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This series of photos from the 1915-era capture lumberjacks working among the redwoods in Humboldt County, California, when tree logging was at its peak. The photos are part of the Humboldt State University Library Special Collections, a series of pictures from northwest California from the 1880s through the 1920s by Swedish photographer A.W. Ericson.
When Euro-Americans swept westward in the 1800s, they needed raw material for their homes and lives. Commercial logging followed the expansion of America as companies struggled to keep up with the furious pace of progress. Timber harvesting quickly became the top manufacturing industry in the west.
When gold was discovered in north-western California in 1850, thousands crowded the remote redwood region in search of riches and new lives. Failing in efforts to strike it rich in gold, these men turned toward harvesting the giant trees for booming development in San Francisco and other places on the West Coast. These trees are the tallest and one of the most massive tree species on Earth. The size of the huge trees made them prized timber, as redwood became known for its durability and workability. By 1853, nine sawmills were at work in Eureka, a gold boom town established three years prior due to the gold boom. At that period of time, redwood forest covered more than 2,000,000 acres (8,100 km2) of the California coast.
The loggers used axes, saws, and other early methods of bringing the trees down. Rapidly improving technology in the 20th century allowed more trees to be harvested in less time. Transportation also caught up to the task of moving the massive logs. Railways started replacing horses and oxen. Land fraud was common, as acres of prime redwood forests were transferred from the public domain to private industry. Although some of the perpetrators were caught, many thousands of acres of land were lost in land swindles.
After many decades of unobstructed clear-cut logging, serious efforts toward conservation began. In 1918, the Save-the-Redwoods League was founded to preserve remaining old-growth redwoods, and their work resulted in the establishment of Prairie Creek, Del Norte Coast, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks among others. By the time Redwood National Park was created in 1968, nearly 90% of the original redwood trees had been logged.
Today, the Redwood National and State Parks combined contain only 133,000 acres (540 km2) of redwood forest. In addition to the redwood forests, the parks preserve other indigenous flora, fauna, grassland prairie, cultural resources, portions of rivers and other streams, and 37 miles (60 km) of pristine coastline.