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Draining the Heart of Fort Bragg (July 3, 2002)

At first, American lumbermen were mystified when Chinese laborers gathered the slime-covered gastropods from the cove where schooners moored to load Union Lumber Company products. It was a considered another odd quirk of the Oriental mind, a secret of the East. In time, the edibility of abalone, even for God-fearing capitalistic Christians, was scientifically proven.

At the foot of Oak Street, the land slopes easily toward the weedy pond which, for over 130 years, was the mirror at the heart of Fort Bragg’s economic and industrial center. The pond is situated where it was formed by the impounded waters of a small stream, which determined the site of the first mill buildings constructed in Fort Bragg. The stream, compromised perhaps by what it now carries, enters the Pacific in a gem of a cove, with crumbly bluffs of a hundred feet and a small sandy beach. Fresh and salt mix there, and whatever falls in is absorbed and diluted.

The City of Fort Bragg constructed a series of sewage treatment ponds between the rear door of the mill and the bluffs around the cove. If one has the generosity to excuse the presence of such a necessary function in what seems now an incongruous setting, there is a certain harmony of usage. There is also an unmistakable smell. But the odor, like the powerhouse’s exhaust plume, falls away to the southeast, easily avoided.

Fort Bragg grew up around that creek and pond, just as the mill morphed from the tiny cluster of pulleys and cleavers into acres of pavement, buildings, buried plumbing and old, hidden refuse.

GP’s recent announcement that this time they really mean it — the mill will be closed by November — surprised nobody. Most employees will be gone long before then. In fact. if one looks at the whole picture, most are already long gone,

Since GP bought the sprawling mill complex and timber lands which had been nurtured and stewarded by generations of the Johnson family, they have systematically liquidated both natural and human resources like a bear going through a honeycomb.

Up the hill from that old pond and mill, the Guest House, a mansion built for the Johnson family. is now a museum lined with artifacts and photographs chronicling the real life which has passed. The walls drip honey. It was the first electrified house on the coast, deriving its power via direct current from the mill’s generators. When the mill shut down, the lights went out.

My days in the mill began in 1977. I saw trainloads of old growth redwood easing down the grade to the de-barker. In that imposing structure a man with a massive, detailed hose could roll a ten foot log like a tinkertoy and remove its inches-deep bark as handily as taking off a sweater. The logs were drawn along the old streambed on a system of chains, and delivered to the headrigs. The headrigs could handle anything God ever thought of, with everything being sharpened every four hours and the power supplied ingeniously by the waste. The creek was converted to a steel funnel down which the biggest chain of all clanked in awful progress toward machines which could reportedly destroy anything. All waste, all drainages, all overflow, aimed into one gaping, growling hole.

As those trainloads were delivered, other loads of Big River, Usal, Ten Mile, Glen Blair and Noyo logs were sent north, to Japanese mill ships. The future of Fort Bragg was milled up on the high seas, where the dust and pollution spewed over the albacore grounds.

It is possible that northwest Mendocino County could have survived past the 1969 sale of the company, with enlightened leadership. But what happened there is what happens, in our system: resources are plundered; workers discarded.

The relationship between Charles Russel Johnson and Fort Bragg was probably not strictly business. I recall becoming aware, as a child does, of the world around me, and knowing that it belonged to C.R. Johnson. The river at the bottom of the hill, the noon whistle, the creosoted railroad where it crossed Main Street and made the logging trucks wait. Even the lumber, stacked up in open cars, clattering in front of our eyes and up the rise toward the cemetery and Pudding Creek, then East, was property of C.R. Johnson. It had been that way for generations.

All that land, for miles around all the wild land, may have belonged to the Johnsons, but it was open to the mill and woodsworkers as open space. Hunting and fishing are not exactly recreation the way riding a motorbike or goofing around in a sailboat might be. Not only do these pursuits provide food one can be confident of, but they demand at least some level of dedicated observation, or study of the landscape. The relationship between the landscape, what it provides as sustenance, and how we go about acquiring it — all those details of living off the land — determine what kind of people emerge from a place.

GP is not closing the mill because logs are unavailable. They are doing it to destroy the last vestige of organized labor in the Mendocino County woods. Local logs will be milled by unorganized workers in the Branscomb, Ukiah, and other nearby towns with scab mills.

The mill will not disappear overnight. It will not disappear in one big bite. In all likelihood, in a year or so, someone else will open a sawmill on the same site and hire non-union workers.

That little stream at the center of town will continue to drain all those deposits of sweat and grime from the deep inner floors. Shithouse Cove will remain gentle as giant swells roll by outside, producing hazardous foam, while divers with privileged access investigate the gently rolling cove for abalone. The iron rings left in the rocks are the only visible memento of the decades of busy wharf activity on the site.

The cove is resilient, productive, hidden away in plain sight, the one place real estate agents are excluded from while forklift operators are allowed. It is anachronistic, given our present system. It obviously cannot last.

The Guest House will probably be the last unchanged building, overlooking the business of dismantling the structure which built not only the mansion but the town. The roundhouse just across the fence is decrepit-looking. Equipment vital long ago is rusting neatly on timbers.

Shithouse Cove, however, will outlast even the Guest House. The presence of open sewage ponds may serve to ward off development, should lumbering be permanently abandoned here. The creek is not much to look at. It sort of oozes down the bluff and over the beach.

There are plentiful abalone in the cove and all along the bluffs between the Noyo Bridge and the Pudding Creek headlands.

The basic cycles of life are all played out here, next to each other and in plain view. Standing at the cliff-edge one can see the encompassing horizon of timbered hills to the east, lands drained by the Noyo and Pudding Creek, and north to the Ten Mile. All that lumber, shipped out by schooner, flatcar, truck, or in the back of someone’s Buick Electra 225. Right up close are the ponds and the mill’s waste, farther off are the restaurants and stores, yet farther the little hillsides and valleys where people live, baking huckleberry pies and getting up in the dark for another day of cutting timber.

The economic life of Fort Bragg is gone. The town’s real meaning is its history. But people do have to keep on eating. They need fish and game and someplace to lie down. GP is behaving according to form, evicting the renters who have found isolated shelters in those hills. To make the last plunder easier, they require that anyone living on their land vacate. They have to drain the last dollar, make sure that anyone who has found a comfortable co-existence uncomfortable.

GP, they tell me in Fort Bragg, is a dirty word.

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