Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Before the Bohemian Club

Review: Out of the River Mist: A Guerneville Area History by C. Raymond Clar

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.

At this time, 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). These 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.

The best history to read is the one that connects the past with our lives today, and for me, Clar's history of the area where I now reside meets that requirement.