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The Valley of the Giants (Chapter1)

2006-08-22 19:39

  Chapter I

  In the summer of 1850 a topsail schooner slipped into the cove under Trinidad Head and dropped anchor at the edge of the kelp-fields. Fifteen minutes later her small-boat deposited on the beach a man armed with long squirrel-rifle and an axe, and carrying food and clothing in a brown canvas pack. From the beach he watched the boat return and saw the schooner weigh anchor and stand out to sea before the northwest trades. When she had disappeared from his ken, he swung his pack to his broad and powerful back and strode resolutely into the timber at the mouth of a little river.

  The man was John Cardigan; in that lonely, hostile land he was the first pioneer. This is the tale of Cardigan and Cardigan's son, for in his chosen land the pioneer leader in the gigantic task of hewing a path for civilization was to know the bliss of woman's love and of parenthood, and the sorrow that comes of the loss of a perfect mate; he was to know the tremendous joy of accomplishment and worldly success after infinite labour; and in the sunset of life he was to know the dull despair of failure and ruin. Because of these things there is a tale to be told, the tale of Cardigan's son, who, when his sire fell in the fray, took up the fight to save his heritage——a tale of life with its love and hate, its battle, victory, defeat, labour, joy, and sorrow, a tale of that unconquerable spirit of youth which spurred Bryce Cardigan to lead a forlorn hope for the sake not of wealth but of an ideal. Hark, then, to this tale of Cardigan's redwoods:

  Along the coast of California, through the secret valleys and over the tumbled foothills of the Coast Range, extends a belt of timber of an average width of thirty miles. In approaching it from the Oregon line the first tree looms suddenly against the horizon——an outpost, as it were, of the host of giants whose column stretches south nearly four hundred miles to where the last of the rear-guard maintains eternal sentry go on the crest of the mountains overlooking Monterey Bay. Far in the interior of the State, beyond the fertile San Joaquin Valley, the allies of this vast army hold a small sector on the west slope of the Sierras.

  These are the redwood forests of California, the only trees of their kind in the world and indigenous only to these two areas within the State. The coast timber is known botanically as sequoia sempervirens, that in the interior as sequoia gigantea. As the name indicates, the latter is the larger species of the two, although the fibre of the timber is coarser and the wood softer and consequently less valuable commercially than the sequoia sempervirens——which in Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Marin, and Sonoma counties has been almost wholly logged off, because of its accessibility. In northern Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties, however, sixty years of logging seems scarcely to have left a scar upon this vast body of timber. Notwithstanding sixty years of attrition, there remain in this section of the redwood belt thousands upon thousands of acres of virgin timber that had already attained a vigorous growth when Christ was crucified. In their vast, sombre recesses, with the sunlight filtering through their branches two hundred and fifty feet above, one hears no sound save the tremendous diapason of the silence of the ages; here, more forcibly than elsewhere in the universe, is one reminded of the littleness of man and the glory of his creator.

  In sizes ranging from five to twenty feet in diameter, the brown trunks rise perpendicularly to a height of from ninety to a hundred and fifty feet before putting forth a single limb, which frequently is more massive than the growth which men call a tree in the forests of Michigan. Scattered between the giants, like subjects around their king, one finds noble fir, spruce, or pines, with some Valparaiso live oak, black oak, pepper-wood, madrone, yew, and cedar.

  In May and June, when the twisted and cowering madrone trees are putting forth their clusters of creamy buds, when the white blossoms of the dogwoods line the banks of little streams, when the azaleas and rhododendrons, lovely and delicate as orchids, blaze a bed of glory, and the modest little oxalis has thrust itself up through the brown carpet of pine-needles and redwood-twigs, these wonderful forests cast upon one a potent spell. To have seen them once thus in gala dress is to yearn thereafter to see them again and still again and grieve always in the knowledge of their inevitable death at the hands of the woodsman.

  John Cardigan settled in Humboldt County, where the sequoia sempervirens attains the pinnacle of its glory, and with the lust for conquest hot in his blood, he filed upon a quarter-section of the timber almost on the shore of Humboldt Bay——land upon which a city subsequently was to be built. With his double-bitted axe and crosscut saw John Cardigan brought the first of the redwood giants crashing to the earth above which it had towered for twenty centuries, and in the form of split posts, railroad ties, pickets, and shakes, the fallen giant was hauled to tidewater in ox-drawn wagons and shipped to San Francisco in the little two-masted coasting schooners of the period. Here, by the abominable magic of barter and trade, the dismembered tree was transmuted into dollars and cents and returned to Humboldt County to assist John Cardigan in his task of hewing an empire out of a wilderness.

  At a period in the history of California when the treasures of the centuries were to be had for the asking or the taking, John Cardigan chose that which others elected to cast away. For him the fertile wheat and fruit-lands of California's smiling valleys, the dull placer gold in her foot-hill streams, and the free grass, knee deep, on her cattle and sheep-ranges held no lure; for he had been first among the Humboldt redwoods and had come under the spell of the vastness and antiquity, the majesty and promise of these epics of a planet. He was a big man with a great heart and the soul of a dreamer, and in such a land as this it was fitting he should take his stand.

  In that wasteful day a timber-claim was not looked upon as valuable. The price of a quarter-section was a pittance in cash and a brief residence in a cabin constructed on the claim as evidence of good faith to a government none too exacting in the restrictions with which it hedged about its careless dissipation of the heritage of posterity. Hence, because redwood timber-claims were easy to acquire, many men acquired them; but when the lure of greener pastures gripped these men and the necessity for ready money oppressed, they were wont to sell their holdings for a few hundred dollars. Gradually it became the fashion in Humboldt to “unload” redwood timber-claims on thrifty, far-seeing, visionary John Cardigan who appeared to be always in the market for any claim worth while.

  Cardigan was a shrewd judge of stumpage; with the calm certitude of a prophet he looked over township after township and cunningly checkerboarded it with his holdings. Notwithstanding the fact that hillside timber is the best, John Cardigan in those days preferred to buy valley timber, for he was looking forward to the day when the timber on the watersheds should become available. He knew that when such timber should be cut it would have to be hauled out through the valleys where his untouched holdings formed an impenetrable barrier to the exit! Before long the owners of timber on the watersheds would come to realize this and sell to John Cardigan at a reasonable price.

  Time passed. John Cardigan no longer swung an axe or dragged a cross- cut saw through a fallen redwood. He was an employer of labour now, well known in San Francisco as a manufacturer of split-redwood products, the purchasers sending their own schooners for the cargo. And presently John Cardigan mortgaged all of his timber holdings with a San Francisco bank, made a heap of his winnings, and like a true adventurer staked his all on a new venture——the first sawmill in Humboldt County. The timbers for it were hewed out by hand; the boards and planking were whipsawed.

  It was a tiny mill, judged by present-day standards, for in a fourteen-hour working day John Cardigan and his men could not cut more than twenty thousand feet of lumber. Nevertheless, when Cardigan looked at his mill, his great heart would swell with pride. Built on tidewater and at the mouth of a large slough in the waters of which he stored the logs his woods-crew cut and peeled for the bull- whackers to haul with ox-teams down a mile-long skid-road, vessels could come to Cardigan's mill dock to load and lie safely in twenty feet of water at low tide. Also this dock was sufficiently far up the bay to be sheltered from the heavy seas that rolled in from Humboldt Bar, while the level land that stretched inland to the timber-line constituted the only logical townsite on the bay.

  “Here,” said John Cardigan to himself exultingly when a long-drawn wail told him his circular saw was biting into the first redwood log to be milled since the world began, “I shall build a city and call it Sequoia. By to-morrow I shall have cut sufficient timber to make a start. First I shall build for my employees better homes than the rude shacks and tent-houses they now occupy; then I shall build myself a fine residence with six rooms, and the room that faces on the bay shall be the parlour. When I can afford it, I shall build a larger mill, employ more men, and build more houses. I shall encourage tradesmen to set up in business in Sequoia, and to my city I shall present a church and a schoolhouse. We shall have a volunteer fire department, and if God is good, I shall, at a later date, get out some long-length fir-timber and build a schooner to freight my lumber to market. And she shall have three masts instead of two, and carry half a million feet of lumber instead of two hundred thousand. First, however, I must build a steam tugboat to tow my schooner in and out over Humboldt Bar. And after that——ah, well! That is sufficient for the present.”

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