Odd Old News: The Early History of the Save the Redwoods Movement

Nuggets of old news is served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

With Richardson Grove back in the news, Odd Old News will share some articles about the early history of the Save the Redwoods conservation movement of the first few decades of the 20th century.

Located at the very southern edge of Humboldt County on State Highway 101, Richardson’s Grove State Park was one of the first redwood groves in the northern end of the Pacific Coast Redwood Belt to be set aside by conservationists. Following the purchase of the first 120 acres, it became a state park in 1922, and over time, expanded to nearly 2,000 acres. In 1923, it was named Richardson Grove after the newly elected 25th governor of the state of California, Friend William Richardson. Made possible by decades of work by conservationists, the grove’s magnificent trees have enthralled countless tourists for nearly a century.

In 1916, the size of the Pacific Coast Redwood Belt was described as ranging from “’The Southern Sentinel’ —which still stands, the southernmost Redwood in the world, a few miles south of Monterey —to just across the Oregon line. This strip was about 450 miles long, averaged 20 miles in width and contained about 1,600,000 acres”(Coronado Eagle and Journal, 10/18/1916).

The early days of the movement to save the redwoods appear in 1890’s newspapers when civic groups, alarmed at the cutting rate of old growth forests, called for conservation. In 1901, financed by the Sempervirens Club, the first California State Redwood Park was created at Big Basin in Santa Cruz county. Seven years later, the Muir Wood’s grove was donated by the Kent family in Marin County. Donations of redwood stands by private citizens and groups continued for many decades. We will take a look at the history of this process in articles in subsequent weeks.

The preservation of old growth timber in Humboldt County would have happened earlier had there been road access to the county. In 1916, one passionate member of Humboldt County Good Roads club wrote to the Humboldt Times:

If Humboldt County had built its good roads ten years ago you would not be hearing much of the agitation for a Red wood Park today. No, you wouldn’t, for the Redwood Park would be a reality by this time —not an object of desire with its realization only a prospect. Down on the South Fork of Eel River there would be hundreds of acres of the finest redwood land, running from the river to the top of the ridge, which would belong to the public of these great United States. It would be the people’s park—where the people, be Eureka, from Ferndale, from Chicago or from New York could camp and hunt and fish and enjoy the beauties of nature. But Humboldt Didn’t have Good Roads and Does Not Have Them Yet! Also Humboldt Does Not Have A Redwood Park! Now the connection between Good Roads and a Redwood Park may not be clear to everyone, but it is, never-the-less, a direct and distinct connection.”(Humboldt Times, 7/18/1916).

The writer stated that large lumber companies had agreed to surrender timber property, but only for public use in a park, and that wealthy men were prepared to pay for the expense, but for the lack of good roads coming north.

The “Save the Redwoods” movement gained momentum when the Save the Redwoods League was established in 1918 after a trip north to the see the redwoods by influential conservationists. Another important forest ally appeared with the formation of the Women’s Save the Redwoods League in Humboldt County in 1919. A few years later, the completion of the Redwood Highway in 1920 opened up access to the North Coast’s of old growth redwoods cathedrals to a stream of tourists and started construction of many resorts to host visitors to the region.

This week, Odd Old News will first share one international visitor’s impressions of the Redwoods.

Humboldt Times, May 28, 1924
EUREKA, May 28.—Visiting Humboldt county and glorying in the majesty of what he terms the finest trees he ever saw is Alex F. Wallenberg, Swedish ambassador to the United States. Apart from being the minister plenipotentiary of the king of Sweden, the visitor is also a timber expert and he has given many years of study to the subject in his native country.
The ambassador was most lavish in his appreciation of the redwoods, the counterpart of which he asserted he had never seen in any part of the world. His intimate knowledge of timber led him to make a closer study of the giant trees in this country than a casual visitor probably would have done, and there was not one incident of his Monday trip through part of the redwood forest at Richardson Grove that did not remain indelibly impressed upon his memory, he stated.

The ambassador said he was making a trip through the whole country with a view of familiarizing himself with the industries and so far nothing had impressed him so much as the redwood industry of this county. He was particularly struck with a redwood he had seen felled during the day which contained 43,000 board feet, whereas the largest tree in Sweden would not yield more than 1000 board feet. He said he could hardly conceive the magnitude of the wonderful redwoods.

Logging with Donkey Engine (skid road with oxen in background)[Image by Edgar Cherry, from Palmquist Collection in the Humboldt Room of HSU]

Logging with Donkey Engine (skid road with oxen in background)[Image by Edgar Cherry, from Palmquist Collection in the Humboldt Room of HSU]

In 1923, one visitor to the redwood groves returned to the southern end of the state, raved about the beauty of the trees, described old logging practices, and penned a plea to support the Save-the-Redwood League.

San Pedro Daily News
October 25, 1923

Z. W. Craig, Manager of Marine Exchange, Returns From Mendocino With Plea for Whole State to Get Behind “Save the Redwoods League”—Says Mighty Sentinels of Forests Are to Fall Unless Action Is Taken

Z. W. Craig, local manager of the Marine Exchange, who has recently returned from a trip through the redwoods of Mendocino and Humboldt counties, has become a most enthusiastic booster for the “Save the Redwoods League.”

In speaking of the subject today he said:
“Why, in all of my travels, including a goodly portion of the United States, Canada and Mexico. I have never seen anything that compares with those trees for a spectacle that is superbly stupendous and divinely sublime. “Thousands of these trees are more than three hundred feet in height and are so symmetrically formed that no less an authority than Luther Burbank pronounces them ‘The most perfect specimens of vegetable growth in the known world’. They grow so closely together that, in spots, the sunlight never reaches the ground, and the tops are sometimes woven together in an almost impenetrable tangle. The undergrowth of younger redwoods, and many other varieties of trees, makes an almost perfect setting, beautifully embellished with mammoth ferns and mosses.

Conservation Started
“Considerable has already been done in the way of conserving some parts of the wonderful groves along the State Highway, now known as the ‘Redwood Route’, notably the State Redwood Park, for which the Legislature has appropriated $300,000. Bolling Grove, Sequoia Park, at Eureka, Richardson Grove (formerly known as Devoy Flat) and some few other smaller sections have been purchased and set aside, but such reservations are only a small part of what should, at the earliest possible date, be correlated into a magnificent and harmonious whole.
“The fact that more automobiles from Los Angeles County passed through this wonderful country during the past summer than came from all of the other states into California, is just one of the numberless instances of what a live interest is being taken by the people of this section in this most important subject.
“However, some of the finest of the famous groves, notably Carson Woods, one of the features around which Peter B. Kyne wove his splendid story, ‘The Valley of the Giants’, and ‘Bull Creek Flat’, the latter said to be the finest body of standing timber left, in the whole world, are both marked for slaughter. It is in Bull Creek Flat that the tallest tree in the world stands, some 375 feet in height, but that is not going to stop its sacrifice, unless the State or some other factor steps in and buys the ground on which is located this stately and natural monument, to the bounty of Nature. Other equally beautiful groves have already fallen victims to the axe, the saw, the fire and the rapacity of man, and Bull Creek Flat and Carson Woods are already destined for extermination.

Seek Congress Aid
“If the State of California cannot, undertake the reservation of a considerable portion of this marvelous park region, then steps should be taken to enlist Congress in the campaign to prevent its destruction. Every person who is interested ought to communicate with the ‘Save the Redwoods League’ in which the local Woman’s Club is already taking an active part. Either call by phone, or mail a postal card, and volunteer your services to help this great work along. It is as little as any good citizen can do to help save what will soon be forever lost to mankind and to posterity, for this locality, (including the counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte) is the only section in which the Sequoia Sempervirens is left, although at one time, in past ages, they existed in many other parts of the world. “Do not let anybody deceive you by claiming that scientific forestation is being practiced. I have been out in the logging camps and seen with my own eyes what is going on. In the first place, all merchantable timber is fallen, sometimes up the slopes and sometimes down but fallen nevertheless. The undergrowth is slashed at the same time, and when it is dry, the whole area, is burned’ over, leaving nothing but the bare trunks, prone on the ground. They are then barked and sawn up into logs of convenient lengths for the mills. In the meantime logging roads are being built, some of them clear to the summits of the hills. Donkey engines are installed with various forms of derricks, shoarlegs and single gin-poles and masts. Sometimes the logs are hauled to the top of the hill, and sometimes to the bottom of the canyon. In many cases the logging is being done by so-called ‘high-lines’, which consists of a slack wire stretching clear across the canyon, along which logs are carried through the air, sometimes at a velocity of 600 feet per minute, smashing everything that comes in their path. The donkey engine fall is sometimes attached to a log well up the side of the hill and when started it comes tearing the slope, sweeping clean everything in its path. On one such occasion I had been talking to a time-keeper about scientific cutting and the preservation of the younger growth. After the practical demonstration, which we had just seen, he asked. ‘What, do you think about saving the smaller trees now?’

Perilous Task
“I was told that, in the old days, when the logging was done with oxen, that when the cattle heard one of these great, logs start down the hill, they would instinctively start to run, absolutely regardless and relentless in their effort to get out of the way. If one of the oxen happened to stumble and fall, it would sometimes throw the whole team of from ten to twelve cattle, and they would all get killed. All that the driver could do in such cases was to run as hard as he could in order to save his own life.

“The ox-team method was slow and comparatively harmless compared with the processes of the present. Great logs, from six to twelve feet in diameter are taken into the modern saws, of which there are sometimes three in one mill and literally chewed up within five minutes from the time when they are made fast on the saw carriage. They come into the mills on long trains, and to anyone with a bit of sentiment about his system, it seems like the funeral train of the redwoods. “We do not have to have redwood lumber, or shingles, or ties, or even grape stakes. If the redwoods were not there at all, we would get along just the same. The only thing the recent fire in Berkeley respected was the stucco house, covered with a pitch and gravel roof. That city now has an ordinance prohibiting the covering of any root with any inflammable material. A similar ordinance is pending in Los Angeles. Do not let anyone lead you to believe that reforestation is a remedy. Many of these trees are said to be at least 1600 years old. It is estimated that it would take 40 years to grow a redwood three feet in diameter. What shall we say to growing those 20 feet in diameter and 350 feet high?

“Let us save the redwoods we have! Let us proceed on the theory of the Irishman, who was offered a magnificent sum to take a desperate chance. He more or less respectfully retorted, what’s all the world to a man when his wife’s a widow?’ “Let us all get behind those patriotic men and women who have so loyally started “Save The Redwoods League.”
(Once again, Odd Old News reminds the reader that we are only looking at glimpses of topics through the lense of newspaper articles of times past. Information that corrects anything shared here is always welcome)

Earlier Odd and Old News:

There are many, but here are the most recent:



  • Here is a link to a really cool book, California’s Redwood Wonderland, Humboldt County. The book was published in 1923 by Sunset Magazine. Found the copy I have in a junk shop in coastal Oregon in 1980s. There is a 2nd Edition published in recent years, I have tried to buy but cannot ever find in stock. But the book is online in pdf.


  • geez, that description ” The undergrowth is slashed at the same time, and when it is dry, the whole area, is burned’ over, leaving nothing but the bare trunks, prone on the ground.” This reminds me of the scene in Lord of the Rings. I’m grateful for some fashionable interference by concerned citizens.

  • In the early 70’s I remember my grandmothers father “Frank” and his wife “Helen” they were from a long line of a logging family. They did not live here but in Siskiyou county where I grew up. There storyline was much different, Frank traveled every season to his woods and Helen followed. He would stand on spring board and chop, his axes were polished and almost chrome, hand polished every day on a wet stone, you could shave with them. They traveled logging camp to camp. Helen worked the camp kitchens that the main was set up on skids pulled by mules from site to site. She was the best cook I remember. When weather hit and work was shut down they would go home to Etna until next season. There storyline was much different. Next time you see a hole in the side of a stump. It’s for a spring board, that’s what manual labor was.

    • Working in the woods was a way of life for many many fine people, I wonder what the percentage of Humboldt county’s population tied into the logging industry would have been around 1900-20? I wish there were a book written from the perspective of one of a female logging camp cook. Everybody worked so hard back then, many of our Southern Humboldt women were cooks at the seasonal tan bark and lumber camps. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Many postcards were marked “Save the Redwoods”. This one postmarked 1926. (Photo by E.R. Freeman)

  • If you are interested in first hand documented history, I transcribed an interview with Enoch Percival French, the first superintendent of the Redwood National Parks. I knew Percy French, as he was called. He was the man who started French’s Campground in Piercy. It is a long and very interesting read, so read it sometime when you have the time. It is an incredible documentation of him and his great friend Newton B. Drury.


    Sorry, I gave the wrong link at first. Corrected now.

  • As a side note, our very own Thomas Tobin, “Toby”, was very well connected in the Save the Redwoods League. For those of you who might have known the man that helped build Garberville.

    • Here’s Toby with daughter Patty, and Lou Moroni. At the Cove in the 60s. I rented the house on the corner of Conger & Locust in the 90s from him. Great man and family.

    • That is such an excellent read Ernie, thanks for sharing that link. Mr. French was a giant in his field.

      • One of the illuminaries who came north to assess the status of the old growth forest was C.Hart Merriam, a naturalist and self-taught anthropologist. I don’t know if he stayed in Tobin’s Garberville Inn on this journey north, but he did stay there in the early 1920’s when he interviewed local Native Americans.

        • Wrong Merriam! John C. Merriam was a Save the Redwood League founder, C. Hart Merriam came to Garberville and studied the local Native Americans in the early 1920’s. Sorry.

  • Such a shame how their efforts ultimately failed. There’s about 3 to 5% of old growth redwood forest left intact AND WE ARE STILL CUTTING instead of allow it to return.

    • Damn shame. What’s just as sad, is that those efforts are intentionally buried by industry dogma, to the extent that you can read current “foresters” referring to the era the likes of “the great experiment”, as if nobody had a clue what kind of environmental impact deforestation would have.

      Humboldt’s public libraries have fantastic books with plenty of pictures documenting the mindblowing devastation of the early century clearcuts. Replanted with fast growing trees that the general public views as ‘forest’ but are giant tree farms.

      All the fires of recent tie into the atmospheric shitstorm created by removing old growth trees. Undergrowth of non-native habitat is exceptionally dry and perpetuates an arid atmosphere. In addition to the loss of critical canopy.

      Humboldt County was once a true rain forest. RIP our redwood brothers. May the strongest survive what’s to come.

  • Any history on when the phrase “behind the redwood curtain” was first used?

    • My immediate impulse was to make a bad joke about a redheaded hooker….but…use your imagination, my punchline’s pretty weak.

  • There is a book, written just over a century ago, The Valley of the Giants. Peter Kyne was the author.

    It is very hard to find now, every offer has been a facsimile reprint, pages of the original instead of a reprint. It is a work of fiction, but covers the mid 19th century to about the time the book was written. It’s a book very much a part of it’s time. There is a “save the redwoods” part of it, though.

    This wonderful article reminded me of it. I do have a copy, because I love my Humboldt lore.

    My great-great-great grandfather came to Humboldt Bay in the 1850s. He kept a diary. (Which my grandfather meant to (or did) donate to the County library, a copy anyway). Once he was walking from Bucksport to Uniontown (Arcata) along the bay and got lost in the Redwoods. He was logging around Ryan’s Slough for a time, before he returned back east. He told the folks back home, Indiana, about the Redwoods and other wonders of California, but they didn’t believe him at the time, thinking he was exaggerating.

    A half a century later, his daughter and her family moved to California to grow oranges. That part of the family is still there. They did admit that Grandpa had not been telling tall tales after all. 🙂

  • What an Awesome read! Thank you much! Happy Solstice- holidays!

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