oceans
of fine timber to back it; we are also blessed with
the go-ahead kind of men to carry on and make business.
John Cranston and Wm.
McGowan will, we understand, soon commence the erection
of a large fish and salmon hatching house near the mouth
of Cottoneva Creek; they have been experimenting in
raising and propagating salmon for the last three years,
and are well satisfied that is will prove a remunerative
business. Mr Gowan has taken a lot of salmon eggs East
with him (where he has gone on a visit) for gratuitous
distribution, as he is well satisfied they will flourish
in Canadian waters. They (Mr. McGowan and Cranston)
also contemplate the erection of a fine hotel on or
near the residence of L. Dodge, where Mr. McGowan will
continue the practice of his profession of Dentistry.
...All we want now is a wagon road to Westport to make
us happy and to give us wagon communication with the
Miller generally employed Chinese laborers at the mill, the
only mill on the Mendocino coast that did so "almost
exclusively" (Brinzing as cited in Douglass 128). What
makes this remarkable is that, since the influx of Chinese
into California during the Gold Rush, there were threats,
violence, even riots against Chinese workers, as well as discriminatory
legislation. In 1860, for example, California passed a law
that forbade Chinese-American children to attend public schools.
The Naturalization Act of 1870 excluded Chinese immigrants
from becoming US citizens and the Chinese Exclusion Act of
1882 prohibited Chinese laborers, both skilled and unskilled,
from entering the United States. It was not until 1943, in
fact, that the Magnuson
Act repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The
Chinese that worked in the early lumber camps were usually
cooks or laborers. Some were used as "water slingers"
with bull team operations. The water slinger went ahead and
wet the "skids" to lessen friction on the rolling
logs and make it easier for the bull team to pull the load.
He would also "grease the skids" with tallow on
the level sections of the road. A census shows that 25 Chinese
laborers worked at Rockport in 1880. According to Robert Douglass,
who has researched Miller's life, "Chinese workers may
have operated some of the mill machinery" (Douglass 128-9).
Douglass' conclusion is based on the fact that apart from
an engineer named Allen Pollard, there are no EuroAmericans
listed at Rockport with definite sawmill jobs. Miller likely
used the Chinese workers to save cost. Rockport's physical
isolation could offer Miller some isolation from public criticism
and reprisal as well.
As a result of
poor health and likely depleting woods, Miller sold his Rockport
holdings in 1886 to a group of investors. After the sale,
Miller and his family traveled to Santa Cruz to spend the
summer. On June 10, 1887, Miller, having spent the previous
night at a dance in Santa Cruz, died in the early hours of
the morning of heart failure at age 55.
Rockport Suspension Bridge. Robert J. Lee
Collection, Ukiah, CA.
Apron Chute. RobertJ.
Lee Collection, Held-Poage Research Library,
Rockport Mill and Mill Pond c. late 1890s.
Robert J. Lee Collection, Ukiah, CA.
Company Records, BANC MSS 70/184 c, The Bancroft Library (Berkeley,
Robert G. Douglass. "The
Sawmill in Miller Gulch: History and Archaeology on the Redwood
Coast." Master's Thesis, Sonoma State University, 2002.
(microfilm) . Held-Poage Research Library (Ukiah). Vol. 1,
No. 2, p. 3.