Swivel Heads and Dingbats — Early Logging on the Mendocino Coast

Woodcutter by Vincent Van Gogh (1885). Early Mendocino logging.

WOODCUTTER by Vincent Van Gogh (1885)

First Mills Appear on the Mendocino Coast

Because the Mendocino coast was so rugged and so remote, viable logging operations didn’t appear until the mid-19th century. As Lynwood Carranco and John T. Labbe noted in their seminal text, Logging the Redwoods, Spaniards first sighted redwoods near Santa Cruz, California in 1769. Russians lingered briefly in the early 1800s, using primitive “whipsaw” mills to produce lumber for a limited number of structures. But it wasn’t until the 1850s that logging in Mendocino County really began in earnest.

The county’s first mill was probably built in 1850 along the Garcia River by Rafael Garcia, who owned the Rancho del Norte grant land south of William Richardson’s Rancho Albion. Details about the mill are scarce but there’s no evidence to suggest it was a significant commercial operation. In 1852, the first mill of consequence, the California Lumber Manufacturing Company, was established in the fledgling settlement of Mendocino, known at various times as Big River and Meiggsville, and Mendocino City. William Richardson constructed his Albion mill a short time later.

Rugged Men in a Rugged Land

The Woodcutter by Ferdinand Hodler (1910). Early Mendocino logging.

THE WOODCUTTER by Ferdinand Hodler (1910)

The Mendocino coast at that time was largely virgin wilderness, much of it unexplored. There were few settlers other than the local Pomos. The heavily forested bluffs and mountains were home to large numbers of elk, black bear, grizzly bear, wolves, pumas, and coyotes. Most of the roads in existence were those built by loggers for logging. Bridges were scarce. Loggers conveyed animals and equipment across smaller streams at shallow crossings or used ferries for larger waterways, like the Big River.

As a result, loggers were often confined to remote lumber camps for months at a time. Most of them were either single or had families they’d left behind in more hospitable surroundings. The typical logger worked 12 strenuous hours per day, 6 days a week. Many of them were newly arrived immigrants. Others were failed gold miners or aspiring entrepreneurs. Their ethnic makeup was diverse: Mexicans, Portuguese, Chinese, Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, Australians and Italians. Even local indigenous people worked for the mills. Put a large group of men together under such circumstances and you’re likely to hear some colorful language, some of it downright profane.

Babel in the Woods

Logging jargon changed as technology changed. When steam power and railroads finally made an appearance, it not only changed the way loggers worked, it also changed the way they communicated. But even early loggers had a vibrant jargon that reflected the ingenuity and pride of men who grappled with giant trees daily.

Loggers with 25' Crosscut Saw. Early Mendocino logging.

Loggers with Crosscut Saw

In The Redwood Country, Lynwood Carranco cites several Americanisms, including swivel head, which referred to a greenhorn logger, or anyone “who spends his time staring stupidly around him.” Carranco also includes jill poke, which referred to a part of a skid road at one time, but later evolved into the verb jill-poked, which meant to be treated unfairly. Dingbat, explains Carranco, once referred to money but was later used like the modern terms thingamajig and doohickey. Jayhawking described the practice of stripping an unfelled tree of its bark and was used primarily in reference to tan oak bark.

The jobs in a logging operation often had colorful handles. In Logging With Ox Teams, Thomas O. Moungovan includes chokerman, who placed the rope or cable around a tree so it could be moved; skidder, who pulled logs down to a landing; suglar, who chained logs together to form a load; and sniper, who would cut a 45 degree collar around each end of a log so it wouldn’t snag on the skid road.


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