Albion: Petri Dish of the California Lumber Boom

Passing through the village of Albion in Mendocino County, it’s hard to believe it played a pivotal role in one of the most dramatic periods in California history.

Albion River Inn‎ - MendocinoTraveling north on Highway 1, you’ll reach a stretch of road that is mercifully free of the endless hairpin turns that plagued you farther south. You’ll settle into a relaxed drive through undisturbed ranch land as the Pacific Ocean disappears and reappears in darting vistas on your left. You’ll cross the picturesque white bridge over Salmon Creek, noting the tranquil Whitesboro Cove at the creek’s mouth. In a few hundred yards, you’ll see a sign for Albion. Then two roads — one winding up to Ledford House on a bluff to the left, the other climbing a hill to the Albion Store and Post Office on the right. In another click, you’ll blur past a scattering of houses that trail down the slope behind the store. You’ll see another bridge, a much larger one, stretching out in front of you. As you reach the span, you’ll gaze out at an uncluttered, oblong cove on the left, then glance down at a wide floodplain to the right. You’ll notice a few cars, some RVs, and boats moored along the river. You’ll wonder for a moment if it’s a marina or a fishing resort but quickly decide it’s of little interest. Then you’ll speed past the most visible sign of civilization in the area, the Albion River Inn, and quickly slip back into the hushed, tree-covered landscape.

In 1852, the floodplain below the bridge was little more than a modest spit, home to a handful of rustic buildings that belonged to the Richardson Mill. It wasn’t the first or largest lumber mill in the county, but the site and the surrounding timberland would serve as a petri dish for some of the largest lumber companies on the West Coast.

Unlike the town of Mendocino, Albion was located on Mexican grant land, a rancho that had been given to William Richardson by the Mexican government prior to the Mexican-American War. Once California became a state, the legislature essentially reneged on the US treaty with Mexico and contested most of the grants the US had sworn to preserve. Richardson, a naturalized Mexican citizen, held three such grants and the California Lands Commission contested all three, forcing him into a decade-long legal struggle to defend his claims. As that financial miasma was starting to take its toll, two other factors combined to ruin Richardson: the nature elements of the Mendocino coast and deep pocket investors.

William Richardson

William Richardson

Richardson teamed up with two German brothers from Mendocino named Hegenmeyer to construct two mills, one farther north along the Noyo River and the other, three miles  upstream on the Albion River. The Noyo mill was quickly beset by disputes with a neighboring Pomo tribe and the Albion mill was destroyed by a freshet during the first winter.

Around the same time, Richardson mortgaged some of the Albion timberland to pay off his mounting debt. The loan was originally held by Jardine, Matheson and Company, which was already a large international corporation by that time. Two men auditing Jardine Matheson’s California accounts, A. Grant Dallas, who was an agent of the company, and Alexander MacPherson, an independent businessman that was a former JM employee, determined that the Richardson loan was losing money. MacPherson devised a plan that had him purchasing the loan and foreclosing on Richardson, thereby putting the timberland under his ownership. Dallas, acting in the interest of Jardine Matheson, and MacPherson, would then finance a new sawmill in Albion with MacPherson as the manager.

The lumber operation in Albion would thrive under MacPherson’s guidance. By 1854, Richardson had lost all of the Albion land to either poachers or the Lands Commission. By the time he died in 1856, all three of his Ranchos had been confiscated and he had lost his entire fortune. Alexander MacPherson eventually bought out Jardine Matheson’s interest in the Albion operation then expanded to the Noyo River. By the late 1860s, MacPherson was one of the wealthiest and most influential people along the Redwood Coast. Eventually, MacPherson’s company would be purchased by the even bigger Union Lumber Company that, in turn, would be acquired by Georgia-Pacific.

One other important player in the early days of Albion was Lorenzo White. In 1861, L. E. White opened a mercantile in the booming town of Albion. By 1876, Lorenzo and his brother had built a mill in the now defunct town of Whitesboro on Salmon Creek less than a mile south of Albion. Lorenzo would learn a great deal from that experience and in 1887, would try to expand his operation to another boom town named Cuffey’s Cove three miles south. Unable to negotiate a deal with the primary landholder in that town, White purchased property a mile farther south in the fledgling settlement of Greenwood and built one of the largest mills in the area, one that would survive until the middle of the twentieth century.

The next time you pass through Albion, take a moment to explore some of its backroads. Follow Albion Street until you find yourself behind what is now a campground. Park near the store and walk to the the Albion River Bridge, the only remaining wooden bridge on Highway 1. Try to picture the area as it once was, covered with mill buildings, a river full of floating logs and the spit of land covered with towering stacks of cut lumber. The only traces of the monumental human effort that began in this small, unassuming town resides in our imaginations.

This is the first of a series of posts on the history surrounding the 19th century lumber boom in Mendocino County, California, the subject of a novel in progress with the working title The Relentless Harvest.

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