THE FIRST INHABITANTS
Evidence of the Mitom Pomo on the North Coast dates back 3,000 years. Although the main Mitom villages were located in interior Mendocino County near what is now the town of Willits, the Mitom made periodic visits to the coast to gather food. They hunted large and small game, caught fish and shellfish, and gathered seaweed and various seeds.
The Mitom’s way of life changed drastically with the influx of American settlers in the early 1850s. Logging camps displaced villages at the mouths of rivers and streams, and the Mitom lost their land—and often their lives—to settlers’ violence and fatal epidemics. Some Mitom found work as farm and lumber workers, escaping the fate of most North Coast Native Americans, who were taken to the Fort Bragg Indian Reservation.
EUROPEAN AND AMERICAN SETTLERS
The first European settler in the area was Siegfried Caspar, a German trapper who lived and worked near what would later become known as Caspar Creek, about a mile south of Jug Handle Creek. Although Caspar left when civilization arrived in the 1860s, his offspring farmed the area for years.
Canadian Alex Gordon came to the town of Caspar in 1863 and worked in the local sawmill before acquiring land where he farmed and ran a livestock and butchering operation. In 1875, he sold his several hundred acres to his ranch hand Alexander Jefferson, another Canadian. In 1901, Jefferson deeded a parcel of land at Jug Handle Creek to his daughter, Annie, as a wedding gift upon her marriage to Stuart Tregoning. The Tregoning family built a ranch near the creek and raised cattle and sheep.
THE LURE OF LUMBER
In 1850, the San Francisco-bound brig Frolic sank north of what is now Point Cabrillo. Although salvagers were unable to recover the valuable cargo, they noticed rich stands of redwood nearby and discovered a new treasure for the taking. Two years later, a sawmill was built near the mouth of Big River off Mendocino Bay. Men arrived to fell the trees and work in the mill. Wives and families soon followed, and the influx of American settlers began.
William H. Kelley and William T. Rundle bought 5,000 acres of forest land in the Caspar Creek basin and founded the Caspar Lumber Company in 1860. They built a second sawmill at the mouth of Caspar Creek. In 1861, Jacob Green Jackson was taken on as a partner, and by 1864, he had taken over the lumber company. Jackson bought more timberland along Jug Handle Creek, and under his leadership, Caspar Lumber Company became one of the most successful logging enterprises on the Mendocino coast.
As the demand for lumber increased, Jackson bought his first schooner to transport lumber from the mill to the San Francisco Bay area. In 1874, he built a mule-and-horse-powered tramway between the mill at Caspar and Jug Handle Creek. The tramway was later converted into a standard-gauge railroad that became the Caspar Creek Railroad (later the Caspar and Hare Railroad). In 1884, a 160-foot-high wooden trestle was built over Jug Handle Creek. Redwood logging continued in the area through the 1880s, but by 1890 the logging operations at Jug Handle Creek had ceased. To stay in business, the Caspar Lumber Company bought more than 6,000 acres of new timberland along the South Fork of the Noyo River in 1901–1902. The trestle collapsed in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, but was soon rebuilt and remained in operation until 1945. It was then dismantled after the railroad was abandoned of in favor of truck transport. After years of intense logging, the old-growth timberlands were severely depleted by the mid-1940s.
In 1947, the State of California bought nearly 50,000 acres of forest land from the Caspar Lumber Company. This land became Jackson Demonstration State Forest, a “working” forest — producing lumber using more environmentally friendly practices and renewing the forest by planting seeds or young trees. But right along the coast, land that is Jug Handle State Natural Reserve today was still in private hands.
In 1936, Dr. Hans Jenny, a world-renowned soil scientist and U.C. Berkeley professor, began studying the soils of Mendocino’s rare and fragile pygmy forest. During the 1950s, Jenny began a conservation campaign to protect the area he called the Northern Hemisphere’s “best preserved ecological showplace of coastal landscape evolution.”
In 1962, primarily through his and the California State Division of Forestry’s efforts, a 250-acre pygmy-forest reserve was established within Jackson Demonstration State Forest. It was designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1969. However, the pygmy forest was just part of the picture. From top to bottom, winding through five terraces, Jug Handle Creek displayed the whole evolutionary history of this part of the northern California coast. And its lower terraces were still ripe for development.
The Berkeley-based California Institute of Man in Nature rose to the challenge. Founded in 1968, it had been providing U.C. Berkeley Extension programs at the Mendocino Art Center. When two critical parcels of land came up for sale in 1970, the nonprofit took on mortgages to block plans to log and develop those parcels. But making the payments was difficult. More than once, the Institute ran out of funds, had to plead for extensions, and frantically fundraise in the Bay Area and beyond.
The struggle to make the payments lasted until 1975 when the State bought both parcels. The Institute land, along with parcels owned by Caspar Lumber Company, the Pacific Holiday Lodge Corporation, Save the Redwoods League, and others, became Jug Handle State Natural Reserve in 1977.
An offshoot of the Institute is still active in the area today: Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center. From facilities beside the reserve, the newer nonprofit offers camping and lodging for visitors as well as educational programs for local schools.