Looking at this picture it is hard to imagine that this very small river could have massive giant old growth redwood logs float down it to what was the Little River Lumber Company built in 1864. In fact Little River is only a few feet deep in the deepest spots. Well here is how the story goes.
In 1856 Silas Coombs and his brother-in-law Ruel Stickney came out to California to chase gold. They went up to the Tuolumne area, but didn’t find any gold. So they decided they needed to find steady work.
Since they were both loggers, they came to the Mendocino coast because they heard about a sawmill in Albion that needed employees. They went to work in the woods, and worked there for about six years as logging contractors and heard about the canyon that was full of timber a few miles north of Albion.
So they bought and preempted all the timber that was in the canyon. It was in 1863, that they started making ties and decided they needed a sawmill. So they got another partner, Tapping Reeves, who was quite a man. He was an inventor, and invented an edger and a few other things.
In 1864 they hired Charles Pullen to build the mill for $20,000, which was a lot of money back then.
So they built the first sawmill just up stream from the mouth of the river before it empty’s into the sea.
The new mill opened that same year and they were cutting about 20,000 board feet a day. But in 1871 the sawmill burnt down. They decided that the location of the mill wasn’t good, so then they built another sawmill right across the river.
To ship the lumber out, they needed to build a wharf. It was 300 feet long and that is how they shipped the lumber, right off the dock.
Well to store the logs they needed some way to hold the logs back, so they decided to build a dam. So the three partners, Silas Coombs, Ruel Stickney, and Tapping Reeves, one day were standing around deciding what they were going to do to build a dam to hold there logs. They were talking about how much it would cost and how long it was going to take. An old gentleman was standing nearby and overheard them. He told them that he could put a dam in for them at half the cost that they were talking about. He said that all he needed was about 40 men and a team of bulls and a plow. They said okay, then go ahead and do it.
So with the team of bulls and the men, they dug a trough four feet wide and four feet deep all the way up the hill and across where the Little River Golf Course is today and up to where the Little River Airport is now located. He then built a wooden barrier close to where the mill was located.
So they waited till the first rains came, and sent the men back to where the current airport is located and told them to try to fill the trough full of dirt as the water was rushing down it. As the men were throwing the dirt into the trough, it would wash down the hill and would be then directed against the wooden wall they built. This made a six to eight foot high dam all the way across. When the river is low today, you can still see remnants of the wooden wall still in the river. Looking over the other side where the parking lot is today, you can see a kind of a raised area that goes across between the parking lot and the road. That was part of the dam, which made the mill pond.
The Little River Lumber Company built a total of four dams. They had one at the parking lot, and one further up in the parking lot. That was to store logs.
They would bring the logs down the canyon and float them in the dams. In the wintertime when the water was up, they would open the dams and this would all drain out and float the logs down to the mill. These dams were made of logs, which was called a log-configured dam. The dams were thirty feet high, and twenty feet thick and would stretch 100 or more feet across. Because so much water would build up behind it, they had a problem when they would release the water. The dam would actually move back after the water pressure was relieved. They had to stop this from bulging like that. So they drilled a hole in the stump by the dam, and ran a cable up from the dam and through the stump and would bolt it off there. This would hold the dam so it wouldn’t bulge when the pressure of the water was behind it.
The middle dam was a principal source of logs for the sawmill. They would skid the logs down into the headwaters, or backwaters, of the dam. When the water was high enough, they then released the logs, and they would float on down to the sawmill from this point.
After most of the logs were harvested in the canyon and immediate surrounding area, the Little River Lumber Company shut down in 1894. This same beautiful area with this great history is now Van Damme State Park.
Reference on this story is from the California State Parks, the logging history of Fern Canyon at Van Damme State Park.