Redwood Classroom

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I told myself I was going for the trees. Humboldt County, in the northwestern corner of California, is part of a narrow five-hundred-mile stretch that is the only place in the world where coast redwoods grow. Nourished by the region’s damp, foggy climate, Sequoia sempervirens live for a thousand years, slowly gaining in girth and stature until they reach more than three hundred feet tall. “Ambassadors of another time,” John Steinbeck called them. Of the two million acres of redwoods covering northern California when the first settlers came, less than 10 percent remains, and Humboldt County has some of the last surviving groves, protected in a string of state and national parks.

I flew into Eureka, the county seat, named for what a settler shouted on finding a town site to serve the nearby mines. As it turned out, mining didn’t make Eurekans rich, but the redwoods did. Since it splits easily, takes paint, and doesn’t warp or rot, redwood turned out to be good for making practically anything—shingles, barns, piers, picnic tables, gutters, sewers, and wine casks. Situated on Humboldt Bay, the second-largest harbor on California’s famously inhospitable coast, Eureka became a port for lumber schooners picking up cargoes for San Francisco and the rest of the world.

Today the downtown historic district is an appealing mix of residential and commercial buildings built between the 186s and 1920s. Renovated storefronts are interspersed with the occasional dilapidated one and with practical places like the Humboldt County Correctional Facility and establishments offering TIRES and TOWING . This is a real place, not too cute or too quaint. Capt. Ulysses S. Grant spent six unhappy months in Eureka beginning in October 1853. There was little action at Fort Humboldt, where he was stationed, and he often rode a mule into town to visit the bars. The future hero is “not to be blamed for this,” writes D. L. Thornbury, author of a lively 1923 local history, California’s Redwood Wonderland , “because they were practically the only places to go.”

My first morning in town, in fog and rain, I drove forty miles up Highway 101 to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, a preserve of old-growth redwoods near the town of Orick. An hourlong trail leads hikers deep into the forest. When the sun shines, you get shafts of light slanting through the high branches, putting you in mind of the great cathedrals of Europe. When it rains, what you get are banana slugs. I parked in the lot, walked a quarter-mile or so, stepping over the mustard-colored creatures, and slunk back to the car. Another few miles to the north is Prairie Creek Redwood State Park, a mixed forest so dense that signs posted at the entrance urge drivers to turn on their headlights. A hundred inches of rain fall here each year, and thick moss clings to low-lying branches, as alluring as seaweed. A herd of elk grazes in a meadow, the guidebook promises, and just a few miles ahead is a steep canyon wall covered with ferns. I found the elk, but I turned back before the ferns, less interested in nature, finally, than in exploring the town the redwoods had built.

I told myself I had come to see the trees, but in truth I probably came to see the houses, particularly the William Carson mansion, a resplendent building emblazoned with columns and cornices. I had seen a picture of it years ago and was curious about the California town with the Greek name that had spawned such exuberant woodwork. Now the proud new owner of a modest old house, I was eager to look at the mansion up close.

A native of New Brunswick, Canada, William Carson was one of the first men in California to tackle cutting the huge redwoods. In his day, felling a single tree might take a crew a week. Loggers would first lay a bed of branches or dirt to cushion its fall and then build a scaffolding from which to make their cut. Next they sawed into the massive trunk, hammered in wedges to lean the tree, and let gravity bring it down. Finally the crew would carve it up into sections for teams of oxen to haul to the mills. In 1882 Carson’s partner, John Dolbeer, invented the donkey engine, a portable steam-powered winch that could haul trees out of the forest far more efficiently than oxen.

Dolbeer & Carson prospered, and in 1884 William Carson decided to spend some of his earnings on a new house. “If I build poorly, they’ll say I am a damn miser,” he said. “If I build expensively, they say I’m just trying to show off; so, I guess I’ll build it to suit myself.” He hired the San Francisco architects Samuel and Joseph C. Newsom, brothers who advocated adapting current styles to California’s temperate climate. One way to achieve this, they explained to clients, was with balconies, porches, and verandas “thrown in where least expected, thereby adding to the uniqueness of the design.”

Eurekans liked Carson so much they took pride in his house as if it belonged to all of them. Half a century later the WPA guide to California pronounced it “startling. ... Its jagged roof line, visible from almost any quarter of the city, the tortured ornamentation, and the trim paint give it the air of a prop for a Silly Symphony.” In our own time the pendulum has swung back: In 1976 the architect G. E. Kidder Smith called it “probably the finest late Victorian exterior in the country, a culmination of profligate fancies haughtily but gloriously dispensed.”