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Navarro, the Milltown in the Redwoods

I wonder how many isolated rural milltowns there were in California when the Wendling mill started production in 1907. I say dozens, perhaps hundreds along the redwood belt alone. Think of Aptos and the Santa Cruz mountains forests, Redwood City, Mill Valley in Marin, The Russian River mouth in Sonoma, Gualala River north to Big River, Ten Mile, Rockport and Usal in our county, the Eel and Smith Rivers in Humboldt and Del Norte.

The Wendling mill site was on the flat west of the current Highway 128. A diligent explorer can still find under the chaparral the bricks and cement that supported the head rig or main saw, the heaviest piece of equipment, I believe, in the plant. A steam engine provided the power for the various saws and chains that moved logs, then boards through the fairly automated lumber fabrication operation. Whether there was a planer at the Wendling mill I don't know.

Water for the steam power came from three horizontal caves about five hundred feet up the hill west of the flat. The caves were hand dug the previous two years by mostly Chinese immigrant labor, according to Monte Bloyd, who was then living in the construction site labor camp. I may be the last person to have explored to its headwall each cave, under the guidance of local heavy equipment operator, craftsman and personal mentor, Navarro resident Bill Witherell.

My spine still tingles when I think about tip-toeing defensively flashlight in hand to the back of each tunnel, turning steps into foot measurements, while splashing through the stream of water flowing down to the entrance covering the soles of my boots. It was cool and damp inside the shafts, water trickling out of cracks in the sandstone every few feet, the larger flows echoing up and down the tunnel as they fell from the ceiling into the stream on the floor.

The tunnels were about six feet high, so I had to duck down in a crouch in some places where it was less. And about the same width. Total depth of each tunnel was about 165 feet. Sandstone crumbled in my fingers when I touched the walls or ceiling. And toward the back of the shafts I encountered in the major sandstone seams carrying water onto the floor albino spiders, four inches across and wearing three inch antennae with bulbs at the end that looked like eyeballs. I am not making this up.

Two of the tunnels were side by side on the wooded slope above the mill. The third was about fifty feet away along a cut trail and was only about 135' deep.

The tunnels delivered their water downhill in a three inch galvanized pipe to a redwood storage tank I remember being about 5,000 gallons sitting on a bench about a hundred feet elevation above the mill. I don't know if the tank still exists. I haven't been up to check in about fifteen years, but some of the current Navarro village, eight homes and the store, still get water from the caves.

My last story described the texture of the village and inhabitants around the mill. Beside the commercial establishments dozens of homes were scattered here and there up and down the railroad, main highway and side streets. Dwellings ranged in size from one room bachelor cabins, often portable by oxen, to one story uninsulated cottages with perhaps two bedrooms, and a few larger three story structures like the Mill Doctor Sawyer's "mansion" and the mysterious Mrs. Barnes' house, first on the right when you first turn up Wendling Soda Spring.

Then there were the hotels, seven or nine in number, depending on whom you spoke with back in the 1970s. They lined up beginning right across the street from the current Navarro Store in a row west of the old McDonald to the Sea Highway against a seasonal stream and then the railroad track. So many hotels and rooms provided housing for the typically bachelor steady stream of new arrivals, for the most part from Italy and Finland via the Minnesota Woods.

They also provided accommodation and food for the early city tourists lured by the opening in 1924 of the paved state highway 28, McDonald to the Sea, and dedicated to the sport hunting and fishing seasons along the river and up in the hills. The last of the hotels was still thriving vibrantly as a dining and social center when I first arrived in Navarro in 1971. Donald Pardini's uncle Earnest's family had founded the establishment not long after the mill opened, though ownership transferred to outsiders in the late thirties, after the mill had closed. Fifty years ago its name was The Navarro Inn.

Life in the village was perforce pretty circumscribed, due to the natural boundaries and limited available transportation. Did any residents have cars in the nineteen twenties? I don't know. The railroad provided a passenger car twice a day between Navarro and Albion. Socializing was strongly family, often extended between brothers and sisters and their children and parents. There was the dance hall and the hotel bars. Once a generation ago at Monsignor Jerry Cox's eighty-fifth birthday celebration, I met a woman of Jerry's generation, member of his Santa Rosa parish, part of the Schaini family, who described growing up in the village early on. She said "we were afraid really to leave the town. The ranchers didn't let us trespass on their property, thought we would poach and steal, and we were afraid of them."

On the other hand, Alvy Price, the bachelor timber faller and Navarro resident with whom I spent hours each year at the Floodgate Store bar back in the seventies, described his trapping business up on my place, the old Guntly/Ingram ranch and down into Perry Gulch. During the first World War and after Alvy had a string of jump traps, one of which hangs as a momento in my garage, spread out along the edges of forest terrain west of the current vineyard and down the hill into Perry Gulch. All obviously by permission. Alvy's regime was to check the traps weekly and sell the cured fox and skunk (sic) pelts to a buying agent, perhaps in Ukiah.

So Wendling's operation hired both mill and woods workers to run its integrated logging and lumbering operation. The logging was done with no tools more powerful than cross-cut saws and axes. Transport of logs included a combination of oxen and mules, steam yarders to move timber off the sidehills, and rail spurs to take the logs from the gulches Wendling owned to the mill.

Other sources have recorded the course of the Albion Branch's rail spurs from tidewater to up Mill Creek, Christine. I will touch on the three in my neighborhood that have fascinated me for their engineering and operations ambitiousness, Fern Gulch, Perry Gulch and Floodgate Creek.

The Fern Gulch spur turned left off the mainline at the end of Hotel Row and went up the gulch of that name, an odd one that first runs east, then south all the way into the Ingram Ranch north end, just over the hill separating it from the Highway. One can still see the flat and constructed landing on Ingram where the logs were loaded onto staked bunk cars. Donald Pardini told me a long time ago that engines hauled the cars up to the landing at the spur end and left them there. Once logs were loaded manpower manipulating the handbrake wheels on each car was the braking system to "safely" drive the load down to the mill for debarking, another labor-intensive manual task with hand tools.

Perry Gulch, the 1200 acre ranch site fascinated me not just for the spur that was built into the forest there in 1927, but also for the fact that the logging operation involved during 1927-8 a full-time resident woodsmen camp, with cabins and cookhouse. And after that both the rail spur and camp building were abandoned to waste away.

Also of fascination to me was to find when first exploring with Bill Witherell and his '46 Ford jeep the human features of my farm. We found two sets of yarder skid trails on the ridgeback west of the vineyard where from an uphill landing logs were skidded down to the rail tracks for transport to the mill. These tracks today are still almost four feet wide and a foot deep where the logs gouged the soil on their way down to the loading landing.

The yarders were stationary steam engines mounted on skids themselves for transportation purposes, powering a continuous heavy steel cable that went straight up the hill, then secured via a bloc to the largest tree at the upper landing for the "dead man" anchor. Smaller choker cables secure the logs to the main cable for the ride down the hill.

The third spur of fascination to me is the one leaving the mainline high up on Bacchi Ranch, then dropping down into Peat Pasture Gulch and going both up into Guntly Ranch and somehow downstream into Floodgate Creek all the way to the back of Sawyer Ranch where on a flat another spur took the tracks into the bottom of my old Guntly/Ingram ranch property.

Floodgate Trestle, circa 1910

Today I can still find evidence of the rail right-of-way on Sawyer in pieces of the old graded roadbed and the redwood pillars where the tracks were on bridges that both spanned and went right down the middle of the stream for a while.

Neighbor Bill Witherell claimed, each time our deer hunting expedition took us down to the bottom of my ranch on the flat adjacent to Sawyer that the spur actually ended on this property. Only physical evidence I've found down on the flat has been one tie spike stuck in an old growth stump.

I've never gotten an answer to a nagging question of the fifty years of visits down there, no matter whom I ask: why don't chopped old growth redwoods on flats not sucker back the way trees on sidehill do? My nephews have in recent years successful planted redwood seedlings on the five acre flat I describe. The flat and surrounding Wendling, now MRC property were logged out the same years as was Perry Gulch, 1927-8.

So each of the spurs described above, and the others too were a remarkably grandiose use of logging and milling industry resources, both capital and labor. Perry Gulch and Floodgate spurs were built, used and abandoned all within a two year period. That's how inexpensive both construction materials and labor were compared to capital wealth in those days.

The end of the chapter: The Wendling, then Navarro Mill lived and died within a generation. The mill equipment, along with the transport infrastructure were abandoned, the town, of course, on a diminished scale lived on. The late and extraordinarily well-informed local historian and neighbor Bobby Glover told me numerous times what it was like for him and friends to use in their male youth the discarded facilities as playgrounds. My favorite is how they, he and his cousin Bub Gschwend, ritually went down to the mill site on the Fourth of July, fired up the boiler in an abandoned steam engine, and leaned on the whistle chain in celebration of the day for as long as they could keep the boiler fueled.

Wendling, 1915

A last word: thank you to George Hollister, Malcolm MacDonald and Marshall Newman for their contributions to last week's Navarro Story. These additions are what strengthens local history founded on anecdote as much as fact. Let me continue to invite them and others interested to provide their recollections to this chapter and the ones to come. 

One Comment

  1. George Hollister June 17, 2020

    Great article. ” I’ve never gotten an answer to a nagging question of the fifty years of visits down there, no matter whom I ask: why don’t chopped old growth redwoods on flats not sucker back the way trees on sidehill do?”

    Not all redwoods sprout back after being cut, and the very large one’s are less likely to sprout back than the smaller ones. But the likely reason there were no redwoods growing on the flat was because repeated annual burning to maintain the land for grazing was done for a long time. The suckers that didn’t burn were chopped down. Eventually this persistent activity killed the trees. This is typical for what happened to most good growing redwood flats. In hindsight this is unfortunate. Today, redwoods are worth a bunch more than livestock, and good growing redwood flats are very productive, easy to log, but rare. Good for your nephew for planting the redwoods.

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