Like most history books, right?
With the able help of Randy Stemler (Randy acted as his “eyes” for research, as Buck is blind), George “Buck” Miner put together this unique view of the Mattole Valley’s history, published in 1996.

By answering the question, “What’s in a name?” Buck manages to bring you dozens of stories bringing to life the various landmarks–creeks, rocks, settlement sites, hollows, hilltops, etc.–that define the Mattole. The vehicle for his exploration is the fictional salmon, Henrietta, who is making her laborious way upstream to the headwaters to spawn, noticing each point of interest along the way.

One of the book’s features I often consult is the map of creeks, some of them adorned with old-timer’s names which are not the same as what you find on the official topo maps. The volume is attractive and easy to read, and was not considered print-ready until reviewed by several people with perfectionist attitudes. (The front cover was drawn by yours truly; later the colored-pencil drawing was used by Ken Young as the basis for the front of the Petol silver coin line.)

As you might expect, the account is punctuated with Buck’s signature humor–often corny, but completely in tune with the simple country-western motif he embraces. For a book that carries this light, often comical approach, and is not a scholarly tome, it yet offers a welcome bounty of information from angles you won’t find anywhere else.


Here is what Buck wrote in his notes introducing his first widely-read book:

Thank you for purchasing my first book.  As you delve into these pages, don’t expect the usual dull and boring accounts which most history books contain.

     As a lad, I dozed during most history lessons.  I decided that if I were ever to write about history,  I would attempt to enliven the past with humorous anecdotal tales that could be enjoyed, page by page, while encountering historical facts.
     My ancestors came west in 1868, bringing the first covered wagons into the Mattole Valley of Northern California.  I have lived in the middle Mattole for more than seventy years, and still believe there is no finer place on this planet to hang your hat.
     My acknowledgments are simple.  If I were to follow the format of the average manuscript, I would list each person who contributed to this work.  Fearing that I may leave someone out, I left you all out!  Seriously though, I do appreciate each and every one of the several hundred contributors who welcomed me into their homes or talked with me on the phone or by letter.  So many of these helpful people, believing that I was making a social call, soon found that I was rooting through the dusty back shelves of their memories.
     I approached Martha Roscoe (Mattole’s premiere historian) with the idea for this book in the seventies, and she was delighted.  She contributed much to these pages.  My sincere wish is that in a century or two, when new entrants come to dwell here in the Mattole watershed, and wonder about the origin of particular names for landmarks, they can pull this book from some dusty shelf and have that curiosity satisfied.
     If you find I have overlooked your pet name for some ridge, creek or gully, I have a forgivable reason for the omission.  I probably never had the opportunity to visit with you.  I have dealt mainly with the standard maps of the area, but I have also included memorabilia never documented on any maps.  You can refer to your map provided in this book for general orientation and locations of most of the creeks and ridges mentioned.

     I’ve striven to make this an affordable manuscript and my sincere hope is that I have provided something worthwhile for posterity.  Now it’s time to move along to Chapter One.

Buck now lives (and I mean lives; he hasn’t slowed down!) in Sun City, Arizona. He will be 95 years old on June 9.

Please contact me, Laura, at mattolehistory@frontiernet.net if you can’t find a copy of this book online, and I think I can find one for you.

This is the simplest blog post I have ever made… I am giving you a link to another article.

Today, Julie Clark of the BLM, who is researching the history of the Punta Gorda lighthouse and many other aspects of the King Range National Conservation area in a project associated with its 50th anniversary celebration, reminded me of this story. Since I just watched the 2019 movie The Lighthouse on a Netflix DVD the other night, I looked at the photographs and information in this essay with renewed interest. (By the way, the photography and the re-creations of a lonely light station off the Nova Scotia coast in that movie were fantastic; I cannot as heartily recommend the entire movie, unless you like a lot of insane violence and gore. Which you might; many people loved the film. I just loved the look and mood of the place.)

About four years ago, I gave Tim Harrison, editor of the Lighthouse Digest, some information and pictures to help him out with this thorough history of our closest local light station. I was very happy with the way the article turned out, and proud to have been involved; also, glad to see my friend Ron Hagg’s photo on the next-to-last page, and the contributions of author Jan Mattson also mentioned (Jan is the author of California Light Stations and other guides to navigation, c. 1950, and California Lighthouse Keepers; long-time members of the MVHS may remember a talk and slideshow the San Diego-area gentleman presented at the Mattole Grange almost two decades back).

Perhaps in these days of only getting out to put a lot of distance between yourself and other humans, a walk down the spacious beach, 3.2 miles from the mouth of the Mattole parking lot to the site of the old Punta Gorda station, would feel rewarding and healthy. You will probably see some impressive sea mammals along the way.

Here is the article by Timothy Harrison; enjoy:

Click to access puntagorda.pdf

Approaching the light station from the north.
Photo from the Day collection, via Jan Mattson.

by Nicole Log. The blog host insists on the Laura byline, but this is Nicole’s work.

from Now… and Then #37, Autumn, 2015

Nicole Log was a Humboldt State University student when she wrote an award-winning paper, excerpted and edited below, called “Black Gold: The Doomed Oil Industry of the Mattole Valley.”
Nicole’s mother is the 2nd Great Granddaughter of early settler Charles A. Johnston. Johnston was an undaunted advocate of later oil exploration in the Valley, and encouraged many an investor and driller here in the 1890s through the early 20th century. In the conclusion to Nicole’s paper, below, she focuses on the social and economic factors that led to the retreat of the oil extraction business from the Valley after the great excitement of the mid-1860s.


It is likely that the elimination and removal of nearly all of the native people in the region–what we recognize today as the horror of genocide–made the area more conducive to the oil boom. The warring and battling which occurred from 1858 until 1864 between the early settlers and the natives likely discouraged and intimidated white prospectors from settling in such an isolated region. Wells had been drilled as early as 1861, yet the industry remained stagnant until 1864 when investors’ interests were suddenly piqued. The Mattole Mining District was formed in 1864, almost immediately after the final natives were either removed from the region or exterminated, and soon business was flourishing. Once investors realized that the Indian threat had been “put down,” they likely decided that it was time to begin development of the industry. It was a tragedy of unknowable dimensions to the native inhabitants of the Mattole and Bear River areas, one unfortunately repeated in different forms all over the continent. While it’s doubtful the fate of the original residents would have been much different without the discovery of oil, it did accelerate the genocide.

However, those five years of delay proved to be significant. Pennsylvania struck oil in 1859, around the same time that Mattole first discovered theirs. While the Mattole industry was delayed, Pennsylvania was given five years to establish itself in the industry and implement more effective drilling, extraction, refining and transportation methods. By the time the Mattole region began producing oil, Pennsylvania was exporting barrels in such large quantities that the price per barrel had plummeted, leaving the Mattole region with an industry that simply was not cost efficient.

One stumbling block for the industry involved the legitimacy of land titles in the region. After investing in the vast expenditures of purchasing equipment to extract and transport the oil through the winding mountain roads of the Mattole Valley, many discovered that they did not hold clear title to the lands on which they were drilling. When the settlers first arrived in the area, many bought preemptive claims, either through school or soldier’s warrants or by buying land from other settlers who had claimed the property, but did not actually hold the title. Once oil was discovered, the clerk at the land office in Eureka reported the discoveries to the Commissioner in Washington, D.C., and inquired as to what he should do about the titles.

Government officials took some time to respond, then shocked the oil companies by withdrawing all questionable oil lands and holding them as “mineral land,” giving the government sole control of the majority of the oil-bearing land in the region until a decision could be reached on the matter. [Marvin Shepherd, The Sea Captain’s Odyssey, 178.] Special messengers were sent throughout California from San Francisco, through Sacramento and Weaverville, and eventually to Mattole with orders to stop all work immediately. [California State Mining Bureau, Annual Report of the State Mineralogist for the Year…, Issues 6-7 (California, State Office; 1886), 199.] After much deliberation, in spite of Representatives suggesting that the government seize the mineral lands and work them for the benefit of the treasury to pay off mounting war debts, Congress passed a law instructing courts to ignore federal ownership of lands and defer to the miners in possession of the grounds. [“Origin of our mining laws,” Mining & Scientific Press, 23 Sept. 1905, 203.]

On 26 July 1866, Congress passed legislation H.R. 365, also known as “Chaffee’s Law,” which granted the right of way “to ditch and canal owners over the public lands in the states of California, Oregon, and Nevada.” Contained within this legislation was the declaration that “the mineral lands of the public domain, both surveyed and unsurveyed, are hereby declared to be free and open to exploration and occupation by all citizens of the United States.” While this amendment returned the rights of the mineral lands in question to the landowners, almost a year of inactivity had passed on the lands in question. Prospectors and shareholders who had invested prior to the initial withdrawal of the mineral lands had already withdrawn their investments, thus leading to the further decline of the industry in the region.

Another significant factor involved competition. The Mattole Valley simply could not compete with Pennsylvania’s oil industry, which, as mentioned above, was already booming when oil was first discovered in the Mattole. By February of 1865, near the height of the oil boom in Mattole, Pennsylvania was reported to have had over 40,000 barrels of oil awaiting exportation. [Richard Senges, “The Oil Creek Railroad Company,” last modified 2011, http://www.oilcreekrailroad.com/history.html .]

The quantity of oil, combined with the ease of extraction in the Pennsylvania region, meant that the oil from Pennsylvania could be sold at a much lower price than the oil from the Mattole region. In addition, the oil market was unstable and fluctuated wildly. According to an article written about John D. Rockefeller and the Pennsylvania oil boom in 1862, the price of oil dropped in a short time from around four dollars per barrel to a mere thirty-five cents per barrel. [Burton W. Folsom, Jr., “John D. Rockefeller and the Oil Industry,” The Freeman, 38, no. 10 (Oct. 1988): 403.] This was likely due to the overproduction of oil in Pennsylvania and the development of promising new sources, such as the Mattole Valley. As mentioned earlier, this abundance of oil and its effects on the falling price per barrel likely contributed to the decline of Mattole’s industry. However, when President Lincoln later requested oil for use in the war efforts, the price skyrocketed to $13.75 per barrel. [Folsom, “John D. Rockefeller….” 403.] This inconsistency within the market left entrepreneurs wary of investing their money in such an unstable industry.

Probably the largest blow to the industry, however, was simply that the wells in the Mattole Valley were too dry to create a long-term cost-efficient industry. The geological structure of the region is said to contain too much shale and tends to fracture too easily to hold large, clean pools of oil. Because of this, the small quantity of oil exhumed from these shallow pools did not cover the cost of the extraction, transportation and refining of the oil. Oftentimes, more oil was wasted than was sold, as extraction, especially manual extraction which was often utilized in the Mattole Valley during this time, was complicated and messy. Oil would drain into the rivers and streams, and the surrounding fields often glistened with spilled petroleum.

Later decades marked brief periods of renewed hope for the oil industry in the Mattole Valley.  Additional short-lived oil booms in the region occurred in 1889, 1900, 1907, 1921 and 1953, but none ever came to fruition. Likewise, the excitement and optimism of the first oil boom in the region is unparalleled. At the peak of that 1860s oil boom, at least fifty-four oil companies had been created with the intention of drilling in the Mattole Valley, all of which eventually went out of business. [Ray Raphael and Freeman House, Two Peoples, One Place (Eureka, CA: HCHS, 2007),194.] Transportation to the area did improve, though far too late to be useful to the first oil boom. The Eel River to Petrolia road was completed in 1869, and the Centerville to Mattole road in 1875, both long after the initial oil boom had come to an end. [Shepherd, The Sea Captain’s Odyssey, 177-178.] In the late 1880s, Chinese migrant workers were brought in to complete the road, after which it was given the appropriately titled name, “Wildcat Road.” [Ferndale Enterprise Souvenir Edition, “The Wildcat Ride,” http: //sunnyfortuna.com/ explore/ wildcat.htm .] With the consistent increase in the price of oil, future prospects in the region may prove worthwhile as more expensive drilling practices may reap larger returns. For now, however, the valley remains a peaceful, secluded coastal community, known primarily for its wild and remote beaches, hiking and scenic countryside.


This photo was found by Paul Smith (son of Ron & Arleen Smith of Ferndale) on eBay, with no identifying information other than what we can see. If you have any idea of the location or who ‘Dad’ might have been in 1919, please be in touch via the comments! Thanks to Paul Smith for photo permission.

oil rig 1919 petrolia2of2,frPaulSmith

Today’s post is part of my slowly ongoing effort to republish, online and available for researchers’ use, articles from our Mattole Valley Historical Society archives that may be of interest to distant historians, students, and aficionados of all things Mattole. This lengthy entry is a slightly edited version of the article called “Oil Dream Creates Petrolia in Lower Mattole,” from the Now… and Then  newsletter of Summer, 2004 (Vol. 6, n.1). It omits the original introduction regarding the first Euro-American settlers of the area, beginning instead with their first awareness of the petroleum deposits beneath their feet, and their hopes for the commercial potential therein.

An oil well, location unknown, in the Mattole Valley.
From the Mary Rackliff Etter collection.

Oil seeps into the picture

        The discovery and export of oil and related products changed more than the location of Lower Mattole’s business and population center; it is difficult to overstate the impact of its promise on the course of history here. If you can believe that the proposed name for the town was Petroleum, that there was a settlement in the Valley known as Oil City, and that the legal name for the U.S. Post Office at Bear River was Gas Jet, you can perhaps imagine the future those oil enthusiasts would have provided for us if they could have.

The first mention of oil deposits in the local newspapers was made in 1859, when the Humboldt Times announced that petroleum springs, seeping “rock oil,” had been found both at Bear River and five miles down the coast from Cape Mendocino. (Credit must be given to Owen C. Coy for his history, The Humboldt Bay Region, 1850-1875. I am basing much of this general information about the oil boom on his research. When I credit HT, I am referring to the Humboldt Times. This first reference to petroleum in the area is from HT, June 25 and Nov. 19, 1859.)

To the wider world, the exciting news was given on February 1, 1861, in  The Sonoma Journal and Mining Press. According to Coy, outside interests then invested $10,000 for the right to drill on the property of J.A. Davis near Cape Mendocino. Their efforts must not have been fruitful, for there is little more mention of oil until the Mattole Mining District was formed in November of 1864. The District drew up boundaries for a jurisdiction in which members’ rules would apply; the rules are ten articles regulating staking of claims (one-quarter section, or 160 acres, in  a square body, to be posted then registered in the Recorder’s Office with boundaries described, within 20 days of claiming; landowners’ fruit trees or other agricultural improvements should not be destroyed, etc.). Other Districts were formed rapidly thereafter, following much the same guidelines. Soon the entire Valley, and indeed, much of Humboldt County, was included in Mining District descriptions.

In the order they are found mentioned in a chronological scanning of the Times for 1865, and also in Coy’s book and other sources described below, the Mattole-area Districts were:

–Mattole Mining District

–Walker District

–Pennsylvania  ”  ”

–Upper Mattole  ”  ”

–Shelter Cove  ”  ”

–Mendocino  ”  ”

–Bear River  ”  ”

Now, these Districts were more like self-protecting and self-regulating associations, rather than actual business enterprises. The first of the successful operators was the Union Mattole Co., incorporated in March, 1865; it owned a square mile where its most successful well was drilled in Sections 30 and 31 of  T1S, R1W, about four miles southeast of the Joel Flat enterprise. Another, incorporated in May of 1865, was the Jeffrey Company. The Oil Creek Petroleum Company is noted in July, as are the Stansberry Petroleum Mining Co. and the Grissim and Walker Petroleum Co.; the Main Mattole River Petroleum Company was incorporated in August; and the Mattole Valley Oil Mining Co. also in August of 1865.

The wells themselves were as often mentioned as the corporations who owned them. McNutt’s Oil Spring, which is either the same as or very close to the Sutter and Allen Well on the McNutt Claim, the Union Mattole Well, the Mattole Petroleum Company Well (northwest about two miles from the Union Mattole Well, and approaching Joel Flat); the Joel Flat or Henderson Well, the Erwin Davis Well, the Jeffrey Well, the Betts’ Farm Oil Well at Upper Mattole, the Hawley Farm Well, and the Cassin Farm Well all operated here in the Mattole watershed; several were moderately, that is, promisingly productive, and many were bored to a depth of over 400 feet.


1865 and J.W. Henderson

1865 was the year of spectacular hopes for oil wealth. The Mattole Valley Historical Society has recently been very lucky to obtain, in a wonderfully timely manner, surprise donations of documents key to that year’s affairs. First, Ferndale Books called with the offer of nine folders of original documents of incorporation for Mattole-area road companies and oil mining outfits. We are extremely grateful to Jere Bob Bowden, who called the papers and their relevance to the M.V.H.S.’s concerns to the attention to the Benemanns, and to Marilyn and Carlos Benemann, who gave them to our Society. Then, out of the blue, we got an e-mail from the great-great-grandson of James W. Henderson, offering us copies of his ancestor’s daily journal–beginning in the year 1865! We shall see the great interest and value of these records as our tale progresses; but it’s fair to say that our little town could just as well have been called “Henderson Center,” as was J.W. Henderson’s well-known neighborhood development endeavor in Eureka.

A few hours of research into the Humboldt Times  for that year, and many days at the Humboldt County Recorder’s Office, and now I believe we probably know enough about 1865 in the Mattole Valley to keep us happy for a little while.


Henderson’s journal is mainly a record of business transactions and travel; he rarely expresses an impractical thought. He was, according to Irvine’s 1915 History of Humboldt County, born in upstate New York in 1828. His father was of Scottish parentage, his mother born in Wales; both parents were devout Episcopalians. In 1849 James W. Henderson headed west, arriving at the gold fields effectively broke; but soon he had his starter chunk of gold, and discovered his knack for all manner of business–buying and selling of merchandise, horses, mules, etc. He carried the U.S. mail between San Francisco and Weaverville for several years, and in exploring northern California found Humboldt County agreeable. He pursued his Petrolia dream in 1865 while in the process of moving his family and household from Petaluma to Eureka.

Henderson was certainly a sharp trader; he at one time held upwards of 15,000 acres in Humboldt County. Yet he was not only a man well-respected for his wealth; he was admired for his public spirit. He gave back to the people, and his business endeavors were performed in the hope that his profit would be the community’s gain as well.

James W. Henderson’s journal entries may at first seem a little dry, but with careful inspection much can be gleaned. The prices quoted should be multiplied by twenty to thirty, except for land prices, which we can only wish were anything close to twenty times what he paid; and wages, which likewise are now inflated disproportionately to the twenty-thirty times increase in the price of, say, a bottle of whiskey for seventy-five cents, or overnight hotel stay for two or three dollars.

For instance, on January 1, Henderson writes, “Got an early start and expected to go to Mattole. Could not pass Salt River. Paid Hotel Bill–$2.50. Ferriage–$1.25. Grain & feed–$2.50. Stopped all night on the Island!” And on the next day, he relates, “Came to Mattole. Arrived after dark.”

Perhaps some of you don’t know Salt River. There’s still a sign for it as you drive toward Fernbridge from Ferndale; it’s a branch of the Eel, once navigable all the way up to Port Kenyon, that came so close back around to the main fork of the Eel (east of the present road) that the land between the watercourses was virtually an island. So Mr. Henderson had difficulties we would not likely experience today, what with ferrying across the Eel and being stranded on the Island; but still, making it all the way to Mattole the next day is not too shabby. Evidently horseback was the way to travel this country. In a later–September, 1867–entry, Henderson is working on the new road to the Cape Mendocino lighthouse, as well as assisting with the salvage of the Shubrick, down the coast below King’s Peak. He writes on Friday, “At the Cape [Mendocino] hauling… At 4 p.m. started for the wreck of Shurbrick and come to Petrolia where I spent the night. Went to (Justice) Conklin’s to make affidavit…”  and by the next day, Saturday, “came to the wreck at 11:30 a.m.” I don’t think I could get around any faster today.


The business of oil

        Henderson had some money and his business was putting that money to work. However, he didn’t take it too easy himself; he seemed quite driven by his mission. He worked with, and seemed to defer on business judgment calls to, a man named Parsons, who gets a street in Petrolia named for him. Variously an L. Parsons, a Sam Parsons, and a Dave Parsons appear in my computer-typed transcript; later research revealed this man to be Levi Parsons. Leigh Irvine’s book states that Thomas Scott, the Pennsylvania capitalist, sent Henderson $75,000 to invest in Humboldt County’s oil lands. “Scott and Parsons Lease” is applied to several squares of the 1865 map in this area; it looks like Parsons was a sort of middleman between Thomas Scott and James Henderson. Reading the journal shows you men busy scouting out and procuring oil-bearing lands here, and generally making investments in the area that would be boosted in value by oil production.  A railroad manager and tycoon named George Noble was involved in Henderson’s business as well, but the player I would like to know more about is the man behind the initials RHB on Doolittle’s 1865 map of Humboldt County. The Mattole and Bear River valleys are covered with squares bearing that designation, sometimes as “RHB Lease,” or “RHB L.” Nobody seemed to know what person or company the letters referenced; but J.W. Henderson mentions dealing with him several times, and in the Recorder’s Office, I found a slew of deeds to Rice H. Bartlett from various Mattole landowners. The papers granted RHB oil rights, usually for 1/4 section or 1/2 section pieces (160 or 320 acres), for anything from $2 to $5. I found over a dozen from the year 1865, for the lands of James Jeffery, Dennis McAuliffe, George Hill, Peter Mussen, Charles W. Gillette, L.W. Gillette–you get the picture; go over the map or the census and you will find the same names you find on these deeds giving RHB the right to explore for oil.

What was in it for the landowner? Five percent of the oil and /or the profits from the oil, if it was found. This 95%-5% split was almost universal. Once in a while a sharp trader would add or take away a provision; Peter Mussen makes a stipulation that boring must commence within 90 days of February 1, 1860, and that if oil is struck in paying quantities, $1000 in gold coin must be paid to the Grantor immediately. And while most of the deeds give RHB the right to take and use such wood and timber from the property as is necessary to make improvements enabling oil extraction, several people expressly withhold the wood rights. A few also exempt the few acres surrounding their homes from oil exploration.

So while I still haven’t gotten around to finding what big money backed Rice Bartlett, we can see what he was up to.  The language in each of the deeds is almost identical; the Recorder’s job must have been quite tedious that year. It specifies that Bartlett is purchasing rights to “All the oil and all the Petroleum, Naptha, Asphaltum, and other substances containing or producing oil, by whatever name they may properly be designated upon the tract of land…”; then the particular sections are given their legal surveyors’ descriptions. Also, there are “provisions for roads, railroads, wharves, landings, wells, tunnels, shafts, workshops, houses, buildings, machinery…” etc.

The 5% return to be given to the landowner will be minus the cost of processing, “if desired by the Grantee, and other charges incurred after extraction from the body of the earth.”

Here is one way R.H. Bartlett turned a profit: On January 30, 1865, he purchased oil rights to 240 acres in Section 16, T2S, R2W (for your information, the land to the south of Lighthouse Road from the far end of the Triple R field to Mill Creek, and back up 1/4 to 1/2 mile) from George Hill for $5. On February 21, just three weeks later, he sold it to Erwin Davis for one hundred times that amount–for $500! We might want to feel sorry for Mr. Erwin, especially if we thought that was all his personal savings, though I doubt that; his backers must have gotten wind of a successful operation and felt very optimistic. The deeds show that every one of the leases purchased by Rice Bartlett in late January and February of 1865 was resold to Davis for $500 each! And as far as we know, of course, he (or his supporters) never got back a penny of it.

Roughly the same was going on in Upper Mattole. Tip Smith sold oil rights (or land; the rights were at least as valuable as the land) in the Frazier Mining District for $100 to G.H. Brown and A.G. Lafferty in September of 1865; in March of 1866, Brown and Lafferty resold it to the Mendocino Oil Company for $350.

But Rice H. Bartlett did have a heart; on March 15, 1865, he deeded to Mandana H. Bartlett 1/3 of all he’s worth, including his oil rights, just because of his “natural love and affection for his wife.” Oddly enough, that’s the very day James W. Henderson “laid off the town of Petrolia on the Stansberry Ranch.” Early in the year, James W. Henderson had made his big purchases–1200 acres, more or less–of lower Valley land in preparation for his new town.


The birth of Petrolia

        Francis Stansberry owned a lot of land around the junction of the North Fork and mainstem of the Mattole. On January 3, 1865, Henderson writes, “Closed up contract with Stansberry for Ranch. Paid him $2000 coin. Closed with Hunter, keeps 1/2 L. and I pay him $250 for outside land.” The language of the Stansberry deed is for land “bounded on the south by the Mattole River, and the ranch of L.W. Gillette and brothers, on the east by the ranch of Miner K. Langdon, and on the north by the ranch of John Fruit, and on the west by the North Fork of the Mattole River, containing 600 acres of land more or less.” This is basically the square mile of flat land that was destined to hold in its center the platted town of Petrolia.

On the same day, the Recorder wrote of land purchased by J.W. Henderson from Walker S. Hunter, that the land was “bordered on the west by the ranch of Charles Cook, on the South by a creek [now McNutt] running from the ranch known as the Table Ranch to the Pacific Ocean, on the East by the ranches of B. Smith and A. Langdon, and on the north by the large hill north of the Ferguson House, containing 600 acres of land, more or less. But [Hunter] reserves 160 acres of land upon which his dwelling house now stands and in which he lives, and bounded on the south boundary of the land above described…”

On Monday, March 6th, Henderson went to Eureka to get John Murray, County Surveyor, to help establish the new town. On Saturday, the 11th, they “went to Stansberrys and then to Conklins, got our surveying party sworn in. Paid Conklin $2.25 for services in coming to Cooks’ [Charles S. Cook’s, which seemed to function as an inn or meeting place throughout Henderson’s journal].” By Tuesday, the 14th of March, he is “At Stansberry’s, made an arrangement with him to lay off a town on the land he has rented of me.” The old map we can still review from the mid-1800’s is dated March 15, 1865.

The Humboldt Times was not missing the news. On March 25, a short article notes that “A new town has been laid off in the coal oil regions in the lower part of our county, and lots therein find a market as readily as hot buckwheat cakes in winter. The town site was surveyed and laid off into lots and blocks by our County Surveyor, J.S. Murray, Esq., and located upon a portion of the place known as the Kellogg farm in Lower Mattole, which was between what’s now the Petrolia Square and the lower North Fork crossing. We understand that all the lumber on hand at the mill in the valley is secured, and orders for any amount more remain to be filled. The name by which the town is to be known has not been fully determined upon; Petroleum, Petrolia, and Mattole are suggested. One of the two former will probably win.” Happily, Henderson’s idea as he stated it on March 15 prevailed.


Media hype

        The March 25, 1865, the HT features a very lengthy article titled “The Oil Region of Humboldt County, California.” An excerpt celebrates the Mattole’s possibilities: “Mattole country is particularly noted for the great number, and great activity, of some of its oil springs. We will not attempt at this time to enumerate them, or speak of their capacity, but will allude to one only, which is located, if we mistake not, on what is known as the Joel Rush flat or claim on the north fork of Mattole river. This spring, we heard it stated by those residing in the immediate neighborhood, discharges not less than one gallon of oil per hour. Of course this is an exception, yet there are many others from which no inconsiderable quantity of oil flows, and hundreds that discover its presence. This oil as it is taken from the springs, is used by the settlers in Mattole valley for illuminating purposes and can be and is burnt in the ordinary coal oil lamps without emitting any unusual odor. A prominent citizen of this place only a few days since tested a sample of the crude article by burning it in the ordinary lamp by the side of the rectified [oil], and his testimony is that there was scarcely a perceptible difference in the freedom with which it burned and the light it gave compared with the latter. It is undeniable then that Humboldt county possesses its oil region and that it bids fair to develop a source of wealth to its citizens, and such as shall make a name for itself and add increased lustre to the State of which it is a part… ”

We could go on–the Humboldt Times certainly didn’t stop in its promotion of the area as the potential oil capital of the world. On April 8, 1865, editor J.E. Wyman (incidentally, one of the Trustees of  the Main Mattole River Petroleum Co., among other oil companies) enthuses, “The oil region of our country is daily attracting more attention and drawing thither a larger and more eager crowd. Additional oil and gas springs are being discovered and the range of country indicating the presence of oil is becoming more extended. Lands are being constantly and continuously secured in every manner by which it is possible to hold them free from interference. Some of the companies have secured many thousand acres…The region… is sufficiently extensive to attract the attention of capitalists, and bears evidence of such an indisputable character that oil does exist there in large quantities, that they do not hesitate to invest large amounts of money…” and so on.

On March 18, a letter is published in the Times from a professor and Government chemist in charge of the United States army laboratory in Philadelphia, written to the president of the Philadelphia and California Petroleum Company, in answer to the nay-saying of State Geologists Whitney and Brewer.  Prof. J.M. Maisch says: “I have examined the coal oil from California sent to me, and find it to have a specific gravity of .8629, and to be composed of Benzine [technical info follows; I will stick to the gist of his letter], Illuminating oil… and Lubricating oil… The lubricating oil is very dense, has a strong body, and is in this respect greatly superior to many of the lubricating coal oils on our market. It is of a dark brown color, and will answer well for heavy machinery. With comparatively little trouble and outlay, a great portion of it may be purified so as to answer for light machinery. The illuminating oil is very light in color, and is easily obtained entirely colorless, by treatment with acids… ”

In fact, the wells were showing every sign of competing with Pennsylvania’s finest. On June 10, 1865, a HT article titled “The First Shipment of Coal Oil from Humboldt County” says that six packages of from fifteen to twenty gallons each of coal oil from the well of the Union Mattole Oil Co. was heading for San Francisco by steamer, and represented the first shipment of crude oil from Humboldt. Owen Coy’s Humboldt Bay Region research showed him that the same Union Mattole Co. shipped out 850 gallons in August, 275 in September, and 650 in November of  ’65.

All these Union names do get a little confusing; I used to wonder about it (were they all a bunch of radicals back then? Or did they just like peace and harmony?). No, it’s just that most of the settlers in Humboldt County were from the seafaring and timber-cutting areas of the Northeast, and the Civil War was raging back East. Owen Coy clued me in, and a glance through the Humboldt Times confirms the impression of local Union, or Northern, loyalty. Lincoln was quite their hero and his death was mourned at length in the pages of the local papers.

Once in a while, the paper detoured from sheer boosterism to a more solemn exploration of questions of mining rights, laws, and government policies. On May 6, 1865, the HT discusses the debate between claims of miners vs. those of preemption homesteaders. It interprets a provision in a recently passed act of Congress as “explicitly recognizing a title, possessory though it may be, in the miner sufficient to protect him against interference… a ‘miner’s title’ properly perfected, is good and effectual until determined by the Government in whom the paramount title is, as against any and every other… these lands will not be subject to preemption nor disposed of in the manner prescribed for the disposal of public lands in ordinary cases.” Then appears a quote from a letter of instruction from the U.S. Department of the Interior to the Register and Receiver of the Humboldt Land District: “It is not the policy of the Government to deal with petroleum tracts as ordinary public lands… hence, you will report the exact description of any and all tracts strictly of the character you mention and, will withhold the same from disposal by the Government unless otherwise specifically instructed.”

If I’m not mistaken, all this mysterious language means that oil is much bigger business than homesteading, and the Government is not about to uphold the claims of settlers to land that might usually be granted as State School Lands or other “free land,” if miners wish to develop it for oil extraction.

The descriptions of the Mining Districts are quite specific in this regard. The language for the Frazier Mining District’s Laws, HT of 5/6/1865, is similar to most of the others’: “Whereas, the Territory embraced in this Mining District, hereinafter described, is totally unfit for agricultural purposes [??!!], therefore be it Resolved, that this shall be known as the Frazier Mining District, and shall be bounded as follows, to wit: Commencing at the northeast corner of the Mattole Mining District on Bear River, running thence due east until it [meets the Eel River, following upstream the] Eel River to the mouth of Bull Creek (opening into the South Fork of Eel River), thence up the head of Bull Creek, thence in a southerly direction to the upper crossing of Mattole River, thence down the Mattole River until it strikes the southeast line of Mattole Mining District.” An article of the Rules and Regulations says, “The locators, M.J. Conklin and Lieut. Frazier, of this District, shall be entitled to one extra claim of two thousand six hundred and forty feet square, for the right of discovery, to be divided between them, and it shall be known as the ‘Locators Claim’.”

Lt. Frazier, by the way, was in the Valley because he had been sent in the fall of 1863 to the fort at Upper Mattole by the Government to help put down the Indian threat. Another public figure prominent in the incorporation of oil companies and private roadbuilding companies was Col. S.G. Whipple, who was in charge of all the military forces committed to the Indian Wars in this district in 1864, according to Owen Coy (pp. 190-191). It is interesting that the oil exploration had pretty well ceased from 1861 until restarting in late 1864, as soon as the “Indian threat” had been removed by these enterprising men.


One thing leads to another

        All this optimistic activity suggested commercial success in a much wider arena than simple oil profits themselves. Building the town of Petrolia was proceeding as quickly as possible. There was a sawmill on the Mill Creek off Lighthouse Road, once owned by John and Susan Clark, and deeded to George Hill in 1862. The piece, in Section 16, includes “a slab house and a two story frame saw mill, and machinery therein… ” The August, 1865, HT relates that “It is impossible to obtain lumber and shingles to do anything here in the way of building, the quantity manufactured at present being scarcely sufficient to supply the wants of the numerous companies now engaged in boring wells for oil. Mr. Geo. Hill and others are engaged in converting the old water power mill into a steam saw mill, which, when completed, it is believed, will be able to make good the deficiency in this respect, and to supply the demand in future. The tug ‘Mary Anne’ has made two or three attempts to land a cargo on the coast opposite this locality, but up to the present time has been unsuccessful. A brick-yard is in operation here, and a lively little place would soon spring up if there was anything to build with.”

Stores were wanted, and supplies to stock them. In late March of  ’65, just after the surveying of the new town, J.W. Henderson’s diary reveals that he agreed to sell Ryan the store in Petrolia for $300, or rent it for $7 a month. The businessman was Pierce (or Pearce) H. Ryan, later “The Hon.,” a prominent Eureka figure. His enterprise was at the northwest corner of Front and Sherman Streets, near the present Petrolia Store.

According to Moses Conklin’s journal, about this time H.H. Buhne went into business here as well, and put G.E. Schumacher in charge as clerk; whether or not this was at the same location as the late-60s store owned by Schumacher facing the south side of the square (near where the pink-stone cemetery marker is now), we don’t know but might assume. It’s hard to tell from the deed descriptions or lack of them, as Henderson owned all the pieces to begin with and encouraged such tenants or buyers as he felt were needed for a flourishing town. So oftentimes the pieces were still in his name, no matter who was operating upon them.

The need for roads and /or ocean landing sites was sore. On July 16, Henderson says that Buhne and two steamers tried to land lumber and shingles, but that the landing was a failure. Two days later, Henderson received 400 shakes hauled overland by Gillette. By July 27, he is showing Parsons the mouth of the Mattole as a landing possibility, but “Parsons doesn’t think favorably of it as a harbor.” It’s a problem; there was a Bassett’s Landing mentioned by Henderson, and I once saw a map showing it roughly just below Peter B. Gulch (whether it was at the mouth of Peter B. or closer to the Mattole was not clear); but successful deliveries there were not common.

Much heavy hauling was done by horse or mule teams; on May 23, Henderson was loading machinery for the drilling site at Joel’s Flat (shipped from San Francisco by Geo. Noble) onto Gillette’s teams; the next day the men came to the Camp at the Flat, but it was three days later that the machinery arrived at Benjamin Smith’s. A couple of times that month Henderson mentions “examining the country for a road into Joel’s Flat”… but found it “impractable for present.”


Plank and Turnpike roads to the oil fields

        There was great motivation for building “a good plank and turnpike road, to connect the oil-bearing districts in the lower part of this county with Humboldt Bay… the road as we all know is a necessity to the great oil interests of Humboldt, and it cannot be constructed too soon… The company has a right to expect that citizens will favor the work in all convenient ways, to the end that the great interest–oil–of the county may be developed at an early day,” as the HT urges on July 15, 1865. The article happens to speak of the Eel River and Mattole Plank and Turnpike Road Company, but there were several companies formed in succession, all with the same intention of making a privately-funded route suitable for large teams and hauling in and out of the Mattole and Bear River oil-producing country.

The original papers of incorporation for these enterprises–the Eel River and Mattole, the Petrolia and Centerville, and the Salt River and Mattole Plank and Turnpike Road Companies–are some of those given to the M.V.H.S. this summer by Ferndale Books. The first, which I’ll abbreviate the ER & M P & T Road Co., describes a proposed route south from “near the Van Aernam House near Table Bluff, running thence in a south-easterly direction, crossing Eel River at Davis’ ford, or some point below said ford and above ferry of R.M. Dungan, Esq., thence in the same general direction to the foot of the ‘divide’ between Bear River and Eel River; thence ascending to the ‘divide’ by the most practicable route to the summit of Bear river ridge; thence to a crossing on Bear river near the residence of Richard Johnson, Esq. [sic–Johnston is meant], thence ascending the ‘divide’ between the Bear and Mattole rivers to the summit; thence on the easiest grade to a place known as Petrolia.”

Sixteen subscribers to the corporation include J.S. Murray, J.E. Wyman, Joseph Russ, S.G. Whipple, C.S. Ricks, John Vance, and J.W. Henderson.

The description for the Petrolia and Centerville Plank and Turnpike Road Co.’s proposed route starts here: “…to commence at Petrolia, thence ascending the table land toward Wright’s claim, on the easiest and best grade; thence to Cook’s claim; thence in a westerly direction to the McNutt Gulch and following down the same to its mouth; thence along the coast to Singley’s Gulch; thence up the ridge on the north side of said gulch to the summit of the ‘divide’ between said gulch and Bear River; thence to Cassen and O’Dales [O’dell’s?]; thence to the summit of Bear river ridge… ” This route follows much the same path as today’s. And the company’s subscribers were the same men as for the previous organization. There is no notice that one group superceded the other, but apparently each fine-tuned the surveying a little more.

The third, or Salt River and Mattole, P & T Road Co. goes straight overland from Bear River “over the dividing ridge to Joel’s Flat, thence by the most practicable route over the divide to the claim of the Union Mattole Mining Company.” This route would generally follow the old Indian or horse trail from Bear River to the North Fork.

According to Coy, the actual road was not finished until 1869, and included a stretch along the beach from below Guthrie Creek (near False Cape, above Bear River) to Centerville, west of Ferndale. During the 1880’s, Chinese labor built that section of the Wildcat from Bear River Ridge north over the top to Ferndale. But already by 1871 a daily stage ran between Eureka and Petrolia on the two-year-old road.


Competition from unheard-of places

        The route out of Petrolia “ascending the table land toward Wright’s claim” is generally the same road we follow up onto the Table and out past the eucalyptus trees toward Salladays’ (more recently Dennis Handy’s) and Devoys’ places. Lucian and Lucy Ann Wright’s original homestead claim was on the Devoy place; their quarter-section of land, the middle of the east half of Section 32, excluded a 150′ by 80′ piece “conveyed to Anderson,” according to their Homestead Registration. I have wondered what that lot was for, and recently found out: a deed from October 12, 1866, from Lucien Wright and wife to Henry Anderson and Michael Johnson, in exchange for $1 (even then merely a token), grants “… a certain piece… of land, lying and being situate in the town of Augusta, County of Humboldt… and more particularly described as follows, to wit: Commencing at a point on the northern side of Broadway Street or what is now a part and portion of the road leading from Petrolia to the coast… thence running easterly along said street eighty feet, thence northerly and at right angles with said street one hundred and fifty feet,… [etc., describing a square on north side of road] on which [the parties Anderson and Johnson] have erected a tavern and on what they are now residing, the house standing five feet easterly of westerly line of the lot as hereinbefore described… ” This tavern was known as Anderson’s Hotel.

 So the Wrights were living in, or were envisioning living in, a town called Augusta, and the main street of it was Broadway–our road out of Petrolia. They were perhaps in a sort of competition with Henderson; a clause in the deed expressly prohibits oil prospecting on the Anderson property, and indeed sounds adamant in its opposition to such activity. J.W. Henderson’s journal entry of June 13, 1865, says “Sawmill PO & Co have an… opposition town on the table.” Now, “on the table” could merely mean “planned,” but it looks as if here it refers to an actual planned development on the Table. (What is Sawmill PO & Co? A complete mystery.)

Augusta was indeed a lively place. A letter in the HT of May 28, 1866, reports that “The ball at Anderson’s Hotel passed off very pleasantly; the ladies were pretty and agreeable, the dancing excellent, and the music and supper ditto. As a whole it was a creditable affair.”

But then the “opposition town” could have been something other than Augusta. A notice in the HT of September 9, 1865, tells us, “As Mr. Frederick Lewis… was riding on the road between Petrolia and Oil City, in Mattole, he was assaulted by Indians, or men disguised as such… ” (Clearly the latter, by that date.) But Oil City??


Part of an informative map found at HSU’s Humboldt Room.

So much to learn!

        We have barely touched the tip of the iceberg as concerns Henderson’s journal and its revelations about the town he set up, as well as all his adventures trying to extract oil from Joel Flat. My notes for significant entries to consult in his journal go something like this (omitting most of the dates here)… “Bartlett’s machine arrived at Mattole… Gave Ben Smith a deed for land above Jerusalem… Funeral of President Lincoln… Moved camp to Joel’s Flat with Cook’s mules… Raised derricks for oil well in the Flat… Deed to T. Scott, req. of Parsons, for 2760 acres Mattole… (7/4) Read Declaration of Independence to crowd. Dull… Deeded Harwood blacksmith’s lot, in exchange for blacksmith work… Stopped at Anderson’s for dinner… Brought two kegs of oil to Petrolia, burned it in lamps. Almost drowned. Big frollick in town… Had Murray make a plot of town of Petrolia for Noble to take East… Broke Pittman rod and had to stop pumping oil… Engine pump froze up… ”

Please come in to the office to look over our transcription of Henderson’s journal. Future years (he kept it until 1910–although he was in Eureka much of that time) will probably be coming our way soon.

The information from the Recorder’s Office is less accessible, but more exact. I found there many of the lot sales in Petrolia to merchants and servicepeople, from J.W. Henderson. On October 1, 1866, he deeded, for the requisite $1, the corner lot of Lincoln and Henderson Streets to C.W. Gillette, Elmore Harrow, Joshua Betts, William Roberts, and David Willey, trustees of the United Brethren in Christ of Petrolia, “in trust for the use and benefit of said church.” To this day, that property is a church site–it went from the United Brethren, to being called the Community Church, to the Methodist Episcopalians (who built the present building around 1915) and in the 1920s to the Seventh-Day Adventists.


Waking up from a wild dream

        The oil never came in large enough quantities to be called a success. Over the decades, there have been several resurgences of oil interest, but they have all disappointed the optimistic entrepreneur. Apparently our geology is too shaley and fractured to hold large, clean pools of oil, even though it’s clear that the oil is there. By June, 1866, a schoolteacher named Lane complained, “Petrolia is now a rather dry place… most of the people are much discouraged in regard to oil.”

By the summer of 1868, Moses Conklin wrote to the paper, “We have had quite an accession to our population this Spring, and a large number of strangers have visited our Valley during the past month, looking at the country with a view of settlement among us, with their families; many have expressed themselves highly pleased with our Valley, with the climate, water, etc.” Not a word about petroleum.

And by 1875, ten years after all the excitement, an anonymous letter writer defended the Valley against a slur evidently regarding its lack of sophistication. I think we might guess at the writer’s identity as Judge Conklin again: “In a financial point of view, it is true, we have not many very wealthy individuals, but as a community we are comfortable, and have very few what might be called poor people. I do not know of more than two places which are mortgaged… It is safe to say that no portion of Humboldt County or California surpasses our beautiful valley in natural resources, picturesque and attractive scenery and a fine invigorating climate.” He goes on at length in this vein, stressing the virtues of the Valley as an agricultural paradise; and again, no mention of oil.

However, there were repeated attempts over the decades to wrest oil wealth from local earth. Next I will post Nicole Log’s report on developments subsequent to the 1860s.


Honeydew oil derrick, 1920s. From the Hindley Family collection at the MVHS.

And if the topic of oil exploration in the Mattole Valley interests you highly, check the other entries under “Oil Prospects” in the right hand column of topics on the home page here. The review of Ken Aalto’s talk on the possibilities of modern-day fracking is very relevant.
Also, an investigation into the granting, then swindling, of Chippewa and Sioux scrip for Mattole oil lands led to a dark and fascinating episode of American history that I reported in Issue #44 of Now… and Then. The article fleshes out many of the characters and business details reported in J.W. Henderson’s journal (and a couple of the blog entries here augment that!). Please comment if you would like me to send you a .pdf of that story.

Here’s an excerpt from the autobiography of Shell Oil Vice-President Monroe Spaght, who was a Eureka native. He was the keynote speaker at the 1955 dedication of the Oil Wells plaque on the square in downtown Petrolia:

oil plaque,frMonroeSpaght.p73,edited4blog

And here is the program from that event:
oil plaque dedication,brochure1&4
oil plaque dedication,brochure2&3
Finally, a few familiar faces: locals and schoolkids attending the dedication, 65 years ago this fall. Mr. Spaght is at the microphone.


Do you love poetry, music, Americana, and Gothic Romanticism—that is, old-school drama, both realistic and sentimental, steeped in the miseries and mysteries of Nature and the harshness of the human condition, playing your heartstrings and gently squeezing tears from your eyes? If so, you might forgive today’s detour from Mattole history.

If not, stop reading and return another time. This post is categorized in “Laura’s Ramblings.” I decided to share this musical-poetic experience as a special indulgence for myself on my birthday weekend, since it’s an old favorite of mine… and I hope that you, too, may shed a cathartic tear or two as you listen.

Edgar Lee Masters, born in Kansas in 1869, who would become known as one of the leading lights of the American Midwest’s poetic renaissance in the early twentieth century, published in 1915 a collection of poems called Spoon River Anthology. Its setting was a fictional town, with fully mapped social and business relationships between hundreds of residents, all sprung from Masters’ head. “The Hill” is the first poem in the book, set upon the site of the community’s cemetery and posing the questions answered by each graveyard denizen in his or her verse. “The Hill” asks, in names common in any local histories of that time,


“Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom, and Charley,

The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?

All, all are sleeping on the hill.

One passed in a fever,

One was burned in a mine,

One was killed in a brawl,

One died in a jail,

One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife.

All, all are sleeping on the hill.


“Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie, and Edith,

The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?—

All, all are sleeping on the hill.”


The introduction to my 1992 paperback “Signet Classics” edition of Spoon River Anthology is by poet and Yale English professor John Hollander. He writes, “[The book] creates a fictional community through the short dramatic monologues spoken by its deceased inhabitants, rather than by overt description…. [The volume] was an immediate success, praised extravagantly—and alternately condemned—for its skeptical energy, erotic specificity, reforming nay-saying coupled with romantic transcendent yearnings, and unfamiliar structure and mode of verse. It went through seventy editions in many languages, and remained a canonical work which was itself widely and heavily anthologized.”

Eighty years after the book’s publication, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Richard Buckner, encountered the Spoon River Anthology, chose eighteen of the over 200 grave-dwellers to interpret musically, and recorded The Hill. The album is a thirty-four-minute emotional powerhouse, combining Masters’ words and Buckner’s musical compositions. (Merge Records reissued The Hill in 2015, the 100th anniversary of Spoon River’s original publication.)


Of course, the stories of Spoon River’s dead are not unlike those of many in our Mattole Valley cemeteries. I can’t read the poems of Edgar Lee Masters or listen to Buckner’s The Hill without thinking of the women, men, and children laid to rest on the hill in Petrolia. Perhaps someday, a writer with poetic or musical talent will tell the stories of some of our locals:

The three toddlers, first cousins—Hiram Wright, Elsie Hunter, and Almon Duff, children of three Wright siblings, playmates who were laid to rest below a neat row of tiny headstones, dead of Scarlet Fever in 1880.

Or Charles A. Roberts, who died, along with his 13-year-old son Harry, far from home in a shipwreck piloted by a drunk captain—the tragedy of the Hanalei off Duxbury Reef in 1914.

And what of Margaret Chambers, the Irish-born wife of Moses J. Conklin, who laid to rest the very first occupant of the Petrolia Pioneer Cemetery, their 11-month-old son Alonzo Conklin? Margaret was the first white woman in the Valley, and went on to bear at least nine children, dying at age 48 of tuberculosis.

Walter Boots, a divorced 39-year-old lovelorn man, shot young Addie Reynolds, who had spurned his affection. Thinking he had killed her, he turned the gun on himself.

Jack Harris was a Native man born in 1858, just as white settlement was kicking in and the genocidal wars beginning. He was adopted by the white husband of his sister, Ellen, and lived in the Valley for many decades peacefully, employed as a ranch hand. At the age of 45, he attempted to save the two Hadley sisters (buried at Upper Mattole) who were drowning in the Mattole River. All three perished.

John McAuliffe, born in Ireland, lost a two-year-old son, possibly of Scarlet Fever or Diphtheria, a natural yet horrible scourge in those days; five years later, his insane wife, in a very unnatural act, dragged their three young daughters from their beds, took them to the barn, and slit their throats. A fourth daughter was born to the woman while imprisoned in the Napa insane asylum, where she lived out her life. The girl was said to be the idol of her father in his declining years. He died at the age of 73, known locally for his humor and wit.

Theodore Aldrich, renowned Indian killer, was haunted by memories of killing twin papooses by smashing their heads against a tree in the Squaw Creek massacre, while proclaiming “Nits make lice!” He has a nice big flat stone, convenient for seated contemplation of Death, the great equalizer, on the Petrolia cemetery hill.

Helen Maude Adams was ten years old when she drowned at Roberts Hole. Her would-be rescuer, English-born Charles Gilbert, who was 37 years old then, died in his attempt, and is laid next to her.

There are plenty of tragic and sad stories to be gleaned from the lives and deaths of those interred in our Mattole Valley cemeteries. (This post is a reminder to me to integrate corrections and more photos, and post the entire Petrolia Pioneer Cemetery guide on this blog, sooner than later.)


But for now, let the stories, sufferings, and joys of the fictional inhabitants of Spoon River move you via the words of Edgar Lee Masters and the musical mastery of Richard Buckner.

(I am posting a link to the official Merge Records recording on YouTube for each of eight excerpts I chose from Buckner’s album; I typed the words from the paperback Spoon River Anthology. Since the videos have no visual content, you can open a tab for YouTube by clicking on each video link, and just listen there, while looking at the lyrics on this page.)

Also, I highly recommend that if you enjoy these selections, you order Richard Buckner’s “The Hill” or Edgar Lee Masters’ book Spoon River Anthology.  I only linked about half the content of the album; much of it is musical, without lyrics, but still each passage represents a Spoon River character.



Tom Merritt  Tom Merritt YouTube video

At first I suspected something—

She acted so calm and absent-minded.

And one day I heard the back door shut,

As I entered the front, and I saw him slink

Back of the smokehouse into the lot,

And run across the field.

And I meant to kill him on sight.

But that day, walking near Fourth Bridge,

Without a stick or stone at hand,

All of a sudden I saw him standing,

Scared to death, holding his rabbits,

And all I could say was, “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t”

As he aimed and fired at my heart.


Ollie McGee  Ollie McGee YouTube video

Have you seen walking through the village

A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?

That is my husband who, by secret cruelty

Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;

Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,

And with broken pride and shameful humility,

I sank into the grave.

But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?

The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!

These are driving him to the place where I lie.

In death, therefore, I am avenged.


Julia Miller  Julia Miller YouTube video

We quarreled that morning

For he was sixty-five, and I was thirty,

And I was nervous and heavy with the child

Whose birth I dreaded.

I thought over the last letter written me

By that estranged young soul

Whose betrayal of me I had concealed

By marrying the old man.

Then I took morphine and sat down to read.

Across the blackness that came over my eyes

I see the flickering light of these words even now:

“And Jesus said unto him, Verily,

I say unto thee, To-day thou shalt

Be with me in paradise.”


Elizabeth Childers    Elizabeth Childers YouTube video

[This is one of the saddest and most haunting, I think, of these songs. A friend disagreed with the last line, and resented its assertion that “Death is better than life.” I tend to think that, since both the narrator and her child are speaking from the grave, it’s more a sour-grapes rationale that they got the better deal; might as well prefer the conditions you find yourself in. But listen and consider for yourselves. –LC]

Dust of my dust,

And dust with my dust,

O, child who died as you entered the world.

Dead with my death!

Not knowing Breath, though you tried so hard,

With a heart that beat when you lived with me,

And stopped when you left me for Life.

It is well, my child. For you never traveled

The long, long way that begins with school days,

When little fingers blur under the tears

That fall on the crooked letters.

And the earliest wound, when a little mate

Leaves you alone for another;

And sickness, and the face of Fear by the bed;

The death of a father or mother;

Or shame for them, or poverty.

The maiden sorrow of schooldays ended;

And eyeless Nature that makes you drink

From the cup of Love, though you know it’s poisoned;

To whom would your flower-face have been lifted?

Botanist, weakling? Cry of what blood to yours?—

Pure or foul, for it makes no matter,

It’s blood that calls to our blood,

And then your children—oh, what might they be?

And what your sorrow? Child! Child!

Death is better than Life!


Oscar Hummel   Oscar Hummel YouTube video

I staggered on through darkness,

There was a hazy sky, a few stars

Which I followed as best I could.

It was nine o’clock, I was trying to get home.

But somehow I was lost,

Though really keeping the road.

Then I reeled through a gate and into a yard,

And called at the top of my voice:

“Oh, Fiddler! Oh, Mr. Jones!”
(I thought it was his house and he would show me the way home.)

But who should step out but A.D. Blood,

In his night shirt, waving a stick of wood,

And roaring about the cursed saloons,

And the criminals they made?

“You drunken Oscar Hummel,” he said,

As I stood there weaving to and fro,

Taking the blows from the stick in his hand

Till I dropped down dead at his feet.

Johnnie Sayre   Johnnie Sayre YouTube video

Father, thou canst never know

The anguish that smote my heart

For my disobedience, the moment I felt

The remorseless wheel of the engine

Sink into the crying flesh of my leg.

As they carried me to the home of Widow Morris

I could see the school-house in the valley

To which I played truant to steal rides upon the trains.

I prayed to live until I could ask your forgiveness—

And then your tears, your broken words of comfort!

From the solace of that hour I have gained infinite happiness.

Thou wert wise to chisel for me:

“Taken from the evil to come.”

Reuben Pantier   Reuben Pantier YouTube video

Well, Emily Sparks, your prayers were not wasted

Your love was not all in vain.

I owe whatever I was in life

To your hope that would not give me up,

To your love that saw me still as good.

Dear Emily Sparks, let me tell you the story.

I pass the effect of my father and mother;

The milliner’s daughter made me trouble

And out I went in the world,

Where I passed through every peril known

Of wine and women and joy of life.

One night, in a room in the Rue de Rivoli,

I was drinking wine with a black-eyed cocotte,

And the tears swam into my eyes.

She thought they were amorous tears and smiled

For thought of her conquest over me.

But my soul was three thousand miles away,

In the days when you taught me in Spoon River.

And just because you no more could love me,

Nor pray for me, nor write me letters,

The eternal silence of you spoke instead.

And the black-eyed cocotte took my tear for hers,

As well as the deceiving kisses I gave her.

Somehow, from that hour, I had a new vision—

Dear Emily Sparks!


William and Emily   William and Emily YouTube video

There is something about Death

Like love itself!

If with someone with whom you have known passion,

And the glow of youthful love,

You also, after years of life

Together, feel the sinking of the fire

And thus fade away together,

Gradually, faintly, delicately,

As it were in each other’s arms,

Passing from the familiar room—

That is a power of unison between souls

Like love itself!




Now that I’ve written down some of the background (see previous post), today let’s just have fun and look at some pictures!

I’ll start with a couple that were not from the found albums, just to round out your sense of the family. The first is from another recently donated collection, that of Dorothy Klemp Price. Dorothy was a granddaughter of Addie Wright and Otto Clark, Addie being the daughter of Marshall and Martha Rudolph Wright. Martha was a child of the Rev. Morgan Rudolph, a United Brethren preacher who was one of the three Mattole pioneer Rudolph brothers, and Rebecca Donaca. The back of the photo told that the couple on the right here is Morgan and Rebecca Donaca Rudolph, while the couple on the left is unknown.

Here is Martha Rudolph Wright (daughter of couple on right, above) with her granddaughter Mayme Hunter, who was the daughter of Martha Wright (Martha, Sr.’s, daughter) and Ellis Hunter. Photo from the Mary Rackliff Etter collection.


Now back to the found albums. D&ML,Rud.,46,perhapsThomasRudolph&Martha,orJacobMiner,CavyJohnston

This couple is unidentified. Corky Peterson thought perhaps it was Thomas Rudolph and wife Martha Coy, parents of William H. Rudolph and grandparents to Gwyneth (Corky’s grandmother) because, if there exists a photo of them, it should be in this album, right? Well, it could be.
But to me, the man looks very much like Jacob Miner. Here is a photo of Jacob from the 1915 Leigh Irvine History of Humboldt County alongside a cutout of the man from the Rudolph album.

jacobminer,andmaybeJacobMinerIt would not be totally random for a photo of Jacob Miner and his wife to appear in the album, as the wife was Cavy Johnston, a sister of Charles A. Johnston, who was Caroline Langdon Rudolph’s brother-in-law. So this would be a photo of Caroline’s b-i-l’s sister (Cavy, the woman in the handsome middle-aged couple above) and his (Charles Johnston’s) own b-i-l, Jacob Miner. Jacob built the yellow home in Petrolia that still stands between the Catholic Church and Chambers Road, recently called the Selby, now Clemenza, place–it was finished just before his death in 1884. He was the great-uncle of Buck, Allen, Ruth, etc., Miner. I could easily be wrong in this speculation, though.

Speaking of Caroline Langdon, here she is with husband William H. Rudolph. Corky thinks these might be formal portraits probably taken around 1905, when William’s younger–by seventeen years–brother Walter was getting married. Caroline was the sister of Evaline Langdon (Mrs. Charles A.) Johnston and Ellen Langdon (Mrs. Isaac N.) Dougherty.


Here are two of their daughters, Gwyneth (left) and Nettie, with unknown suitors or friends, a while before their marriages. This looks to be the same trip to property advertising the California Saw Works as that shown in yesterday’s post, and the tall, dark, and handsome young man in yesterday’s photo may be the one behind Gwyneth here.



This is Justin Rudolph, 1890-1952, the youngest of the children of William and Caroline, and brother of Nettie, Gwyneth, and Martha Alda. Crippen was a Ferndale photographer.


Photo taken at an unknown location. School? Home? Two little girls are at play. We can’t be sure this is the Mattole Valley, but it could be!


I call this one “the beautiful children.” We can’t identify them, but Corky and I agree that they are definitely Rudolph children, the one on the left strongly resembling several other baby pictures in the albums.


More pictures that we know nothing about… the first two show sisters, presumably, although there are only a couple of them in the second shot. Corky thinks they may be children of Evaline Langdon and Chas. Johnston.D&ML,Rud.,03,threeGirls


I think the girl on the left in both photos resembles this man… and I think (I don’t know) that it’s the same man in both pictures below, younger and older:


For that matter, this young woman looks a bit like the other little girl above:


The next half dozen are without any identification. I hope that, looking into eyes which gazed so steadily at a photographer a hundred and forty or more years ago, you might find yourself returning the gaze in a curious sort of time-travel relationship.







(Please keep in mind that many of these photos were quite small, several to an album page, so blowing them up like this made it easy to lose clarity.)


A couple of years ago, the Mattole Valley Historical Society received this letter:


I mentioned the intriguing find in one of our Now… and Then newsletters, but I don’t think I had shared any of the photos publicly. Now that we have gotten good information to augment the pictures from a Rudolph descendant, Carolyn “Corky” Peterson of Fresno, it’s high time we showed off some of the pictures.

The Rudolph family itself merits a stand-alone post, but that’s something for another day. Briefly, the story is that three of the Rudolph siblings, children of Mary Hamblin and John Caspar Rudolph–born in the late 1700s in Austria–made their way to the Mattole Valley in the 1860s. The three were brothers John C., Morgan, and Thomas. John had the Petrolia Store, of which you have probably seen pictures; Morgan was a preacher throughout the Mattole Valley; and Thomas made his way to Upper Mattole before Honeydew was named. He homesteaded land, in 1889, at the foot of Woods Creek in Sections 2 and 11 of T3S, R1W, which was later owned by James Ballard, then later by Hunter (presumably Ballard’s brother-in-law, Judge G.W. Hunter)–in case you want to locate where, possibly, this family lived.

The Mattole Valley Historical Society has enjoyed the attention and membership of many descendants of these original three Rudolphs. Many of the Clarks, Hunters, Rackliffs (including Mary Rackliff Etter), and Wrights of recent history or current residence are descended from Morgan Rudolph, via his daughter Martha, who married Marshall Wright. Conrad Rudolph, a professor of medieval art history at UC Riverside, is a direct descendant of John Rudolph. And most valuable to identification of this photo collection, Corky Peterson is the granddaughter of Gwyneth Rudolph, who was herself the granddaughter of Thomas and Martha Coy Rudolph via William Rudolph and his wife, Caroline Langdon (a sister of Mrs. Charles Johnston and Mrs. Isaac Dougherty). So you can see that although the Rudolphs all departed the Mattole Valley by the first decade of the 1900s, they left their marks as prominent and influential citizens. In fact, Emma Rudolph, a daughter of Morgan and Rebecca Rudolph, kept a diary as a 15-year-old girl living in downtown Petrolia. The 1882 document would be another fascinating read on this blog, so stay tuned!

According to Corky, the photo albums are of the Thomas>William H. and Caroline>Gwyneth line–her grandmother’s family. Although many of the pictures (and most that I will post here) are, I believe, from the Mattole Valley, the family spread far, geographically; two of William’s sisters, Corky’s great-great aunts, married two Langlois brothers. The Langloises, for whom the town in Oregon just north of Port Orford is named, settled in the area from Coos Bay to Bandon to Port Orford–the Cape Blanco lighthouse (further west even than Cape Mendocino’s) being the residence of keeper James Langlois, along with wife Elizabeth Rudolph and at least five children, for 42 years. But Gwyneth herself retired to Marin County; she lived there with her daughter Norma, who was Corky’s aunt. That’s probably how the albums came to be found in Greenbrae, California.

Corky and I think this picnic may be a Johnston family affair, the man about 4th from left resembling other photos of Charles A. Johnston; Mr. Johnston was married to Corky’s great-grandmother Caroline Langdon Rudolph’s sister Evaline.



Looks like a gulch of the lower Mattole Valley. (Maybe she is considering a hike up that little canyon, and a change of clothing.)



Possibly sisters Eveline and Caroline, ca. 1890, according to Corky. However, comparing with the photo of three sisters down this page a little, I think it might be daughters of Caroline: Nettie (older, left) and Alda (full name Martha Alda, younger)… photo perhaps taken by their middle sister, Gwyneth. Hand-held camera snapshot suggests the twentieth century.



This is more recent, given the length of the lady’s dress. Tending the lilies.



Possibly the Joel Flat (sometimes called Henderson) oil well, which has also been captioned, in a Mary Rackliff Etter photo, the McIntosh well. If it is indeed that one, it would make sense to be seeing the Mattole Valley behind, to the south of it, heading westward/right to the ocean.



Same well. Note the small figures of men in the lower right. Looks like a plume of–what, oil vapor or froth coming off it?



Photo taken at unknown location, possibly Humboldt County. The man (unidentified, probably a friend of Grandmother Gwyneth’s) is sitting over a metal sign advertising Disston Saws for the California Saw Works–San Francisco, Seattle, Portland. An online search (you can find the signs on eBay) tells me that the signs were manufactured from 1901-1905 by Meek and Beach Co. I suspect the gate might be on land logged by a company contracted to California Saw Works.



Corky’s father, John (Jr., called Jack) Tyler, son of Gwyneth Rudolph Tyler. He was born in 1906; photo probably from about 1912 (when little boys were not pushed to dress in a manly fashion).



Gwyneth, mother of little Jack from the photo above, on the left; with her big sister Nettie, probably from around 1887 (when little girls needn’t have girly hairstyles).



About nine years later, the three daughters of William Rudolph and Caroline Langdon: Alda, Nettie, and Gwyneth.



Petrolia from the hill to the east-northeast of the Square. Taken sometime before the 1903 fire. Several of the buildings still stand: you can see Ocean Berg’s (once Jim Groeling’s, a long time back the Watson-Cady house); Mary Day’s (once Lucy Wright and Elias Hunter’s); Swaffords’ (once Jack and Vivian Susan Wright’s, called Briarcrest); the Leonard Cook (Mayme Hunter’s) house on the southeast corner of the Square; and various sheds and barns that have survived. The old Knights of Pythias hall, site of the future MVHS museum, is on the Square, along with, to the south/left, the original hotel; the John Mackey store, and other buildings that burned down, are on Front St., along the far left. On the hill behind the North Fork valley, you can see a house, about a third of the way from the left of the photo. Is that one of the old Clark family places?
Below, a crop showing a tiny bit more detail:




That’s all for now. We are very grateful to the Landgrafs of San Rafael, without whom we would never have seen these beautiful pictures… and to the internet, without which they may not have found us.

D&ML,Rud.,02-Album1coverThe ragged cover of one of the albums.

I am most grateful to Bob Stansberry, a busy rancher, for taking the time to write out this description of processes that would be otherwise unknown to most of us and to posterity.

From #41 of the Mattole Valley Historical Society’s Now… and Then, 

“Tanbarking in the Mattole Valley,” by Bob Stansberry

In 1952 Metten & Gebhardt, a leather tanning company based in San Francisco, entered into an agreement with my parents, John and Clarice Stansberry, to harvest the tanbark on a part of our ranch. They contracted the peeling of the bark out to a fellow by the name of Nelson Miles. The following year, in 1953, Metten & Gebhardt again acquired the right to harvest bark, this time across the Mattole River and on the east side of the ranch. This time they contracted the work to Henry Chapman and his sons, of Phillipsville, Calif. They paid us $8 per cord for the bark that was harvested.

In the summer of 1949 the folks had hired John Buxton to bring in his Allis Chalmers bulldozer (which at the age of four I referred to as “Old Biggy”). With my uncle Arch Smith—who was an expert at blasting out rocks and stumps with dynamite (referred to as a “powder monkey”)—they built access roads to haul the bark out.

Checkie Chadbourne said that he drove a “bob tail truck” (truck without a trailer) out of this area hauling bark, after the closing of the extract plant at Briceland and when shipping out of Shelter Cove was discontinued. Most of the bark from the Upper Mattole was trucked to the railroad station at South Fork, Calif.
In 1946, our neighbor Lee French, who had a ranch at Ettersburg, Calif., purchased a 3-ton International truck. He equipped it with a flatbed and racks to haul lambs, wool, and equipment, for himself and neighbors. He also built a smaller bed with side stakes that he could exchange with the bigger bed, thus enabling him to access the narrow tanbark roads. Lee had a D-2 Cat of his own by this time so he built a wooden sled with steel runners to tow loads of bark out of the woods behind the Cat. He thrived on work!

His son Richard remembers going with his dad to Gary Svendsen’s property on Wilder Ridge to load bark that Gary had peeled and stacked. The bark was loaded by hand, often on a hot afternoon. After a tier of bark was partially stacked on the truck, a rope was tied between the stakes on top of the bark to keep them from spreading. After that the tier of bark was completed. Once the truck was loaded with several tiers of bark (two and a half to three cords) it was taken to South Fork. Richard remembers swamping (tossing) bark back in the hot boxcars.sm,wagnertancrew,frBStansberryCrew working for the Wagner Leather Co., based in Stockton, Cal., who had a refinery in Briceland, besides holding extensive tanoak timber acreage in southwestern Humboldt. Center front with tilted hat is probably Earl Harrow; kneeling front left probably young Jess Stansberry. Photo from Harrow family via Bob Stansberry.

Before the advent of the bulldozer (crawler tractor with blade mounted in front), these bark roads were built with hand tools, dynamite, and horse-drawn equipment (side-hill plows, “V” scrapers, and drag scoops). Lee French said that it took three men to reopen a road in the Spring after the winter rains had caused the inside road bank to fall in: “One to drive the team, one to run the plow, and one to hold the plow beam over against the bank.”

Steve Baxman from Fort Bragg, Calif., told me that he brought the first blade “Cat” into the Mattole to build tanbark roads. This was in the late 1930s. He said that they unloaded it off the low-bed truck in the redwoods near Bull Creek and that it was a long slow trip “walking” it (driving it) over the mountain to Honeydew.

It was about this time, in the 1930s, that John Chambers of Petrolia purchased a D-4 Caterpillar. It was the first blade tractor owned in the Valley and is still used by his grandson, Kelton Chambers. Johnny said that he used to walk it up the valley and build roads for neighbors. At mid-valley, near Honeydew, Lee French would rent it and take it on to Ettersburg, building roads for people along the way. Lee said that while building the road up Crooked Prairie ridge for his neighbor Rod Hinman, Rod somehow got his hand caught between the cable attached to the Cat and a log that they were pulling. The only way he could free Rod’s hand was to cut the cable with an axe. Lee said that “with each blow of the axe Rod would let out a squall.”

smMRE TB 9a 09 forest peelersTanbark peelers, from the impressive Mary Rackliff Etter collection. Photographer unknown [Edit: Ray Jerome Baker took this photo and the next]

My first and only real memory of the actual peeling of a tanoak log was in the Spring of 1952. Dad and I came along on the road where a couple of young fellows had cut down a tanoak tree and were peeling it. Dad had worked as a bark peeler when he was young, as did his brothers (his sister Mabel had cooked in a bark camp), and he felt a need to show these fellows how it was done. As I remember it, he took the axe and laid it lengthwise on the log, this plus the depth of the axe blade gave him about four feet of measurement as was required. After measuring he went about chopping away a narrow ring of bark around the log with the vigor that he always applied to his work.

After the log was ringed at four-foot increments, the bark was split or scored lengthwise and peeled away from the tree in large slabs. These slabs were left near the log where they would dry and curl up like big cinnamon sticks. Later in the season, the bark was packed by mules or sledded to the nearest road and stacked to be loaded on trucks (or wagons in the early days).

smMRE TB 9a 11 steep hill TB wagonCables moved this wagon of tanbark over steep slopes.

Bark peeling season began in the Spring (May, June, and July) when the sap was flowing and the bark would separate from the log easily. Charlie Etter said that after you cut the tree down you wouldn’t even stop work for lunch because the bark would tighten to the log after the sap couldn’t flow.

Before felling a tanbark tree, the bark was peeled away from the ground up to four feet. This is where the thickest bark is. Sometimes smaller trees were just peeled up eight feet and left standing; this was called “jayhawking.” Felling was done with axes and two-man “misery whip” handsaws (though in the 1950s chainsaws came into use). Dunnage was probably laid down for the tree to fall on, thus making it easier to roll the log and to access the underside of it. After the bark was removed, the remainder of the tree was left in the woods to rot, though I do remember a large stack of peeled tanoak wood by our house.

Before World War II, most young men of the Mattole worked in the bark woods at some point in their lives. Al Hadley said that he and a friend once walked from Honeydew through the mountains to Elk Ridge east of here because they had heard that they might be able to get a job in the bark woods over there. The Smith boys (Paul and/or his brothers Tom, Steve, and Robert) peeled on the Etter property in the Fourmile Creek drainage between Honeydew and Ettersburg; their broken car of a 1920s vintage still remains in the woods there. Frank Landergen also had a “bark show” in the Fourmile Creek area. Kenny Wallen of Miranda, Cal., said that when he was a kid he and his father peeled bark in the Dry Creek area east of Honeydew and on Bear Trap Ridge south of Honeydew. They employed one mule to pack the bark out of the woods. Earl Harrow once showed his old arthritic hands to me, all bony and rough from wielding an axe when he was young. Ken Roscoe said that these were the fellows you looked for when putting together a baseball team because they had strong arms and good upper body strength.

The bark crews usually camped in the woods near their work and usually by a spring. Some of these camps can still be found, evidenced by an old steel bedframe with a tree growing through it, an old crosscut saw, or a pile of tin cans and an old coffee pot. (Nelson Miles’ crew had a pig pen where they kept pigs to feed the scraps to.) Cousin Bill Lee remembers the chipmunks coming into Nelson’s camp looking for food handouts.

Earl said that when he was working, the job of cooking went to the first guy that complained about the food. Once the guy cooking (tired of his job) decided to load the food down with salt. One of the fellows eating says, “Damn, this is salty!,” then he catches himself and says, “but that’s just the way I like it.”

As with anything, the bark business could be fraught with difficulties. I remember that Mr. Miles brought in a couple of half broke mules and tried hitching them to the sled to bring bark out to the road; they bolted and tore his harness to pieces. In another instance, one of his workers caught the woods on fire with the new-fangled chainsaw. But worse was the big fire that burned the north side of the Fourmile Creek drainage and all of the bark that Nelson had stacked along the road. Bill Woods remembers when he and his step-father, Clarence Stansberry, had the job of peeling and getting the bark out of the big canyon just west of the Industrial Park between Garberville and Redway. They borrowed a mule from Clarence’s brother Johnny Stansberry. The mule soon figured out that he could get out of work by laying down and rolling off the trail, with a load of bark on. After a couple of sessions of this, Bill said, “Dad went down there and walked all over that mule with his cork (calked) boots, and the mule never tried that again.” Some of these mules got so they would go to and from the woods without guidance.

The bark industry was a way for folks in these hills to make a few dollars. Our neighbor, Mrs. Gibson, would go into the woods after the peeling and sack up the bark chips because they could be sold also.

All of this ended in the mid-1950s, replaced by a chemical process for tanning leather and a lack of demand for bark-tanned hides.  

M&MEtter,PackingTanbark,Honeydew,crop&PSMules bound for a wagon or truck with their tanbark loads, crossing creek in Honeydew. Photo courtesy the Etter family.

A few more thoughts on the business from Laura… What happened to the market for tanbark?

       Roger Brown told me that he peeled tanbark in the Mattole Valley in the 1950s. So the business did not entirely disappear until decades after the boom was over. But as previously noted, the tanbark forests of the Mattole Valley were not infinite. Their trees had only come into high demand as the woods around population and trade centers such as the Bay Area were depleted; and as the supply around Southern Humboldt in turn shrank and the chrome (chemical) methods became more common, tanbark harvesting contracts here dropped off.

I found the following info at this internet site:


“A statement written by Susan Lehmann for the City of Santa Cruz Planning and Development Department says that… ‘prodigious amounts of tan bark’ had to be used. ‘Not just the bark but the entire tree was harvested and used for barrel staves as well as firewood to produce steam to run the plants. Although the supply seemed endless, by the turn of the century the oak trees, like the redwoods used for lumber and to fuel the limekilns, were seriously depleted, bringing about the eventual demise of the industries they had created.’

“A diagram in Willis Linn Jepson’s book Tanbark Oak and the Tanning Industry [published 1909] shows the number of cords of tanoak used for tanning in California from the years 1851-1907, with 4-6 trees per cord. The number of cords per year increased over time to add up to a total of 1,722,000 tanoak cords used in that 57 year timeframe. Estimating on the low end at 4 trees per cord, that adds up to 6,888,000 trees felled in California for tanning leather, just within the dates listed (Jepson 5-10).”

So, almost seven million tanoak trees cut down before 1907, which just happens to be when Calvin Stewart began bargaining for tanbark in the Mattole Valley. It is easy to see how a decade sending our bark either to the San Francisco, Santa Cruz, or Stockton-based tanneries, or to the Wagner refinery in Briceland, could take out most of the Mattole watershed’s supply.

According to quick internet searches, the most “efficient and effective” method of tanning, among many chemical choices, is to use Chromium (III) Sulfate. This technique (“chrome tanning”) has been known since at least 1840, but did not come into widespread use until around 1920, then became far and away the preferred process after the technological advances spurred by World War II. However, “vegetable” tanning continued to be used. It is a much less toxic process, and suited to treating leather for certain uses, mainly in furniture, footwear, belts, and other accessories, as it does not produce as flexible a leather as treatment by either the principle chemical or animal (brains, as used by Native Americans) means. Deer-brain-tanned deerskins, for instance, are wondrously soft.
Vegetable tannins occur in the bark and leaves of many plants; chestnut, regular (Quercus) oaks, and hemlock, as well as many tropical trees, have high tannin levels. These compounds bind to the collagen proteins in leathers, making them less water-soluble and more resistant to bacterial rot. (The largest tannery in the world in the 1840s was a hemlock-fed plant in upstate New York.)   •                ~LWCsm,PS,22loading SouthCoastmouth,RJBaker

Another R.J. Baker shot of the Mattole Wharf. The wood planking and iron rail situation looks a bit busy and sketchy. Still, they managed to get those bundles onto the high lines and into the vessel.


This is the rest of the Mattole Lumber Company and wharf information, reprinted from #41 of the Now… and Then newsletter. The article was subtitled there, “The Wharf 1908-18: Opening the Valley.”


by Laura Cooskey

Here are some lines written around the time of the big Grand Opening Ceremony party of Aug. 22, 1908 (headline: “One of the Most Enjoyable Days in the History of Southwestern Humboldt”),  “by John Ross, of the Mattole section, and relative to the new wharf constructed near the mouth of the Mattole river by Mr. Calvin Stewart and his business associates” (Ferndale Enterprise, Sept. 4, 1908):


Our place connected with the sea.

No longer seems remote;

Our produce goes without delay

To distant towns of note.


Some said our wharf could not be built.

But enterprise was here;

And now our commerce has increased

With places far and near.


And he who made the work complete

Its prestige will maintain.

And those who scoffed now cease to say,

 His work will be in vain.


For all the produce of the place,

A market now we find:

And many things are now ahead

Which long have been behind.


 In winter when the roads were bad,

 Much trouble then had we;

But now the people are made glad—

They traffic by the sea.


And since a landing has been made,

We cherish it as gain.

With care our landing has been made,

And long may it remain.


Perhaps we should put some of this entrepreneurial joy in perspective. While Petrolia and the Mattole Valley flourished in the 1880s, the ʼ90s, despite a “Gay Nineties” reputation, were depressed economically. Then came the fire that destroyed many of downtown Petrolia’s businesses and a couple of homes in April, 1903, and the huge San Francisco earthquake of three years later, which caused substantial damage in the Mattole. There was much to fear and not much promise of progress.
But by August of 1907, the first automobiles arrived in the Mattole Valley. That initial motorcade carried California’s Governor James N. Gillett, a pro-business champion of railroads, waterfront development, and highways, who presented a banner to the citizens of the Mattole Valley for enjoying the highest percentage of Republican voters of any precinct in the state. Perhaps his speech helped motivate Mattolians to embrace the vision of Calvin Stewart and the Mattole Lumber Co. for railway and steamship delivery of our bountiful raw materials to eager world markets. At any rate, once the privately-funded wharf was on its feet, several public-interest projects helped carry on the spirit of material progress: In 1911, Fernbridge, the Queen of Bridges, opened our world west of the Eel River to easy access by automobile traffic from the outside; in 1912, the Punta Gorda lighthouse lit up on the coast south of the mouth of the Mattole River, bringing long-term employment to at least three families, and the worldliness of federal governmental presence as well; also in 1912, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, funded by Georgia Mackey on land donated by the Zanone family, added a settled note of civilized life, and of substantial and picturesque architecture, to the little village of Petrolia. And of course, by late 1917, trouble in Europe was drawing young Humboldt men, including at least a handful of Mattole boys, to the battlefields of World War I. The Valley would never again be as isolated and independent as it was before Governor Gillett’s visit.

Let’s look again at the newspaper record for some of this bustling enthusiasm. FE (Ferndale Enterprise), Aug. 2, 1910: “A steamer having landed a large quantity of lighthouse material [for Punta Gorda] at the Mattole Wharf the latter part of last week, teamsters Hough & Kelsey returned Monday to the mouth of the river in order to resume hauling… Several men have arrived from Briceland during the week to work in the bark camp on the Dudley place…”

FE, Aug. 23, 1910: References to bark and extract and wool being taken on steamer, threshing machine finishing work and going to Petrolia, peaches ripe, and heavy apple crop…

Arcata Union, Oct. 9, 1913: “Within a week the last boat of the season is expected at the Mattole Wharf for a shipment of bark and freight for San Francisco. The vessel has been running regularly this summer between  [here and] San Francisco, carrying tanbark.”

But already by February of 1914, the not-so-pacific ocean was having its way: “Mattole people regret to learn that the Mattole landing was so badly damaged by the storms that the company will probably not repair it. This does not mean that there will be no shipping but it is said that a wire chute will be rigged, such as those used at points down the coast… The company’s railroad track from the yard to the wharf was badly damaged also” (FE, Feb. 10, 1914). However, by the April 17 Enterprise report, Calvin Stewart and his partners were feeling positive. “The Mattole Lumber Company has decided to rebuild its wharf, which was badly damaged during the heavy January storms. Frank Adams has been cutting the piles and the company took advantage of the recent rise in the river to run them down.”

And by late summer of the next year everything seemed to be going smoothly: “The bark is now nearly all hauled to the landing. A few more days will see the last load in” (FE, Oct. 19, 1915).  Perhaps part of this shipment was the 1200 cords of tanbark mentioned on June 1 as being contracted for the Gardner brothers to take off E.J. Etter’s land.

However, the winter brought more troubles. FE, June 2, 1916: “Mr. Winning and son [Arthur and Archie] will be employed by the Mattole Lumber Company in repairing the wharf at the mouth of the Mattole river…” The repairs were successfully made, and the tanoak trees continued to be stripped; “Only a few more loads of bark remain in Upper Mattole. A day or two more will see all the bark hauled to the landing…” (FE, Oct. 20, 1916).

Before the 1918 tanbark season, the wharf closed down for good. According to an interview with Arthur Kelsey in 1977, in that year “… even though the company had operated at a profit since 1910, Calvin Stewart decided to close down his operations. Most of the available tanbark had been peeled in the area, and at this time there was a sharp decrease in the demand for the bark. But the main reason was the upkeep of the wharf. Every winter the combined action of heavy pounding waves, the drifting logs and debris, and strong currents along the coast would destroy part of the long wharf. And every Spring the wharf would have to be repaired” (Steam in the Redwoods, by Carranco and Sorensen, p. 168).
And that was pretty much it. No more mentions of the wharf in the newspapers. It seems that Calvin Stewart and his wharf surrendered to the sea as soon as the Valley’s tanbark supply dried up. So much for all the promised sea-route markets for apples, walnuts, peaches, beans, wool, turkeys, hogs, cattle, and lumber, etc.
However, when the wharf’s unreliability appeared to be irrelevant because of new transportation possibilities, resourceful Mattolians could scare up some untouched tanoak pockets. Contracts for new road construction were being signed. In March, 1919, Joseph Bagley (owner of the extensive orchards on what’s now the Yonts and Burroughs properties near A.Way Park) was enthusiastic about the opportunities afforded by this transition to engine-powered trucks: “Already representatives of big tanning interests are in the field securing options on tanbark holdings with a view to starting development in the immediate future. The bark will be taken to South Fork over the new highway and shipped by rail to its destination” (FE, Mar. 28, 1919). The new highway, what we now call the Bull Creek Road, was traversed successfully by George Lindley that August (FE, Aug. 15, 1919); however, with no bridges, the river had to be forded several times between Upper Mattole and South Fork. By Jan. 2, 1920, the Enterprise reports that the Humboldt Co. Board of Supervisors let the contract for construction of the Honeydew Bridge, with plans for the Concrete Arch (Mill Ford, near Squaw Creek’s entry) and the Shields’ Ford (near Cooskie Ridge Rd.) bridges soon to follow. There was now no need for ocean travel.

LoadingTan Bark,crop

A close-up from the R.J. Baker photo #109, Loading Tan bark, Petrolia. Here you can see the many men at work on board.

LoadingTan Bark,Petrolia,109

    Photo from which the little crop above was taken. Vessel is anchored as described in Part 1 of this story.


Although the wharf itself shut down, the Mattole Lumber Co.’s business office and general merchandise store stayed open until at least 1922. The company made its last ledger entry that year, according to Roger Frick as quoted in Steam in the Redwoods. Frick says that the store originally opened by May 22, 1908, the summer the wharf was being constructed, and that it was called the Stewart and Johnson Store. However, most often I see it referred to as the Mattole Lumber Company Store, or simply Johnsons’, since Tom and his wife Lavinia Stewart Johnson ran it. It was also known as the Union Lumber Store, according to Sam Stockton, as quoted in Andrew Genzoli’s Redwood Country column. This store was located in the downstairs of the old Knights of Pythias building, on the northwest corner of the Petrolia Square—the site of the planned new MVHS museum.
Calvin Stewart and most of his family stuck around the Mattole Valley, living below Crane Hill on the flat now owned mainly by the Bushes and the Senns. On Nov. 23, 1938, Calvin Stewart passed away at 91 years of age. Grandson Charles Calvin “Hap” Stewart, who passed away in 1990, was known and loved by many Mattolians still around today.


  Mattole Engine #1 approaching Sea Lion Rock and a waiting steamer. From the Mary Rackliff Etter collection.


The old steam donkey engine sat atop Sea Lion Rock, separated by the surf from dry land and most human scavengers, until about 1939, when it had finally rusted away, according to T.K. Clark. The locomotive itself was rescued from the mud which encased it after decades of abandonment at the Mattole Landing and restored to pristine and functional condition, in a tale worthy of its own headline. Henry Sorensen was the hero of that story. Today it resides at Sacramento’s California State Railroad Museum.


    Again, I am pleased to credit the recently departed Susie Van Kirk with the compilation of a list of Mattole newspaper references, which I drew on extensively for the quotes from news related to the Mattole Wharf.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

     In the next post, you will find a most welcome article by Bob Stansberry on the tanbark business itself in the Mattole Valley. One little note I wanted to add by way of introduction is that we must recognize how valuable this bark was—worth handling about a half-dozen times, paying many workers’ wages, before even making it to the Bay Area refineries. How could it be so precious? Consider the many uses of tanned leather a century ago… pretty much all replaced by plastic now, if not serving virtually obsolete needs. Harnesses, saddles, collars; boots, shoes, and belts; leather springs, industrial pulley belts, furniture and wall coverings, auto upholstery; book covers, desk blotters, wallets; bags, briefcases, portfolios…  softened and processed courtesy of tannic acid, often from the bark of the tanoak tree.

This article, from Issue #40 of the Mattole Valley Historical Society’s Now… and Then newsletter, was originally titled “Mattole Lumber Company: A Man, A Plan, and Tanbark.” Please excuse my reprinting material here that members of the MVHS will have already seen; as a rule, I would rather post unique content on this blog. However, I think that having articles online about some of the most noteworthy periods in Mattole history, and including some basic informational lists and compilations, might be valuable to researchers near and far.
I will begin with three articles about the Mattole Wharf and the tanbark business.


by Laura Cooskey 

You are probably aware of the economic cycles of the Mattole Valley over the past 160 years or so. Plans for growth and development have repeatedly been hatched, shown some promise, then fallen away. Each time around, a lot of people had plenty of work for a little while. A few bigwigs made quite a bit of money, then either lost it or got lost before things got much worse. Between these exciting episodes, things settled down… the folks who had always loved living here, through thick or thin, and the new ones who just discovered that it was worth sticking around, even without the fast money, went back to doing whatever they could do that kept them here.

One of these “Heydays in Mattole” (title of a Neb Roscoe book that doesn’t happen to be exclusively about this topic) was the decade of the Mattole Wharf, 1908-1918, built by Calvin Stewart for the Mattole Lumber Co. The MLC specialized in harvesting the bark of the tanoak tree and getting it to the Bay Area refineries that could turn it into the extract used in tanning hides.

The principal player in this promise to bring the world’s commerce and culture to the Mattole Valley was Calvin Stewart, who came to us from Iowa by way of big business in Mendocino County. His partner and son-in-law, Thomas Johnson, was the brother of a previous partner in Fort Bragg, Charles Russell Johnson.


The Man

Calvin Stewart was born April 4, 1847, and crossed the plains with his family, arriving in California at the age of six. After some moving around, to Washington State and Half Moon Bay, the Stewarts settled by 1857 at a point down the coast subsequently named for the family—Stewarts Point, Sonoma County. Calvin’s parents began buying up large tracts of timberland on the Mendocino-Sonoma coast. In 1872, at the age of about 25, Calvin “established shipping points”—according to the book Steam in the Redwoods, by Lynwood Carranco and Henry L. Sorensen, 1988—which is a huge bundle of work barely hinted at in the short phrase. Imagine those barely-accessible “landings” in dogholes, suffering treacherous ocean conditions where, up above the cliffs, timber was thick.

By 1875, Calvin was in Ten Mile River, which opens to the sea ten miles above Fort Bragg. According to Carranco and Sorensen, James Hunter, a brother-in-law of Stewart’s, joined Calvin in a partnership which bought up farmland for raising stock and produce. (I haven’t determined if this supposed bro-in-law was one of our Mattole Valley Hunters.) In 1877, in Kibesillah, Mendo. Co., Calvin married Frances Cooper. She came from Ohio, born in 1855, and was a niece of the driven Indian fighter, Stephen G. Whipple.

Stewart and Hunter rebuilt the Newport Mill, on Ten Mile River, in 1878. This facility had a double circular saw, a single edger, and a planer, and a cutting capacity of 5000 feet a day; it had burned down the year before. In late 1882, Charles Russell Johnson arrived at Newport, and the company was renamed Stewart, Hunter and Johnson when he bought an interest in the mill. Purchases of vast timber holdings; financial help from Johnson’s family and friends in Michigan; the Union Lumber Co. and most of the land under the present Fort Bragg combined to create the firm called the Fort Bragg Redwood Co. The Fort Bragg railroad was established to get the lumber out of the forests, first running up Pudding Creek. By 1889, Calvin Stewart became the first president of the Fort Bragg bank. That was a big year for these men and their enterprise.

According to a quick glance online at the history of that city (wikipedia), “Fort Bragg was incorporated in 1889 with C. R. Johnson as its first mayor. Calvin Stewart did the plat maps for the town. Built in Fort Bragg for Horace Weller in 1886, the Weller House is the oldest existing house in the city. Since 1999, this house, converted into hotel, has welcomed tourists from around the world.” Horace Weller was Frances Cooper Stewart’s brother-in-law, and the namesake for the Stewarts’ second son. (The Old Stewart House was also open as an inn but seems to have closed recently. That’s where I met Linda Galli, the proprietor, who shared a few pictures of the young Stewart family during their Fort Bragg years, including the one on this page.)

But by 1892, the ever-active Calvin Stewart was ready for new horizons, and he sold his interest in the Union/Fort Bragg Lumber Co. to C.R. Johnson in order to start again in the lumber and tanbark business on his own. He and former partner J. Hunter, with a couple of other partners (Pollard and Dodge), bought the wharf at Bear Harbor and 12,000 acres of timberland. In July, 1893, together with A. B. Cooper (Mrs. Calvin Stewart’s father), these men formed the Bear Harbor Lumber Co. They immediately ordered locomotive No.1, and built a ten-mile track from the harbor to Indian Creek, including a 600-foot rise where horses were used to move the rail cars. At Indian Creek they constructed several utility buildings, and nearby, a little town known as Moody sprang up. In 1896, the Bear Harbor and Eel River Railroad was established with plans to extend the railroad over to Garberville, and in 1898 locomotive No. 2, a Baldwin 24-ton 2-4-2T, was bought for that run. But when a huge wave destroyed the wharf in 1899, con-struction ceased. By 1902, with his Bear Harbor cohorts involved in a new sawmill project involving investors from Washington State, Calvin eventually moved on.
With his sons Horace and Calvin Cooper Stewart (Calvin II—he wasn’t actually a Jr., as senior Calvin did not have the middle name of Cooper, as is often mistakenly assumed), the elder Mr. Stewart had been harvesting tanbark in northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties. By 1907, he found enough enthusiasm here in the Mattole Valley for an active tanbark business, a wharf for convenient access to the outside world, and a railroad for getting the bark and other products out to the wharf. He decided to settle and invest heavily in the Petrolia area.


The Family

Calvin and Frances Cooper Stewart had at least seven children:

 Calvin Cooper, born 1878. Generally active in the family business.

Lavina or Lavinia, born 1880. She married her father’s business partner, Thomas Johnson, and ran the Petrolia MLC Store with him.

 Horace H., born 1883, also a right-hand man to his father; he married Minnie Johnston, a daughter of Charles A. and Evaline Langdon Johnston. Horace and Minnie were the parents of Charles Calvin Stewart, born around 1910—a.k.a. Hap Stewart.

Walter C., born 1885; he married Mattole schoolteacher Elsie Holtorf. Laborer, stage driver and truck driver, Road Master for County on local road jobs. Walter and Elsie’s son was Joe Stewart, and daughter was Josephine Muriel Fielder, who is on our list later in this newsletter—1915-2012.

Ella, born about 1887.

John C., born about 1891, who married a Eunice and later moved to Garberville. Farmer and County road worker.

Queen Esther, born 1893, known as Queenie Stewart, who married the painter Carl Sammons.

The middle “C” initial in three of the brothers’ names is for their mother’s maiden name, Cooper.


               Calvin Stewart, late 1870s


In 1900, while still involved with the Bear Harbor Lumber Co., the family appears on the Westport, CA, census; by 1910 they are in the Mattole Valley, where they at last put down roots. In 1930, Walter, 44, Elsie, and family are practically next door to Calvin, 82, widowed, who is living with two more offspring, John, 38, and Lavinia Johnson, by now 48 and herself a widow. Also living close by are Horace and Minnie, with son Charles Calvin (Hap) Stewart.

The main family home of the Stewarts was down on the flat below Crane Hill, in to the east of the County Rd. where some Senns have recently lived. It was very near —the properties abutted one another—to the home of close friends the C.A. Johnstons, birth family of Minnie (Mrs. Horace) Stewart. Both stately houses are long gone, but the Johnston home site is now the Dick Cogswell place, including Lost Coast Vineyards, on Conklin Creek Rd.


The Planning

Calvin Stewart and sons found not only enthusiasm, but enough tanoak trees growing here to make for an economically feasible harvesting operation. The first signs of this wave of excitement were notices in the newspaper. The Ferndale Enterprise noted on Oct. 18, 1907, “C. Stewart and T. Johnson, business men of Bear Harbor, Mendocino County, are guests of ‘Laurelwilds’ this week while attending to matters relating to tanbark in this section.” By the first of November, 1907, schoolteacher Leslie Gould (a brother-in-law of T.K. Clark’s) waxed emotional about these matters: “That Petrolia is to receive a boom soon is evident on every hand… a real business opportunity… A wharf for an outlet of Mattole’s products has been a desire of our town since its beginning and now comes the good and substantial promise of the building of a wharf and the construction of a railroad by Messrs. Stewart and Johnson… in order to ship from this valley and the surrounding hills the vast quantities of tanbark found thereon which has been growing there many years to swell that particular industry… the promoters of this enterprise mean business and are men of their word. It is one of the greatest opportunities this community can ever expect, so it stands on every property owner in hand to boost the proposition and help it on with their shoulders to the wheel for its earliest construction and completion. It means a cheaper and more rapid way of marketing your beef, orchard and farm produce and thus increase their production and make such industries profitable ones. It will bring ten people here where there is only one now, and all this means more work, more money in circulation, cheaper living than that of today and more financial chances to any of the existing businesses or those that may be begun, and you should not forget that it will give the oil companies a chance to bring their operating machinery here and land it almost upon the fields of proposed operation, and what better prospects of prosperity could anyone ask than the creating of such an industry as oil mining…”


Feb. 18, 1908, Enterprise: “Mr. Stewart, Sr., and his son Horace and Mr. T. of Needle Rock, have been looking for tanbark options in Upper Mattole the past few days. It is to be hoped that no one will withhold options and that all possible encouragement will be given the gentlemen. Most… seemed to realize that this is indeed Mattole’s opportunity, but it is said that some have held back, hoping, possibly, for better prices later. The price of the bark is a small thing in comparison to the development of the county as a result of a landing…”

From the Enterprise, dateline Petrolia–Feb. 28, 1908: “The gentlemen with Surveyor Logan and crew of assistants commenced surveying the wharf site and rights of way for tracks roads, etc., between here and the proposed landing… This work looks good to Mattole people and gives them great hopes…”

A few days later, March 3: “The landing is a certainty and it is hard to estimate what this may mean to the Mattole. For this valley is not like the little communities further south where, when the bark is exhausted, there is nothing left to support a landing. We have the capacity to raise apples equal to those of Hood River and with the same care in cultivation, spraying and packing, ought to be able to gain the same reputation and command the same price. We have many other products, also, such as lumber, and there is a large country to be drawn upon if transportation can be supplied, and it doubtless will be. And so the people of Mattole are feeling jubilant…”

By May of 1908, Calvin Stewart bought the old Dudley flour mill property at the mouth of Squaw Creek. “The property is the key to the Squaw Creek country, which is well timbered.” (F.E., 5/12/1908). If you look at a property-ownership map from 1911, for some reason you don’t see too many properties owned by Stewart or Mattole Lumber Co. Upstream, between Honeydew and Ettersburg and on the ridges north and east of the river, there are blocks owned by Eberhard Tanning Co. (Santa Clara), Kron Tannery (Santa Cruz), and Wagner Leather Co. (Stockton). By 1921, though, on the Belcher’s map, you can see many more pieces labelled some variation of Stewart, Johnson, or Mat. Lum. Co., and several that have both a landowner’s name and the note, “Timber, Stewart & Johnson.”

MRE 3teamsters,5mules

Getting the tanbark out of the forest (from the Mary Rackliff Etter collection)


It’s not as if every single Mattole resident were in favor of this wharf and the explosion of the tanbark industry. The newspapers of the day almost always pushed for economic development, so the naysayers get only scornful notice (FE, 5/12 and 5/15, 1908): “It seems strange to hear mutterings of discontent. For years the wheels of nearly every industry save stock raising have been stopped for the lack of an outlet. But this spring when the papers are full of the financial stringency of the times, we are looking forward to the most prosperous season we have ever known.” And then, “Just when the outlook for a wharf… seems brightest, along comes one of her citizens with a petition of such a nature that when properly signed and presented to the Board of Supervisors that honorable body would have power to condemn the wharf site. The exact reason for the act can hardly be explained even by the party circulating the petition…” And, on May 19, “Considerable indignation is expressed throughout the Mattole valley because of attempts that are being made to prevent building of the wharf. For twenty years and more a landing has been earnestly desired by our people…”


But the allure of jobs and trade with the outside world held sway. Peripheral businesses profited from the excitement over the wharf. In that Spring and Summer of 1908, oil prospectors had visited the area, predicting another petroleum boom; the sawmills were running full blast and expecting a high demand for lumber; property values jumped 20 percent in a few days; and the rush for timber claims was noted. Fruit and nut growers were especially excited about the possibility of relatively fast transportation to the great markets of the Bay Area.


The Can-Do Spirit

By late May, 1908, Calvin Stewart had moved his family, including Thomas Johnson, from the Needle Rock-Bear Harbor-Westport area to Petrolia. Then began the earnest work.

By June 2, a crew of men was on the job felling trees and hewing timbers for the wharf. The men stayed at a camp with board provided, on nearby Erwin property. Ten days later, “Wharf construction is now in full blast. George Fleckenstein is in charge of the pile driving crew, composed of Eureka boys [though Walter Selvage was the contractor for wharf construction and  pile driving]… while there is a crew.. grading a road to the wharf site, and still another… getting out the piles and necessary bracing timbers.”  A “bull donkey” (a sort of steam engine powerhouse) was brought to drive the piles, and by late July the rough structure reached the big rock that had formerly been a resting spot for sea lions.


This must have been taken from Mattole Point, where the tracks go from running on the sand to the trestle

(Freeman Art Co. photo postcard, MVHS collection)

On July 1, William Clark, owner of most of the ranch land on the north side at the mouth of the river, signed a contract allowing Mattole Lumber Co. use of “Sea Lion Rock to build their wharf and set their donkey engine for the purpose of running a high line out to load tanbark onto schooners for transportation to S.F.” (from T.K. Clark’s Regional History of Petrolia and the Mattole Valley).

Meantime, a very important order was placed: On July 11, 1908, Johnson & Stewart ordered from Vulcan Iron Works of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Mattole Engine No. 1. It (or “she”) was a Type 0-4-2T saddletank, 36” gauge, wood burning steam engine. It weighed only 17,500 pounds. An odd contradiction I found in the documents was that “officially” the engine was shipped to Mattole Lumber Co., Eureka, on August 22, 1908—then it is said to have traveled overland to reach the mouth of the Mattole. However, although on that date a huge celebration—the wharf dedication—was  held in a grove near the almost-completed pier, there was apparently, after an impressive list of dignitaries’ long-winded honorifics toward Calvin Stewart and the people of the Mattole Valley, a slightly embarrassing detail to divulge: “It was expected that the steamer would arrive a week or more ago with the locomotive Mr. Stewart had ordered from the east. The machinery was due to arrive in San Francisco the 15th of this month, but for some reason has been delayed in transit, and its arrival at the new landing cannot be stated with any degree of certainty.”  Daily they hoped, they waited. Almost a year later… on July 20, 1909, the Ferndale Enterprise reported: “The steamer which arrived at the wharf about ten days ago bringing the locomotive, five flat cars, rails and ties for the railroad, sailed again Friday night. As soon as possible she will make a return trip bringing with her provisions and ten extra flat cars now in readiness in the city.”


Mattole Engine No. 1, 1956, in McKinleyville after restoration by Henry Sorensen (at the controls)


The narrow-gauge track ran, for part of its length, on a wharf about 2000’ (3/8 mile) long, half of that on a trestle above the high-tide line which hugged the cliff from Mattole point north toward Sea Lion Rock, and half over the water. The wharf was 20 feet wide and was supported on pilings of “red fir”—Douglas-fir. Railroad ties were also made of this locally-abundant and hard wood (though technically a “softwood”). At the terminus on the rock, there were rail sidings for the flat cars that brought the tanbark out, and the steam donkey engine for wire-chuting, or high-lining, the cargo onto waiting ships.

The procedure for getting the tanbark from the trees to the ships bound for the city was as follows: First—peel the tanbark. This tanbark peeling was an art and science that should be more thoroughly addressed another time. Let’s just say that as the weather warmed up in summertime, the sap rose up in the tree and the peeling got easier. Also, the bark was then lighter and easier to handle if it had a little time to dry… so the summer months were the peeling season. Basically the tree would be “ringed” at four-foot intervals, the bark occasionally pulling off in neat, complete cylinders. Next, the bark curls or rings were loaded onto horse- or usually mule-drawn wagons and brought to a point on the north side of the river, about a mile and a quarter from the end of the wharf on Sea Lion Rock—on the little piece of land raised a bit by run-off sediment from Collins Gulch. This point was called “The Landing,” where the railroad tracks began. Further up the line, almost a mile away, was “Mattole Point,” where the rails climbed onto the trestle or wharf extension.

Contrary to some old maps and word of mouth, close study has assured me that this point below Collins Gulch—not another ¾ mile or so east, opposite Bear Creek, on Michael Evenson’s land nowadays—was the actual beginning of the railroad tracks. Here at the Collins Gulch landing, bark was loaded onto specially-designed flatbed cars with solid 4 x 4 corner posts on several racks holding the stacked tanbark. The locomotive pulled the loaded flat cars over the tracks, west then turning north to Mattole Point. From there, the tracks on the trestle continued north for a few hundred yards before bearing left, out into the waves and to the railroad terminus on Sea Lion Rock.

1921,MLC rr,wharf,MattolePt.,asterisk

1921 map showing railroad from terminus to Mattole Point (my spidery asterisk)—about 2000 ft. or 3/8 mile. Then to the Landing at the foot of Collins Gulch, the left “Mattole Lbr.Co.,” where the tracks ended—another 4500 ft. or 7/8 mile. All the way to the right “Mattole Lbr. Co.” label, that spot opposite Bear Creek (not shown here), would be another 4000 ft., or ¾ mile. There was some regrouping and storage at this eastern point, two miles from Sea Lion Rock; but it was not “The Landing,” which featured cabins, a cookhouse, barn, blacksmith-railroad shop, and engine house. The entire Landing flat was washed away and is now river channel.


Instead of the products (tanbark or any other) being loaded directly onto waiting ships from the wharf, though, the vessels lay a couple hundred feet out from the rock and were loaded via the high wire. “Each rack was picked up by the high line, run out to the schooner, tipped (by a sailor pulling the rope) and dumped on board. Sidings were built at the Rock for accumulating flat cars with empty racks,” says the report written by Marlene Greenway (Grangaard) as the California Dept. of Parks and Recreations’ Primary Record on the Mattole Lumber Company Wharf and Railroad, 1997. (Much of my information is from this concise summary.)

An article by Roger L. Frick, from the Times-Standard of 3/25/1975, describes the moorings for the waiting ships. Each ship tied off to four points—outside and inside head, and outside and inside stern. The outside moorings were each in 11 fathoms of water, and the inside moorings in 8 fathoms, using an almost two-ton anchor. (A fathom equals six feet.) The heaviest anchor was on the outside head mooring, and it weighed 4900 pounds. Imagine the heft of its 30-fathom chain. 


Many of the passages from the Ferndale Enterprise that I quoted were from a compilation of Mattole River Newspaper References put together by Susie Van Kirk, recently deceased… bless her and her painstaking work! 

See next two posts for a follow-up to this article, and one by Bob Stansberry focussed more on the process of tanbarking itself.