As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Progress and its Consequences

1915 picture of logging in Humbodlt County

introduction: For the past weeks, we have discussed the political and economic factors of the first five decades of California history that made it a modern state. In so doing, we focused first on the way the Gold Rush pushed California into modernity, and we followed that discussion with and understanding of the political growth of the new state, the role of the Transcontinental railroad in California's politics and the economy, and the "Americanization" of the California Indians with an emphasis on their fate in Northern California. Today, we are going toPhoto of redwood logging in Humboldt examine the patterns of economic development that evolved over the last decades of the 19th Century. We will take a more indepth look at the newest natural resource to be exploited and manipulated - timber - and then we will look at the environmental costs of such progress.

Discussion Goals - Progress and its Consequences

  1. To understand the types of economic development that evolved in California over the last part of the 19th Century.
  2. To examine the role logging played in California's early industrial development and how its development was similar to the gold mining industry.
  3. To link California's environmental alterations directly to these early patterns of economic development.
  4. To discuss how Californians reacted to the emergence of huge, monopolistic corporations in the 1870s.
  5. To examine a casestudy of unionization in Humboldt County.

Cold Call: 12th Cold Call on required reading - Read the Introduction, Goals 1 and 2 in discussion guide for this lecture at

Goal #1: To understand the types of economic development that evolved in California over the last part of the 19th Century

During the first fifty years of California's history, people were engaged in three major types of economic development in the state: individual labor, resource intensive industry, and agriculture.

Goal #2: To examine the role logging played in California's early industrial development

Abundant natural resources drove California's early economy. In the early days of the state, all of California's rich natural resources were considered ripe for the taking. First it was gold and within a few years, it was timber. As an 1858 article in The Humboldt Times of Eureka stated, "our immense forests of timber, as a source of wealth, are as valuable as the best gold mines in the State, and they are equally inexhauastible." (As quoted in Andrew Isenberg, Mining in California. 2005:76). Mining and harvesting these inexhauastible resources was economic progress at its finest. But by the end of the 19th century, such progress had led to the decline of both California resources - as well as a great deal of environmental degradation.

Andrew Isenberg in his excellent book Mining in California, has not only carefully described the factors leading to the dramatic rise of the timber industry in Northern California, he also explains the many important similarities in the logging and gold mining extraction industries. Much of what he concludes is paraphrased below under the following subsections: factors leading to the rise of the timber industry; similarities betweeen the logging and gold mining industries; technological challenges faced by the lumber industry and solutions used to overcome them; federal suport of the timber industry; and the consequences of the resoursce-driven logging industry for the state of California.

Factors leading to the rise of the timber industry.The timber industry began the same year California became a state. Why? Because wood served both as the primary fuel and primary construction material for Californians as well as the rest of the nation. Thus, the logging companies that quickly arose believed that there was not only a great demand for lumber, but that California had a plentiful and untapped supply. Indeed, three major factors influenced the rapid rise of California's timber industry: an abundance of forest lands; the belief that such forests contained an inexhaustible supply of lumber; and the proximity of forests to well-populated markets. Not surprisingly, as Isenberg emphasizes, these are the same factors that led to the dramatic rise of gold mining!

The abundance of forest lands was perhaps the most obvious of the factors. The Sierras - especially around the Lake Tahoe area - were covered with sugar pines. As Isenberg states, "Growing on both slopes of the Sierra between elevations of 3,000 and 8,000 feet, reaching heights over 150 feet and diameters of between ten and fifteen feet, sugar pine comprised 15 percent of the timber stand in California outside the redwood region." By 1858, 42 mills operated in Nevada County on Lake Tahoe's northwestern side and they supplied sugar pine to Californians as well as to the silver mining community in Comstock, Nevada and Salt Lake City. The Pacific Coast, however, had the greatest resource - two million acres of old-growth redwood forests. A single old-growth redwood "yielded between 40,000 and 100,000 board feet of lumber" (one board foot is one foot square and one inch thick.) A single redwood could provide enough lumber for a large structure - such as a church or hotel. And redwood was resilient - it resisted rot, decay, and fire as well as insect infestation. Soon, demand spread throughout the state and other parts of the country for both sugar pine and redwood.

Similarities betweeen the logging and gold mining industries. Isenberg carefully explains seven major similarities:

  1. Both industries were hindered by labor issues - the high cost, the seasonal nature of the work, and the intense labor involved in extracting gold and timber from their natural environments.
  2. Both industries were forced to overuse their resources in order to attract capital investment.
  3. Neither were very profitable for most laborers - but they were very profitable for a few business entrepreneurers.
  4. Workers and businessmen alike believed there was an unlimited supply and demand for gold and timber. Both were wrong.
  5. Both industries exploited and damaged the environment.
  6. Both industries used technological innovation to spur investment which then led to corporate takeovers of both the gold and timber industries.
  7. Both industries faced technological challenges and then found solutions to overcome them.

Technological challenges faced by the lumber industry and solutions used to overcome them. The challenges were substantial:

Solutions were creative and helped to make logging one of the most profitable extractive industries in the state:

And these solutions led to great increases in lumber production in Northern California. The following statistics for Humboldt County are illustrative:

Federal support of the timber industry.Without substantial assistance from the federal government, timber extraction would not have been so profitable. Indeed, almost all the redwoods and some of the sugar pines were on federal or state lands - in the public domain. So the federal govenrment would have a big say in lumber extraction. It did so in a variety of ways:

The consequences of the resource-driven logging industry for the state of California. Like the consequences of gold mining, the consequences of the timber industry were enormous and eventually, devastating.Photo of redwood logging in Humboldt County

  1. Deforestation and environmental degradation. By the mid-1870s, there were over 300 sawmills in the entire state, most of which were in Northern California. By 1870, the logging industry had already consumed one-third of the state's forests. Clearly, the economic activities of the logging industry resulted in massive deforestation.
    • In 1850, a redwood belt covered about two million acress on the Pacific coast. Fifty years later, more than a third of this old growth forest was gone.
    • By the 1890s, newspaper accounts make it clear that the area around the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe were so devastated by logging that the mills around the Lake were forced to shut down.
    • In logged out areas, the removal of large numbers of trees created ecological disturbances that devastated native grasses, shrubs, and browsing animals such as deer and elk. Especially in the redwood forests, logging destroyed a habitat for many mammals.
    • Deforestation increased runoff in streams, thereby raising the level of sediment in the rivers and reducing stream depth at the same time that it increased stream width.
    • The loss of the canopy increased soil and stream temperatures which in turn hurt the habitat and health of migrating fish.
  2. Increased immigration to California. Relatively high wages brought a huge number of immigrants to Northern California's growing logging industry. The combined population of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties in 1860 was 6, 661. Twenty years later, the population had quadupled to 28,312. Most of this was due to immigration. With more immigrants, greater racial and ethnic tension arose. We have already seen this with both the Chinese and the California Indians. The photo below is of the mining camp in Jacoby Creek, Humboldt County in 1884 and provides a good visual understanding of the conditions under which the immigrants lived.Photo Jacoby Creek Logging Camp
  3. Unanticipated consequences of the industry's dependence on technology. Timber technology was so successful that by the end of the 19th Century, the market was unable to absorb the lumber it produced.
    • By the end of the century, many of the state's 300 saw mills were forced to close - there was a glut of mills and a glut of labor due to better technological innovations.
    • More trees had to be cut to recoup the investments in new technology.
  4. Waste. As more lumber for the market was produced, more waste occurred. By the 1880s, industry leaders claimed they used 70-75 percent of all trees cut, while the California State Board of Forestry estimated that only about 28 percent of each tree was usable and over 70 percent was wasted. Further, the amount of waste on the forest floor led to increased risk of fire. Fire, in turn, destroyed many of the young redwood trees that sprouted in clear cuts.
  5. Rise of large, corporate mills. The introduction of steam technology to the mills during the 1880s stabilized the logging industry enough to attract Midwester logging companies. These outside investors came in and bought up smaller mills which, in turn, forced larger quantities of lumber on what Isenberg claimed was "an already glutted market" by the end of the Century.
  6. Increased accidents. As already stated, logging was the most dangerous job in the nation. The prevalence of injuries among the loggers and millers led to demands for better working and living conditions, higher wages, and disability funding. This, in turn, led to a greater demand for unionization - a topic that we will discuss in class.

1915 timber destructin photo


Goal #3: To link California's environmental alterations directly to these early patterns of economic development

Some scientists have argued that the economic "free-for-all" that occurred during this era was committed by ecological invaders who destroyed the environment in ways that continue to effect Californians. In particular, they cite the following:

As many Californians approached the 20th Century, concerns arose about the dramatic changes in their landscapes. Consequently, some Californians began to take individual steps to protect the environment, followed by federal and state efforts. These early efforts were largely those of conservation rather than preservation.

As we can see in the chronology below, during the last few decades of the 19th century, both conservation and preservation efforts began by individuals as well as the federal and state government. However, it would not be until the 20th century and the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt that either movement gained a great deal of support from both Americans and Californians.

1852 - The Mammoth Tree Grove was the first grove of Painting of Mammoth Tree and dancersancient Sequoias to be "discovered" in the Sierra Nevadas by Euroamericans. The Mammoth Tree was 1,244 years old and measured 302 feet in height and 96 feet in circumference

1853 - In June, the Mammoth Tree was cut down by a group of gold-rush speculators in Calaveras county, California. It had taken the men three weeks to cut through the base of tree. A sign was placed on the trunk warning: "All persons are forbid taking any wood from this tree."

On the same day the tree finally fell - a report in San Francisco's Placer Times and Transcript expressed regret that a business entrepreneur was preparing for a "portion of the mammoth tree" to be sent to New York." The report continued that the stripping of the tree's bark was "characteristic of California enterprise" and that exhibiting the bark in New York wouldl allow "millions of the inhabitants of the earth to see it, has rendered his adopted state a lasting benefit, given to science a page, and the world a natural curiosity".

Later in the year, one of the nation's most widely read magazines of the day, printed an illustration of the "largest tree yet discovered in the world" and wrote: "To our mind it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree…In Europe, such a natural production would have been cherished and protected, if necessary, by law; but in this money-making, go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it, and the purchaser chops it down, and ships it off for a shilling show! We hope that no one will conceive the idea of purchasing the Niagara Falls with the same purpose!...But, seriously, what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such speculation with this mountain of wood? In its natural condition, rearing its majestic head towards heaven, and waving in all its native vigour, strength and verdure, it was a sight worth a pilgrimage to see; but now, alas, It is only a monument of the cupidity of those who have destroyed all there was of interest connected with it."

Shortly thereafter, a hotel was built at the site to host the influx of tourists. To entertain the guests, dances were regularly held on the stump of the mammoth tree and a bowling alley was built on the now prone trunk.

1855 - In December, the New York Herald published an editorial which stated in part: "The finest, the most beautiful and symmetrical of these trees, (though not the largest) has been cut down…From this beginning, unless the Goths and Vandals are arrested in their work, the destruction of the incomparable forest will probably go on till the last vestige of it is destroyed. In this view, the point that we make is, that the State of California and the Congress of the Union should interpose to preserve these trees, as the living proofs that the boasted monarchs of the wood of the Old World are but stunted shrubbery compared with the forest giants of our own country. We say that Congress should interpose, upon the presumption that these trees are public property, are on the public lands of California, and because Congress has already interposed to protect the public live oak forests of Florida from the rapacity of unscrupulous speculators…We repeat, that it is the duty of the State of California, of Congress, and of all good citizens, to protect and to preserve these California monuments of the capabilities of our American soil. Let it be the law that this…Mammoth Grove shall stand."

1857 - The owner of a stand of Sequoias in the Sierra Nevada advertised his property as a tourist destination - a place where people could go to escape industrial sociey and enjoy the peaceful nature of the natural environment.

1859 - Horace Greeley. The New York Tribune publisher and editor, visited Yosemite, after which he called on the state of California to protect the big trees, "the most beautiful trees on earth." The mountains "surpass any other mountains I saw in the wealth and grace of their trees." Photograph of Mammoth Grve

1864 - John Conness, a senator from California, rose in Congress to make a speech urging his colleagues to pass a bill that would secure and protect Yosemite Valley and its neighbouring grove of sequoias in the mountains above Mariposa. His speech continued: "From the Calaveras grove some sections of a fallen tree were cut during and pending the great World's Fair that was held in London some years since…The English who saw it declared it to be a Yankee invention, made from beginning to end; that it was an utter untruth that such trees grew in the country; that it could not be; and, although the section of the tree was transported there at an expense of several thousand dollars, we were not able to convince them that it was a specimen of American growth. They would not believe us. The purpose of this bill is to preserve one of these groves from devastation and injury. The necessity of taking early possession and care of these great wonders can easily be seen and understood."

Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant that protected Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Yosemite was the first territory ever set aside by Congress for public use and preservation.

1886 - The California State Board of Forestry urged timber companies to avoid logging in the Sierra Nevada, decried "wasteful and destructive methods of cutting timer," and urged the creation of a "forest reservation" in the mountains where "the cutting of timber and fuel should be regulated in such a reasonable way as will reserve the reproductive capacity of the forests."

1889 - John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, launched a successful campaign to persuade Congress to set aside Yosemite as a national park. They ran into opposition from three groups: local entrepreneurs like the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company which brought tourists from the railroad station to the park; cattlemen, sheepherders and loggers who had been using the area for decades; and some California politicians.

1890 - On October 1, the U.S. Congress set aside more than 1,500 square miles of reserved forest lands, soon to be known as Yosemite National Park.

1891 - The Forest Reserve Act set aside public lands as forest reserves - the first act of its kind in the U.S. and which will eventually lead to a system of National Forests.

1892 - The Sierra Club was founded by writer and naturalist John Muir as an advocacy group that worked for the protection and preservation of wild lands. (To read the text of The History of the Sierra Club, 1892-1970 by Michael P. Cohen, see

Goal #4: To discuss how Californians reacted to the emergence of huge, monopolistic corporations in the 1870s

In the 1877 U.S. Supreme Court case, Munn v. Illinois, the court upheld the principle that states could regulate corporate activity. But despite this federal decision, California remained largely under corporate control - especially through the monopoly the Southern Pacific had on transportation rates. Gradually, farmers demanded fair freight rates and soon, small oil producers would demand fair rates. Further, Californians grew weary of the fact that the Southern Pacific consistently evaded taxes and overtly influenced California politics.

So some Californians sought to diminish its monopolistic control through reform.

Cartoon about corporate personhoodHowever, the resulting U.S. Supreme Court decision, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company (1886), forever changed the course of corporate history - not just in California, but in the nation as a whole.

Thus, because of a headnote that never was included in the court's actual opinion, after 1886, corporations enjoyed the same 14th Amendment rights that individuals did.

Goal #5: To examine a casestudy of unionization in Humboldt County

As we learned above, due to the dangerous working and living conditions of the growing community of loggers in Humboldt County, an active effort arose to unionize the logging industry. This video is the result of research conducted for the final project required in the last California History class that was held in 2013. As you watch it, be ready to answer and ask any questions that may arise.

Conclusions - Progress and its Consequences

  1. California's economic development in the latter part of the 19th Century was based on a resource intensive industrial model. California had abundant natural resources but little capital; thus, it was forced to use new technologies to attract investors.
  2. The federal government supported the privatization of forest land. Without assistance from the federal government, California's timber industry could not have thrived.
  3. The major consequences of such privatization of the timber and mining industries were dramatic environmental alterations that included dramatic population growth, intense profit motives that depended upon rapid and environmentally unsound resource extraction, innovative technologies that changed the environment, and manipulation of water resources.
  4. These consequences, in turn, led to both conservation and preservation efforts in the late 19th Century.
  5. Southern California gradually benefitted from economic development. It was not until the 1870s that industry began to develop in Southern California, especially via citrus growing and oil drilling and refining.
  6. Late 19th century efforts to reform the control of the railroads in California were not successful.
  7. In the case of California's late-19th Century economic progress, such progress was not always progressive.