Monday, July 20, 2009

The View from Big Rock, Orleans

Permanent overlooks often beckon photographers throughout the decades, and thus can serve as long term photopoints. In Orleans, the aptly named "Big Rock" is such a point, and I have come upon several photos taken from this spot at Humboldt State University Library's Humboldt Room and in the Online Archive of California. These photos provide information about how the town and landscape have changed over time. This first photograph is from the C. Hart Merriam Collection at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, showing the rock itself upslope from the old Orleans Bridge (circa 1918).

On the third floor of the Humboldt State University Library is the Humboldt Room, which has several historical photograph collections containing images from the Orleans/mid-Klamath area. I found five images of the view from Big Rock there: 3 bird's eye views looking over the town and 2 looking up the Klamath River.

While researching these Big Rock photographs, I learned from several Karuk tribal members that Big Rock is a culturally important place to the Karuk people. They expressed the importance of being especially respectful of such places, and that Big Rock should not be considered a tourist destination. I also learned that Big Rock is located on private property.

None of the Big Rock photos from the Humboldt Room are dated, but comparing them and applying background information about when key buildings were built can help determine their relative order. What appears to be the earliest of the bird's eye photos is this one by A.W. Ericson (Ericson Collection). There are several landmarks that I know of (please add your comment if you know of others) that are visible in this photo. In the photo, the river is flowing from north (right side of the photo) to south (left side of the photo), and I will describe things according to this orientation. The key landmarks shown in this photo include a madrone tree on the northwest corner of the orchard, a westward-running road now called "Downs Ranch Road" and the Orleans Cemetary (a diamond-shaped cluster of trees up the westward road in the center right of the photo). These landmarks are made much more apparent when compared to the other bird's eye photos. A second copy of this photograph is also located in the Humboldt Room's "Humboldt County Collection" (HCC Photos)." On that copy, Susie Baker Fountain (a prolific 20th Century Humboldt County historian) identified several significant buildings, including the court house, hotel, and Brizard Store. These are all on the left half of the photograph.
The next photograph is looking slightly downriver from Ericson's. The writing on it is that of Susie Baker Fountain, from whose private collection the photograph came. In this image, you can see the Orleans Cemetary outlined with a white fence. The orchard in Ericson's photo is not in this one. This photograph is also part of the Humboldt Room's "Humboldt County Collection" (HCC Photos), which is composed of individual loose photographs that are not part of larger, cohesive collections.

In this next photograph (also from HCC Photos), you can see the Orleans Cemetary with the white fence, a larger madrone tree, and new buildings. Across from the cemetary on the other side of the westward road is a house with two sheds. East of the Cemetary is a white house. Both houses were built by F.W. Gent in 1927, which dates this photo after 1927 and the other two bird's eye photos prior to it. Near the madrone is the Episcopal church. This church is no longer standing in Orleans, and is on the site of the current Forest Service compound.

I found two photographs looking upriver from Big Rock. One of them is this one from Ericson:

This photo shows a similar view, with a clearer image of the Pearch Mine (also known as Salstrom's Mine and McGain's Mine). This photo has houses on the right-hand side that are not in Ericson's image, which suggests to me that the Ericson photo was taken earlier.

The last photo shows the bird's eye view from Big Rock today, with a similar scope as Ericson's initial shot. From this photo you can see substantial vegetation growth blocking much of the view Ericson and the other photographers saw. However, the westward road (Downs Ranch Road) follows precisely the same path in all of the bird's eye photos. The cemetary and the F.W. Gent house accross from it are unable to be distinctly identified due to vegetation. The roof and upper story of the white F.W. Gent house is visible, as is the now much larger madrone tree.
Please leave a comment if you have additional knowledge or thoughts about these photographs!


  1. I find these photos interesting in a couple of other respects:

    1. The landslides in the first and second photos appear to be clearly related to the road above them. This indicates that road related sediment was likely impairing the Klamath River at least since the turn of the century. Historical reports from the early mining era indicate mining related sediment but roads are not considered a major sediment impact during that era.

    2. The conifer vegetation on the hills is dense/closed canopy. This would appear to contradict the assertion by Forest Service folks and FS Fire researchers that the forest was naturally much less dense than it is today (due to fire suppression). Fire histories (there is a good one for the KNF that goes way back)indicate that effective suppression didn't really get going around here until after WW II and even then it was not very effective in most of Klamath Country due to the lack of (road) access.

    If one reads accounts from the early days of the white invasion (see for example, "Life Amongst the Modocs - Unwritten History" by Joaquin Miller) you find descriptions of very "dense" and "dark" forests. Miller spent most of his mining time along the Klamath but used "Modoc" to profit from interest in the Modoc Indian War. There are numerous references in the book to the "dense" and "dark" forests. Miller also talked about the brush fields. His and other early accounts give a picture of dense forests on lower slopes - especially North-facing slopes - and brushfields on the upper portions of South facing slopes as well as open forests of big trees on most ridges.

    3. There is a painting showing Orleans during the early mining era that is in the new history of early Humboldt County by Ray Raphael and Freeman House. That depiction (from a similar location as the photos?) shows slopes denuded of (woody) vegetation above the town but dense forests above that - including some boundaries between denuded areas and forests that look just like clearcut borders!

    All this leads me to question the now conventional wisdoms:

    1. That pre-contact Indigenous residents managed the entire landscape with fire, and

    2. That Klamath Country forests are unnaturally dense due to fire suppression.

    I believe a fair reading of all available information suggests:

    1. Indigenous Klamath Country people burned in specific places for specific purposes; there was no need to burn areas far from living and collecting sites because of the prevalence of lightning.

    2. Klamath forests have "always" varied in their density/canopy closure based on wet/dry climate cycles, rainfall shadows and high intensity zones, position on slope and (especially) aspect. The vast majority of the land was covered by closed-canopy Old Growth forests.

    3. The assertion by FS managers and others that Klamath Forests are naturally less dense than is currently the case is not supported by available evidence from the historical record.

  2. Felice is probably right in most respects, and many thanks to him for the detailed examination of these questions.

    That said, the Karuk and other tribes certainly did burn under their tan oak "orchards" in order to keep the conifers down. One such orchard is on a gently sloping ridge near the town of Orleans, where giant tan oaks and madrones, probably 200 years old and older, now stand surrounded by a massive sprays of Douglas fir. The fir are crowding and shading the old hardwoods and are beginning to take over; the tan oaks and madrones are dying back, but they are not being replaced by young hardwoods due to conifer dominance. (The young hardwoods are certainly sprouting and growing to the size of brush, creating an even greater fire danger.)

    It's clear that the Karuk used fire in this area. Oral histories of course confirm this. It's also illogical to think that such a dominant tan oak grove could be maintained by the occasional lightening strike; that is, if this forest was indeed maintained by wildfire then the inevitable intensity of some of these fires would have probably disallowed these hardwood trees from becoming so old.

    In addition, on our land, which contains a part of this "orchard," the oldest conifers are uniformly about 120 years old. This could point to a "catastrophic" wildfire that burned in the late 1800s, but such a fire would probably have killed off the hardwoods as well. As mentioned, many of the existing hardwoods in this area are much older than the surrounding conifers. Likely the age of these trees reflect the approximate era when the Karuk were disallowed from practicing burning.

    A Karuk archeologist confirmed to me that this area was once a tan oak orchard, and that there were several such orchards, maintained with fire, surrounding Karuk villages throughout the Klamath basin. I do understand and share a concern that underlies Felice's note: That the Forest Service can be counted on to use the need for thinning as an excuse to allow industrial logging. We saw this with the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction Project, whose severity (including a proposed 14 miles of new road) the tribe and the community managed to substantially reduce. But we also must continue to recognize and honor the successes that pre-contact peoples had in maintaining their sources of food.

  3. I should add a big Thank You to Adrienne for bringing us these photos, and this history. Keep it coming Adrienne!

  4. Marvelous research. Thank you so much for sharing it with all of us.

  5. Marlene Mendes BirnieMay 15, 2014 at 9:08 AM

    Great pictures. Most of them, I think, are in the area where our family homestead is, right next to the Cal Trans yard; am I right?