Published: May 1899
The Redwood Forest of the Pacific Coast
By Henry Gannett

This story was originally published in the May 1899 issue of the magazine. It was National Geographic's first coverage of redwoods.

Redwood is so called because of its color, which, when freshly cut, is a bright, though not deep, red, changing to a brown-red when thoroughly seasoned. The wood is soft, with a rather coarse, straight grain. It is easy to work, quite as much so as our eastern white pine. It contains practically no resin, but a large amount of water, which makes the green wood so exceedingly heavy that often the lower log of a tree will sink in water.

Botanically, the redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is a brother of the big trees (Sequoia gigantea) of the Sierra Nevada, the two species being the sole living representatives of the genus Sequoia. It is a cousin of the cedars, which it resembles in many respects, in habit and appearance, in bark and foliage. It is an immense tree, larger than the fir of Washington, but not as large as the Big Tree of the Sierra. It often attains a height exceeding 300 feet and a butt diameter of 15 feet. It rarely branches low, but almost invariably shows a straight, fluted trunk, perfectly symmetrical, rising with a slight taper for 200 feet to the lower branches. The bark is covered with thin flakes of epidermis, lying parallel to the stem. The foliage is dull green in color, fine and drooping. It is a most beautiful tree, both in form and color.

The habitat of the redwood is peculiar. It is found only in a narrow strip, closely hugging ht ePacific coast, stretching from the southern boundary of Oregon or just across the boundary, for there are perhaps 1,000 acres of redwood in Oregon, southward through northern California, nearly to the bay of San Francisco. Indeed, a few scattering groves are found south of the bay, in Santa Cruz county and other localities, and there are evidences that not many centuries ago it extended over the Coast ranges as far south as Los Angeles; but in all this region it is now practically extinct. The densest forests are found in Humboldt county. In Del Norte county, on the north, the area is comparatively small and the forests somewhat less dense; while in Mendocino county, on the south, where the redwood area is even greater than in Humboldt, the forests are not as dense, and in Sonoma county, still farther south, the timber becomes more scattering, thinning out into groves. Its habitat is a region of heavy rainfall, which comes in the winter, and of fogs which sweep in from the Pacific at all times of the year. It is a very moist, temperate region, both of which conditions appear to be essential to the growth of the species. On the north its range is probably limited by temperature, since the humidity is even greater in Oregon and Washington than in California. On the south it is probably limited by the diminishing amount of humidity. The species seems to require for its development a rather nice adjustment of temperature and moisture conditions, which are not found elsewhere, and, as will be seen later, do not at present fully meet the needs of the species, even in its present habitat.

This is probably the densest forest on earth, as measured by the amount of merchantable timber-that is, of timber suitable for the saw-mill-contained per acre. It is not the size of the trees alone which produces this, although they are exceptionally large, even in this state of large things, but it is the great number of trees on each acre, the closeness of their stand. In a red wood forest the sun never shines-it is always twilight. You are, as it were, under the roof of a vast temple, a roof of foliage, supported by great tree columns.

In order to obtain a conception of the enormous stand of timber in the redwood strip, let me commence with some familiar examples for comparison.

The great pineries of the southern states contain, on an aver age, about 5,000 feet, board measure, of standing timber per acre. Of white pine the heaviest county in Minnesota is esti mated to contain an average of 5,000 feet, while others, regarded as forested, contain 1,000 to 2,000 feet; and a tract containing 10,000 feet per acre is regarded as heavily forested. Contrast these figures with the following: The average stand of redwood upon 173,000 acres in Mendocino county is 44,000 feet per acre. There is here nearly nine times as much timber on an acre as in the southern pineries; yet even this is exceeded in Humboldt county. Upon 96,443 acres in this county the average stand is 84,000 feet per acre, nearly seventeen times as great as in the southern states. The lumber companies around Eureka, California, the principal center of the redwood industry, have realized, since they commenced operations, an average of between 75,000 and 100,000 feet per acre, and one of these companies has for ten years cut an average of 84,000 feet per acre of red wood alone, besides fir and spruce, which would increase the amount to nearly 100,003 feet. These last figures are not in any way estimates, but the actual products of the mills. The dis proportion is even greater than appears here, for the standard for lumber used in the redwood country is much higher than in the east, and consequently the estimates of the amount of timber are correspondingly less. For instance, whereas in the east logs eight inches in diameter are cut and sent to the mill, and knotty stuff is sawed, on the Pacific coast nothing less than 16 inches in diameter is sawed, and clear lumber only. If the redwood were used as economically as the southern pine, these estimates of its stand might easily be 50 per cent greater. The forests of Washington and Oregon are very heavy, but they by no means equal the redwoods in density. The most heavily forested county in Washington, Skagit, contains an average on its forest land of but 28,000 feet per acre, and in Oregon the stand is no greater. Of course, there are in these states individual acres, and even square miles, which are vastly more heavily forested; but so, also, are there in the redwood strip. On Mad river, near Eureka, a lumber company is at work in a tract of several square miles which actually cuts 150,000 feet per acre.

There is on record a single acre, near Garberville, which yielded in the mill 1,431,530 feet in lumber. There was sufficient lum ber on this acre to have covered it with a solid block of frame dwellings ten stories high. A redwood tree of average size, say five feet in diameter at the butt, furnishes enough lumber to build an ordinary cottage, and many trees have been cut each of which would suffice for half a dozen such houses. One tree is on rec ord as having scaled 66,500 feet. A tree was felled in a lumber camp near Eureka in 1898 which was 16 feet in diameter inside the bark, and which scaled over 100,000 feet, and there is stand ing in the same neighborhood, a tree 22 feet in diameter which scales nearly twice as much. Such examples of wonderful yield might be multiplied to any extent, but this would merely involve repetition.

The redwood strip is composed of the westernmost of the Coast ranges, with the valleys between them. It is narrow at the north, in Del Norte county, where it is not over five to six miles in breadth. It widens in Humboldt county to an average of 10 to 12 miles; then south of Eel river, in the southern part of the county, its continuity is broken for a few miles. At the north edge of Mendocino county it commences again, and in the cen tral part of that county attains it greatest breadth, of perhaps 20 miles. Farther south, especially in Sonoma county, the red woods scatter, being found in detached clumps and groves, which become more and more scattering southward. The trees, how ever, remain as large as elsewhere.

The closest and finest growth is in Humboldt county, near the northern end. That portion in Mendocino and Sonoma counties is not as heavy or continuous, nor are the trees as valuable for lumber, as they branch lower down. The wood is, however, of slower growth, is denser and harder, and perhaps more durable. The best lumber and the heaviest growth is everywhere in the valleys and on the flats. On the hillsides the trees are smaller and not so close. Nowhere is there any young growth. The youngest trees, which are found only in the northern portion of the belt, are several hundred years of age.

When the timber has been cut there is no sign of reproduction from seed. In many localities sprouts are growing from stumps in the cut areas, but even this form of reproduction is limited. Indeed, everything appears to indicate that for some reason, probably a progressive drying of the climate, the present environ ment is not favorable to the growth of redwood, and that with the clearing away of the present forests the end of the species as a source of lumber will be at hand.

The area of the redwood belt has been carefully mapped, and is, as nearly as can be estimated, 2,000 square miles, or 1,280,000 acres. The stand of timber on this area is not so easy to ascer tain. The figures given above in this article are the best that have been obtained. I will recapitulate them with additions. In Del Norte county, out of 67,000 acres of redwood land, 11,000 acres are estimated to contain an average stand of 60,000 feet. In Humboldt county, out of an area of 500,000 acres, 96,443 acres have an average stand of 84,000 feet, with a range in different tracts from 25,000 to 200,000 feet. These figures are corrobo rated by the result of all the cutting done in the neighborhood of Eureka, where nearly all the lumbering of the county is done. The companies report an average yield of between 75,000 and 100,000 feet per acre. In Mendocino county, out of a redwood area of 640,000 acres, 173,000 acres are reported to contain an average of 44,000 feet, with a range from 12,000 to 75,000 feet. In Sonoma county the timber is so scattering that the total amount, which is spread over an area of some 75,000 acres, is comparatively slight.

Using the above figures, we obtain as the amount of standing redwood are the following: Del Norte county - 4,000,000,000, feet; Humboldt County - 42,000,000,000; Mendocino county - 28, 160,000,000; Sonoma county, say - 1,000,000,000. This equals a total of 75, 160,000,000.

To appreciate the magnitude of these figures, it may be said that the annual cut of lumber in all the mills of the United States is about one-third of this amount. The redwood strip alone would therefore supply the entire country with mill timber for three years.

Many estimates of the amount of standing redwood have been made, with results widely at variance with one another. The area of the belt has long been pretty well known, and the discrepancies among the estimates seem to be due mainly to differences in the estimated stand per acre. The first estimate that I find was made in 1881 by John Dolbeer, of Eureka, who gave 23,650 million feet. At about the same time Mr E. L Allen, secretary of the Redwood Manufacturers' Association of San Francisco, made the estimate published in the report of the tenth census, which was 25,825 millions. In 1885 Mr Hubert Vischer published, in the report of the California State Board of Forestry, an estimate of 30,500 millions, and in 1890 Capt. A. C. Tibbetts, secretary of the Humboldt Lumber Manufacturers' Association of Eureka, estimated it at 97,500 million feet.

The area seems to be generally agreed upon as being from 1,000,000 to 1,280,000 acres. The measurements from the best map available, that of the State Board of Forestry, give the latter figures. It is out of the question that the redwood lands yield, on an average, so little as 20,000 to 30,000 feet per acre. All estimates of stand and all records of cut show yields far in excess of these figures; and it cannot be contended successfully that these estimates and records relate only to selected areas far above the average. There is, as yet, very little selection of timber lands taking place. The whole territory is so heavily forested that it is no advantage to select those most thickly clothed with timber, but rather a disadvantage. The only selection yet made has been on the score of accessibility by stream in earlier times and by rail route at present. I consider, therefore, that the fig ures quoted above, which represent 280,000 acres out of 1,280,000, or nearly one-fourth of the entire area, together with the records of the entire amount cut in Humboldt county, furnish a fair sample of the stand in the belt. Captain Tibbetts' estimate seems to me, under present logging conditions, much too high, but I have no reasonable doubt that his amount will eventually be cut from the belt, owing to the economies to be effected in the future.

The annual cut by the mills, excluding other uses to which the wood is put, such as firewood, shingles, ties, posts, and poles for such uses are not considered in the estimate of the stand-is 250,000,000 feet. At the present rate of cutting, therefore, the supply will probably last for three hundred years.

The rate of cutting will, however, increase and, as transporta tion is cheapened, may increase many hundred per cent. For instance, the completion of an isthmian canal will open up the entire market of the eastern states, where redwood will inevita bly replace white pine. causing an immense demand. On the other hand, with the increased demand will come increased economy in the utilization of the wood. At present only about one-third of the tree emerges from the mill as sawn lumber. Nothing but clear lumber is sawed. One may go through miles of lumber yards at Eureka and examine millions of feet of lum ber without finding a knot or, indeed, an imperfection of any kind. The upper branched third of the tree is left in the woods.

In felling the tree there is much damage done. Although great care and skill are exercised, the fall of one of these giants, weigh ing scores of tons, not infrequently splinters them; occasionally, too, a tree falls across its fallen fellows and thus produces great destruction.

In the mill the amount of lumber is diminished, first, by the slabs cut from the outside of the log, and, second, by the saw dust. This last is an item of great importance, especially where circular saws are used. The great saws used in the first cutting of the logs make a cut five-eighths of an inch in thickness. This means that if the log were cut directly into inch boards, more than one-third of the wood would be converted into sawdust; but this is not often done. The log is commonly first cut into thick planks and beams, and these are subsequently cut into smaller dimensions by smaller, thinner saws. Moreover, in most of the great mills today the first cutting is done by band saws, which are much thinner, and consequently convert less of the log into sawdust.

There is one cause of destruction from which this tree is entirely exempt-that is, fire. Containing no pitch, but, on the other hand, a large amount of water, it will not burn when green. No fire can run in a redwood forest. We shall, beyond reason able question, have the use of our supply of redwood ; shall not have the pain of seeing it go up in smoke. It is the only one of our coniferous lumber trees which is thus exempt.

The redwood is entirely in private hands, having long ago passed from government ownership. It is mainly held in small tracts by a great number of persons, but a few of the lumber companies have large holdings.

The forest is nearly pure redwood. Occasionally spruce and Oregon pine-that is, red fir-are found, forming perhaps 10 percent of the forest only. The southern part of the strip is, on the whole, composed of older trees than the northern part, and the wood is denser and of less rapid growth. In the north are some tracts covered with trees not more than 200 to 300 years old, while the age of the mature trees reaches several hundred, perhaps a thousand years. The annual rings show that in the north, specially in damp valleys, the growth is several times as rapid as in the southern part of the strip.

The felling is done in the winter, the season of rains, when the ground is soft, and the trees are left lying on the ground until late spring, when things have become drier, when the whole thing is set on fire. This fire burns the brush and branches and much of the bark, but does not injure the trees themselves, which are still too wet to burn. Then the work of cutting up the trees and getting the logs out begins. The trees are sawed by hand, with whipsaws, into logs, generally 16 feet in length, although, greater lengths are not infrequently cut for special needs. The big logs are split into halves and quarters for convenience in handling and sawing. From the end of the railroad, for railroads have taken the place of streams in the transportation of logs, a road is built to the logged area. This may be merely a dirt road, of hard, compact clay, kept wet and muddy by liberal applications of .water, packed in bags on horses, or it may be a skid road, paved with small logs, laid crosswise at short intervals, and like wise kept slippery. A force of 50 to 75 men is employed, and two donkey engines. The latter do all the work, taking the place of oxen and mules, and to a great extent of men, in the labor of moving logs about in the woods and dragging them down to the railroad.

The donkey engine in the woods is anchored by wire cables to stumps, at a strategic point, so that in subsequent operations it will move the log and not itself. Then a wire cable, attached to a drum on the engine, is carried through pulleys to the log to be moved, and is attached by hooks, so that by winding up the cable on the drum the log is moved to the desired position. Often much ingenuity is required for the proper placing of pulleys in order to produce the desired result, but in all cases the machine, directed by experienced heads, does its work quickly and effectively. It is extremely interesting to watch the varied operations of a donkey engine in handling the logs and clearing away the waste lumber and not the least interesting part of it is the quickness and clear comprehension of the men. There is no fuss or noise; everything in the varied operations goes on quietly and smoothly. If the foreman gives instructions they are general ones, and in detail each man knows his part, recog nizes what he has to do, and when to do it. Soon a train of logs, 10 to 12 in number, is on the road chained together tandem ; then the cable-donkey is called upon. This is a stationary en gine, located at the end of the railroad. From its drum goes a wire cable along the road up to the slashings, just like the cable of a street-car line, except that the cable is on the surface in stead of below it. This cable is fastened to the leading log of the train, the engine is started, and the train moves railroad ward. Just in advance of the train walks a man with a bucket with which he dips water from tubs along the road and wets the track. Arrived at the end of the railroad, a third engine is put to use in loading the logs on the railroad trucks by the use of wire cables. Here the logs are scaled and measurements recorded. When the train is loaded it is hauled down to the mill and the logs dumped into the water, there to lie until their turn comes for conversion into lumber.

The work in the woods is hard. Although every device is used to reduce manual labor, there remains sufficient to make this one of the most wearing of physical occupations, and it is said that few men can stand the strain for any great period. The work is also extremely dirty, owing to the burning, so that the men look like stokers. Naturally, this work commands high pay, and with high pay a superior class of men, both physically and mentally, are obtained. I took dinner one day in a camp with about 75 men, all splendid specimens of manhood, hands and clothing black from the charcoal in which they work, but well read, intelligent, and interested in the doings of the outside world.

The mills of the redwood strip are as progressive and up to date as are the logging operations. The logs and the lumber are moved and handled everywhere by machinery in the most complete and ingenious manner. They are drawn from the pond up into the mills and are rolled on to the carriage and moved into place for the saw by ingenious devices operated by steam. The logs are sawed by band saws-a continuous band of steel, with teeth cut on one edge, running over drums above and below. This is preferable to the circular saw for two reasons: it can saw a log of almost any size, which the buzz saw or any combination of buzz saws cannot do; and, second, since it can be made much thinner than the buzz saw, there is less waste of wood in sawdust. In some mills the band saws have teeth cut on each edge, so that a cut may be made both as the log moves forward and backward. The boards, beams, joists, plank, etc., as they come from the band saw, are distributed by rollers, steam-worked, to the proper parts of the mill for future cutting, while the slabs and other waste are similarly carried off to waste heaps. The lumber, as it comes from the band saw, is edged, cut to smaller dimensions, etc., by small circular saws, in some cases harnessed in gangs, so that several cuts are made at once. To watch the wheels go round in one of these big mills is a most entrancing occupation.

Redwood is in almost universal use on the California coast. In the construction of houses little other timber is used, even as far south as Los Angeles and San Diego. It is exported as far south as Valparaiso, Chili, and westward to Japan and Australia. Indeed, considering its cheapness, $14 per thousand feet in Eureka for the best, it seems strange that it has not found its way in quantity to the Atlantic coast. Certain it is that before many years redwood will supplant the now vanishing white pine in eastern markets.