Mendocino Redwood Company


Miller Sawmill

The 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).

In October, 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 to sea.

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. 127).

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:

Mendocino Beacon January 26, 1878
The Cottoneva 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.

Mendocino Beacon December 20, 1879

...who 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 outside world.

Interestingly, 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.



Photo Credits

Rockport Suspension Bridge. Robert J. Lee Collection, Ukiah, CA.

Apron Chute. RobertJ. Lee Collection, Held-Poage Research Library, Ukiah, CA.

Rockport Mill and Mill Pond c. late 1890s. Robert J. Lee Collection, Ukiah, CA.

Primary Sources

Rockport Redwood Company Records, BANC MSS 70/184 c, The Bancroft Library (Berkeley, California).

Secondary Sources

Robert G. Douglass. "The Sawmill in Miller Gulch: History and Archaeology on the Redwood Coast." Master's Thesis, Sonoma State University, 2002.

Mendocino Beacon (microfilm) . Held-Poage Research Library (Ukiah). Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 3.



 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California