Before the Bohemian Club, before the wineries and vineyards, there was a crop that touched the sky and drew settlers to the misty reaches of the Russian River.
The Pomo Indians appear to have called the river Shabaikai. In 1812, or thereabouts, Russian fur trappers came up the river from the coast, and they called it Slavianka, “pretty little Russian girl.” In 1823, the northernmost Spanish missions were established in Sonoma and San Rafael—but it was not until a decade later that Spanish scouts explored into the Santa Rosa valley, checking up on the Russians. They named the river San Ysidro, or possibly San Sebastian.
There were still major stands of redwoods in the area, undisturbed. The Russians were only interested in the animals who lived in the redwood forests, and in the fish who teamed in the river. The Spanish were primarily interested in converting the indigenes to Catholicism.
By 1844, however, land grants were being made along the river, and it was now noted on maps as El Rio Ruso, the Russian River. Early settlers’ names are still to be found on the maps of the area: John Heald (Healdsburg), George Guerne (Guerneville), William Henry Willits (Willits), Elijah K. Jenner (Jenner). The settlers who came into the area viewed the huge trees as a substantial asset, but only where they could be moved downstream to the lumbermills.
The red-letter day for lumbering on the Russian River occurred when the first milling equipment was laboriously carted from Forestville over the low divide into Pocket Canyon, to be installed in a new lumbermill at the location of present-day Guerneville. According to Clar, the partners in this mill were John Heald, William Willits, John W. Bagley, and George Guerne. They set to with a will, and were so busy that the growing community around the mill (which included Clar’s grandfather) was initially known as “Stumptown.”
Clar writes a capsule description of the end of the mill’s life in a brief passage:
It is doubtful if anyone working in the great virgin forest that fed the “big mill” of Guerneville ever gave any serious consideration to the possibility of harvesting a second crop of lumber from this land… My father, the expert chopper and shingle sawyer, could not comprehend why or what I was doing when I enrolled as a college forestry student… At any rate, came the day when the last practically available log was transported to the sawmill. The boilers were allowed to cool… A bustling era had come to an end.
It was February 2nd, 1901.
Clar’s history uses the 35-year span of lumbering in the Russian River mists to anchor a fascinating history of an area we mostly know now as wine country. From the creation of the twisting highway from “the Korbel area” to Rio Nido atop the old lumber railroad right-of-way, to the rise and fall of the hops industry, Clar gives us a well-researched sense of what life was like in the region during this era.
Readers of local history and geneaological researchers will find a rich vein of names and places in this account—Clar has gone out of his way to link place names with the people they commemorate. Clar’s passion for history and his love for his boyhood town illuminate the tale, and make this a fascinating read.