In a very real sense, the history of the Redwood Coast is tied to the redwood tree, which even today figures strongly in the region’s culture and politics.
Humboldt County’s first human inhabitants were the Karok people who settled over 2,000 years ago. Other peoples followed over the centuries, but the dense, nearly impenetrable redwood forests kept them fairly isolated from the outside world. The redwoods sheltered the game they hunted and furnished the material for plank houses and large, sturdy canoes—the latter hollowed out of a single tree (and not a particularly big tree at that).
The first Europeans to visit the Redwood Coast included Spanish explorers and Russian fur traders, but it wasn’t until 1848 that Humboldt Bay was “discovered“ and the first towns established. The original settlements at Eureka and Union (now Arcata) were created for the purpose of supplying the Trinity gold mines, some 100 miles inland from the coast. But as was typical in California’s Gold Rush, it wasn’t the miners who really struck it rich.
The early settlers looked around them and saw an unlimited supply of redwood—a clear, straight-grained wood that was light, strong and exceptionally rot-resistant. The huge trees defied all existing technology to cut and mill them into lumber, but determination and ingenuity soon overcame this obstacle. Before long, the woods rang with the sounds of axes, saws and steam donkeys, and lumber mills sprang up all around Humboldt Bay. A thriving trade began as lumber schooners carried redwood all up and down the coast (San Francisco was practically built—and rebuilt—with Humboldt County redwood), and fortunes were made by the early “lumber barons” who controlled the business.
One of the most successful of these lumber barons was William Carson, whose ornate Victorian mansion still stands as a tribute to the wealth wrested from the forest—and to the amazing craftsmanship of a bygone era. This is just one of literally thousands of vintage homes in Humboldt County, nearly all of them built out of redwood.
Logging and milling of redwood trees was the economic engine of Humboldt County well into the 20th century, and continues to this day on a much more limited scale. There are several places locally to learn more about this industry, past and present, including the Logging Museum at Fort Humboldt State Historic Park, the Samoa Cookhouse Museum, and the Pacific Lumber Museum in Scotia, the last surviving company lumber town in the west.
In the early 1900s, as the new Redwood Highway finally made Humboldt County accessible by road, a movement began to protect some of the ancient redwoods from logging activities. The Save-the-Redwoods League was formed in 1918, and with private donations purchased timberlands that formed the nucleus for Prairie Creek Redwoods, Jedediah Smith and Del Norte Coast state parks. In 1968, Congress passed legislation that combined these parks and connecting lands into Redwood National Park.
In the south of the county, Humboldt Redwoods State Park preserves dozens of redwood groves that were purchased with private donations and dedicated by the Save-the-Redwoods League. These include Founder’s Grove, Children’s Grove, Rockefeller Forest and many others.
Today, over 160,000 acres of redwood forest are protected by federal, state, county and local parks on the Redwood Coast, including the 7,500 acre Headwaters Forest Preserve which was created in 1999. However, the pressure to remove lands from timber production continues, as most people will recognize from the highly-visible news stories about clashes between lumber companies and environmental activists.
One of the results of this conflict has been the Redwood Coast’s world leadership in development of ecologically-sound, sustainable forestry practices. While the go-for-broke logging of the 19th century will never return, redwood logging and milling will always be a part of life on the Redwood Coast.