Eureka - Logging Museum
John Dolbeer was born on March 12, 1827, on a family farm in Epsom, New Hampshire. In 1850, at the age of 23, Dolbeer joined in the rush for gold and sailed for San Francisco. Like many others, Dolbeer was not overly successful in his search for instant wealth. In 1853, he turned away from gold and purchased an existing saw mill (Bay Mill) from pioneer lumberman Martin White on Humboldt Bay. Ten years later, in 1863, after his mill had burned down twice, Dolbeer's capital was exhausted and he was forced to go into partnership with a logger by the name of William Carson. The Dolbeer and Carson Lumber Company quickly grew into one of the largest lumber operations on the Northern California coast and continued in operation well into the twentieth century. It made both men fabulously wealthy.
Dolbeer is famous in the timber industry for having invented the Dolbeer Steam Logging Donkey in 1883. It was composed of a wood fired steam engine mounted on two skids and connected to a system of ropes and pulleys that were deployed out into the area where trees were being felled and cut into logs. Logs were lassoed and dragged to the loading yard in front of the steam donkey. There, they were loaded onto rail cars or pushed into a waterway for transit to the mill. The donkey engine was relatively inexpensive to build, eliminated the need for animals, was extremely efficient and easy to operate. It opened difficult terrain to logging operations and quickly revolutionized the industry. The lumber museum at Fort Humboldt in Eureka has examples of the "improved" steam donkey. (Dolbeer's original donkey did not have a return mechanism and it was necessary for the rigging to be taken back out into the field by men and animals. The return mechanism was added seven years later in 1900 and steel cables eventually replaced rope in the rigging as the size of the logs being moved increased.) Although the steam donkey was Dolbeer's most famous invention, it was far from the only one. He also invented machines and procedures that improved felling, milling, measuring and transporting.
As their business developed and prospered over the years, Carson appears to have been the partner that resided in Eureka while Dolbeer established his principal residence on prestigious Lombard Street in San Francisco, which was the chief market for their lumber and the financial center for their other wide ranging business interests. (San Francisco was frequently ravaged by fire in the nineteenth century and was rebuilt seven times during this period. Redwood was the preferred building material.) Dolbeer's later life was marred by several tragedies including the suicide of his wife and the accidental death of his son. He died in 1902 and is buried in Cypress Lawn Cemetery.