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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,248

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This is the grave of John Dolbeer.

Born in 1827 in Epsom, New Hampshire, Dolbeer grew up on a farm like most people in New Hampshire and in fact most of the nation at this time. He went to the common schools and all that. By the mid-19th century, the productivity of New England farms was not great. In fact, that was pretty much true by 1780. So like a whole lot of Americans, Dolbeer saw the California Gold Rush as an opportunity for something–anything–different than what they had. At least it was an adventure, it was a chance to expand American power (something many were quite aware of), it was a chance to get rich of course too.

Well, like almost everyone else, Dolbeer did not strike a bonanza. But he did stay out West for the many economic opportunities the region provided. In 1853, he sailed north out of San Francisco for Humboldt Bay. This was at the time of the full-fledged genocide against California tribal peoples, the scale of which most contemporary Americans really don’t understand. This wasn’t just defeating them in war or something. This was full-fledged, full-on, intentional genocide with all the rape, murder, child kidnapping, and slavery that meant. Now, I don’t know to what extent Dolbeer was engaged in this actively. What I do know is that it was right around 1853 that this really hit northwestern California in full force, so at the very least, Dolbeer gained from it.

Well, in the tiny town of Eureka, Dolbeer bought a timber mill named Martin White’s Bay Mill. It took him awhile to make too much money off of it. There were a number of problems. There was plenty of demand for the timber–San Francisco needed wood and California had it. The market was there. But so were the fires that were so common in this industry for a very long time. So the mill burned twice in the next 10 years and whatever money Dolbeer had made had to go back into rebuilding it. But in 1863, Dolbeer and William Carson came up with a deal to create the Dolbeer and Carson Lumber Company. This became the main (or one of at least) timber company of northwestern California over the next several decades. They both became quite wealthy off of this.

Dolbeer had one of the common nineteenth century hobbies–tinkering. The truth was that the technologies of logging in the rest of the United States didn’t work well in the Northwest. Trees in Maine or Wisconsin or Arkansas were, simply put, much smaller than those of the Northwest. The available saws, for instance, simply wouldn’t cut trees as large as a redwood or Douglas fir. Then you had to drag these monsters to the nearest waterway and get them to market. Usually, getting the trees to water was done by animals. But animals are cranky and don’t always do what you want them to do. Moreover, this was such an isolated region at this point that if you were using oxen to move trees, you had to actually get oxen to northwest California. The excellent Kelly Reichardt film First Cow, from a couple of years ago, dealt with this very issue of cows in the early white Northwest, though in Oregon.

This was a situation crying out for the tinkering of the nineteenth century American. Dolbeer filed a number of patents over the years. He also was a monopolist who wanted to own the entire process of getting his wood to the mill, then process it, then selling it. In this, he was not much different than many post-Civil War capitalists. It was the era of vertical integration, to remember back to the boring lessons from the Gilded Age we were all subjected to back in high school when somehow this seemed like the best way to teach about this period.

Anyway, the most important of Dolbeer’s inventions is what became known as the donkey engine, which he patented in 1881. This was the development of a steam engine that allowed loggers to tie cables to trees and move them around without the animals. It completely revolutionized the timber industry. It cut costs by an enormous amount. Loggers still had to take down the trees manually, but as this machine advanced, it allowed companies to move them through the air to where they needed to go. By 1890, it was used throughout the Pacific Northwest and really was the most important invention in bringing this timber to market and cutting down the last of the great forests of the United States. So it’s sad too. One of the other things this did was allow companies to log lands that were not directly on rivers or oceans, which was the massive majority of these forests.

Here’s a photo of an early example.

One of the upshots of this was massive death. Logging was plenty dangerous enough anyway. Falling trees could crush you of course, but they could also hit other trees or branches that fell in unpredictable directions. You could step in a hole and break your leg. You could drown. And now you could have your head taken off by donkey engine cables and the trees attached to them. When I wrote Empire of Timber, I read an endless number of industry journals. Some were pretty straightforward about the deaths in the industry and would just list the dead with the cause of death. It was just crazy. The donkey engine killed a LOT of people, though it might be more accurate to say that companies that simply didn’t care if their workers lived or died killed those workers.

Dolbeer got super rich off this. He moved to San Francisco and built an enormous mansion. Unfortunately for him, his kids had a tendency to kill themselves so his later life was not one of great joy. He died in 1902, at the age of 75, a millionaire. The donkey engine continued to be the dominant machine of Northwestern logging well into the twentieth century. They are still scattered around various museums or old logging towns today.

John Dolbeer is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California.

When you go through old cemeteries like this and you see these giant monuments, you usually wonder who these people were who could afford something like this. You might know one or two of them but otherwise, you have no idea. They tend to be people like Dolbeer, those who made a ton of money in a relatively obscure field. If I wasn’t a historian of logging, I would have absolutely no idea who this guy was in this gigantic tomb.

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