History of Lumber Mills in Humboldt County, California

Lumber mill in Humboldt.
Lumber mill in Humboldt. (Image: DC Productions/Photodisc/Getty Images)

In the mid-1800s, European settlers in the center of Northern California's Redwood Coast realized the potential value of the area's seemingly unlimited supply of redwood trees. As they began harvesting the trees, lumber mills sprang up across Humboldt county in towns like Eureka, Fortuna, Ferndale, Scotia, Sanoa and Arcata. Though the milling boom is now a thing of the past, a few remaining lumber mills continue to manufacture redwood and spruce.

The Early Days

The first successful mill in Humboldt County opened in 1852. James T. Ryan and James Duff shipped their sawmill machinery from San Francisco aboard a steamer. As the ship entered Humboldt Bay, some of the sawmill equipment fell overboard. The two men drove the ship aground and attached it to a sawmill they built on the beach. Soon, the mill was sawing spruce, fir, pine and -- a few years later -- redwood. In 1854, William Carson began to operate the Hula Mill. He would soon ship 20,000 feet of redwood lumber to San Francisco. There, the rot-resistant wood became a commercial success, commanding premium prices.

Off and Running

By the mid-1850's, lumber mills sprang up around Humboldt Bay as lumber schooners carried redwood up and down the coast. By 1854, nine mills operated on Humboldt Bay. Several mill owners formed the Humboldt Lumber & Manufacturing Company and shipped more than 20 million feet of lumber in 1854. When several customers neglected to pay their redwood bills, this forced several of the company's mills to suspend operations. It took years for Humboldt Lumber to recover these lost profits.

Redwood Gold

By 1860, Humboldt County ranked second in the state for lumber production, sawing 30 million feet a year. To meet the fast growing demand for redwood, most of the county's lumber mills dotted the shores of Humboldt Bay. There they could mill, load and ship the redwood, spruce, fir and cedar. Many of the lumber mills were custom built, featuring stronger frames and longer saws able to cut the larger redwood trees.

Milling Boom

By 1914, 11 large lumber mills operated in Humboldt County. Together, they possessed enough combined sawing power to cut 1.5 million feet of lumber per day, or about 450 million feet of lumber a year. In Samoa, the Hammond Lumber Company's sawmill was the largest in Humboldt County in the early 1900's. During World War I, the complex was converted into a shipyard where seven wooden steamships were built.

The Ghost of Falk

Founded in 1854, the Elk River Lumber Company once employed 400 workers, lending prosperity to the town of Falk for about 50 years.The remote but self-sufficient town was closed off from much of the surrounding area. It took an hour to reach nearby Eureka by stagecoach. The town had its own cookhouse, post office, houses, general store and dance hall. The company town revolved around the bustling lumber mill that supported the families of the men who worked in this isolated site. During the Great Depression, the mill shut its doors, and Falk becme a ghost town by the 1950's. In 1979, the abandoned town was razed by the Sierra Pacific Lumber Company.

The Pacific Lumber Company Mill

The Pacific Lumber Company Mill in Scotia, California, was once the world's largest redwood mill. Founded in 1863, Pacific Lumber once employed 1,600 workers. It also owned the world's largest privately owned ancient redwood groves. In the 1920's, Pacific Lumber pioneered sustainable forestry practices -- it never cut more lumber than it could replant. For generations, this practice kept the company's mills buzzing, employee jobs secure and profits steady. This changed in 1986, when Maxxam Corporation launched a hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber. Pacific Lumber folded in 2007 into into the Humboldt Redwood Company, which runs a scaled back milling operation in Scotia.

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