Del Norte’s Economic History

Del Norte County is located in the northwest corner of California at the border of Oregon and next to the Pacific Ocean. The region features the world’s tallest trees, scenic rivers and a rugged coastline with spectacular beaches and rocky shorelines. The County is a major tourist destination for those seeking outdoor recreation, camping, hiking, fishing, and beachcombing experiences.

Logging and Lumber

The lumber industry in Del Norte County began in 1870 with the organization of a joint stock company for the construction of a sawmill at Lake Earl. This would become the Crescent City Mill & Transportation Company. Simultaneously, the first railroads and wharf were built for easier shipment of the logs to the mill and lumber to the ships in port. This was the inception of what would become the most lucrative industry in Del Norte County.

The availability of timber was immense as was man power.

Mills popped up throughout Del Norte County only to fold up or be sold to the Hobbs Wall & Company which supported the local economy until 1939.

After World War II, Del Norte County saw a great influx of lumbermen from Oregon and Washington. By 1949, there were 33 mills in the county while another 22 came in within the next two years. These 55 mills put out 124 million board feet per year. The logging and lumber trade was the largest employer in Del Norte County.
The San Francisco Chronicle called Del Norte County, “a beautiful, bickering, backward booming land where the lumberman is king!” It wasn’t to last however.

The State and National Parks owned two-thirds of the county with the other third owned by three major lumber operations. The smaller mills could no longer compete and folded. The larger mills followed suit about 25 years later. There are presently no sawmills in operation in Del Norte County.
Once the most profitable industry in Del Norte County, logging operations and lumber mills sustained the county’s economy for over a century.

However, the beautiful redwoods still continue to provide Del Norte with its most lucrative industry, as tourists come from all over to get a glimpse of the remaining old growth redwood forests and the tallest trees in the world. 

The Settlers

The discovery of gold in Northwest California initiated the pattern of explorer-miner-entrepreneur-settler, repeated throughout California, to this area. Gold-rich areas up the Klamath, Smith, and Rogue Rivers led to a rush of newcomers to the county.

The Klamath River tributaries were found to be rich in gold, but there was very little access except from the ocean. The first settlement of pioneers was Klamath City in April of 1850, but it was quickly abandoned when the winter rains altered and obstructed the channel.

The river flooding led to demand for a new access point for ocean-going ships. A crescent beach to the north showed great promise. This natural harbor was instrumental in the development of what would become Crescent City. The port would prove perfect for supply ships to carry provisions and equipment for the mining communities.

Incorporated in April of 1854, Crescent City was the county seat of Klamath County which became Del Norte County in 1857. Within a few short years, the city had become a major shipping and trading center. Settlers came from the Oregon Trail and by way of the Willamette Valley to the gold fields. Farming communities sprouted up in the Smith River and Elk Valleys.

As the railroads were able to move materials and supplies to the interior quickly, and the production of the mines declined, the pioneers of the area turned to farming, ranching, logging, dairying, and commercial fishing. In 1857, Gasquet was developed as a resort town and became a popular stopping place for the travelers going to Oregon. The village included a lodge, store, dance hall, butcher shop, and winery. Klamath became a fisherman’s paradise and is still well-known for its wonderful fishing.

Fishing

Early settlers quickly realized the potential for fishing and musseling in Del Norte County. The first commercial fisheries were established on the Smith and Klamath Rivers were the Tolowa and Yurok were employed for their knowledge of the riverine and ocean fishery. The canneries were a successful and important industry of this area. The local salmon was known by merchants as top-notch.

Many pounds of salt cured fish and canned mussels were shipped to San Francisco. Some companies attempted to ice the fresh fish before transit to large cities, but this was unsatisfactory at the time and abandoned. While fishing was a booming business, it effectively reduced the salmon runs and in future years the rivers would be closed to commercial fisheries. Over time, sport fishing became a tourist favorite pastime, and people flocked to Del Norte’s Klamath and Smith Rivers to fish for salmon.

In 1950 Joe Sierka of Smith River purchased a yacht from the Navy and pulled it up onto dry land creating Ship A Shore Resort. The destination was busy with anglers participating in sport of King salmon fishing. Later in the 1970’s, a local writer described how the local harbor docks were bustling with boats, fish buyers, and seafood restaurants. In 1974, at a cost of slightly over three million dollars, Citizens Dock was completed with tackle shops, a marine gas station, boat repair shops and launch facilities. It became a bustling harbor where the fishermen’s catch of the day: tuna, rock cod, prawns, and crab brought immense success to the community.