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Doghole Ports

sanctuary coast
Fort Ross doghole port, late 19th century. Credit: Fort Ross Conservancy

The story of the human interaction with the environment during the heyday of the lumber industry in Sonoma and Mendocino County, California can be viewed through the archaeological resources present today. The Redwood Coast landscape is dotted with evidence how the lumber trade adapted to the rugged marine environment allowing the business to flourish from the mid-19th century into the 20th century. The rugged coast had few roads and no long distance railroads, so the most cost effective way to move the lumber was by sea. Lumbering operations established sawmills along the shoreline at the few places where it was possible to temporarily anchor a vessel. These “doghole ports,” so named because they were so small and exposed that mariners joked they were barely large enough for a dog to turn around, became centers of economic activity. Enterprising lumbermen rigged a network of chutes and cables extending from the bluffs down into small coves allowing lumber to be transferred from shore to waiting ship. A fleet of small, maneuverable schooners, steam schooners and eventually steamers carried the timber to markets as close as San Francisco and as distant as the Eastern Seaboard, Australia and Asia. The trade left not only place names, but the archaeological remains of the infrastructure and in some cases those vessels unlucky enough to be lost on these shores. Lasting communities sprang up at some of these locations: Bodega Bay, Gualala, Point Arena, Mendocino and Caspar to name a few. Today, several doghole ports are part of the California State Parks (CSP) system and within NOAA's Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS). This allows CSP and NOAA staff, historians, archaeologists the opportunity to explore and interpret our maritime past for current and future generations.

Lumber Chute Background

Two main varieties of lumber loading apparatus were used at the doghole ports. Prior to 1900, trough chutes, also known as slide or apron chutes, were the most common method of loading lumber. The chute method was used when there was sufficient water depth to allow a vessel to anchor or moor relatively near a cliff or headland. Due to Sonoma County’s treacherous coastline with steep cliffs and few suitable harbors, the chute became the preferred method to transport lumber out of the area. A trough chute was comprised of a wooden A-frame supporting a wooden trough held in place with cables. After the frame was a long arm that projected out over the water called a swing apron. A system of wooden pulleys and wire cables raised and lowered the apron as lumber and other products were slid down the chute from shore to ship using gravity. At the end of the chute was a movable plank or clapper that could be raised or lowered from shore or by the moored vessel. This plank regulated the speed materials moved down the chute. Trough chutes varied in size and complexity as each was adapted to the specific configuration of each doghole port.

During the 1870s, the wire chute came into use, eventually replacing the trough chute (Jackson 1977:14). A wire stored on a large drum stretched from shore to some type of anchor beyond where a ship was moored. This anchor could be in the water or on shore across a cove. The waiting ship would moor and pick up the wire for loading and unloading. Cargo was attached to a pulley on the wire and the load’s weight would move it down to the ship. A braking system at the chute head controlled the descent. Sling ropes and pulleys attached to the traveler would return it either by a counter balance or by steam power with a donkey engine.

Lastly, wharves were built in some doghole ports where the terrain was suitable. A few doghole ports had both a chute and a wharf, but in general wharfs were rare along the Sonoma coast since they were costly to build/maintain and easily destroyed.

Moorings were established at doghole ports in the coves and near the lumber chute’s end to help facilitate the use of a chute by stabilizing the vessel. Buoys were positioned at several locations within and just outside the coves to accommodate several vessels if needed. A large anchor was placed on the seafloor with a log at the surface. Metal eye bolts set in the cliffs were also used for mooring lines. For vessels at the chute they might even be secured by several underwater anchors as well as with lines to shore to keep them in one place as it took several days to load a cargo. Lumber was loaded and carried both in the hold and on deck with a typical three masted lumber schooner carrying 500,000 board feet in the 1880s.  

-- Deborah Marx, Maritime Archaeologist, Maritime Heritage Program, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

The Doghole ports of the Redwood Coast came about as the result of several factors:

  • The marine climate of the central CA coast is conducive to the growth of the California or Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), whose range extends from Monterey to the Oregon border in a narrow strip that runs from five to 47 miles inland.  These trees, a highly valuable timber commodity, were harvested in increasing numbers after the mid-19th century in response to the American settlement and urbanization of the Pacific Coast, and inspired the growth of a coastal and ultimately international lumber trade.
  • The initial logging of redwood groves around Monterey and San Francisco bays exhausted the supply thanks to the extraordinary growth of San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and the city’s frequent rebuilding thanks to several catastrophic fires.
  • The 1850 wreck of the brig Frolic in 1850 with a valuable cargo of Chinese trade goods brought would-be salvagers to the area. On their journey to the wreck site, they were astounded by vast coastal forests of unlogged redwood trees.  The local Mitom Pomo had salvaged the wreck, but the news of extensive redwood on the coast inspired San Francisco entrepreneurs to build the first of a series of logging camps and sawmills on the coast.
  • By 1870, the coast was lined with dozens of camps and settlements that shipped goods to San Francisco in small, two-masted schooners that easily navigated the rocky shoreline to load at the end of wire-rope “chutes” in ports known as “dogholes” because they were so small that a “dog had enough room to go in and back out.” 
  • This also spurred the development of small shipyards along the Mendocino shoreline such as the Thomas Peterson shipyard at Little River that was responsible for building thirteen 2-masted lumber schooners from 1868 to 1879.  These vessels were the backbone of West Coast shipping through much of the 19th century.
  • The output of the coast was prodigious.  The Garcia Mill near Point Arena, founded in 1869-1870, had an output of some eight million board feet per year.
  • The San Francisco Journal of Commerce noted in January 1879 that “the lumber, grain, wool and other produce is shipped to us for sale and reshipment, and every little chute, roadstead or landing sends it products to and receives its supplies from San Francisco, dealing with no other place and having no other connections.”
  • The arrival of the railroad on the Pacific in 1869 was slow to reach the redwood coast, and in 1879 had little effect on the schooners’ market.  Increasing access by rail cut into the coasting trade, but it remained active through the early 20th century.   Two-masted schooners gave rise to larger three-masted schooners and engine-powered “steam schooners” to support the trade.
  • The logging of the coast denuded the near-shore environment and the interior; in this fashion some of the smaller “dogholes” closed as inland stands were logged and shipped by rail to larger ports like Mendocino and Fort Bragg.  Today, the maritime cultural landscape includes the surviving stands of Coast Redwoods preserved in several California State Parks in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
  • In addition to the regular lumber trade, the coast was the setting for an active bark (used for tanning leather), railroad tie and cord wood industry.
  • Close to 200 shipwrecks line this section of the coast, the majority of them being lumber schooners lost while engaged in the trade on a shore described in the Coast Pilot of 1889 as being lined with “jagged rocks above the water, sunken rocks, foul bottom and breakers….”   These wrecks form an important part of the maritime cultural landscape of the redwood coast.
  • The coastal lumber trade left a large number of “doghole” names on the coastal landscape – Biehler’s Landing, Fisk Mill Cove, Rough and Ready, Nip and Tuck,  Saunders Landing, Iverson’s Landing, Bourn’s Landing and Cuffey’s Cove being but a few.  Mapping the various landings shows on average only a few miles separating each from the other, all testimonials to the rapid, industrial and localized scale of a national and international trade.

-- Dr James Delgado, Director, Maritime Heritage Program, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries