The Canal that Never Was…

In the 1870s, Ferndale resident Harry Nieber, using the nom de plume “White Alder,” started writing what he hoped were persuasive letters to the Humboldt Times, advocating for a canal to move goods and people more quickly and efficiently between the Eel River Valley and more populated communities to the north. Others advocated for a rail line but Nieber pointed out that railroad from Singley’s Ferry (near Fernbridge) to Eureka would cost upwards of $150,000 (or about $3.3 million in today’s dollars), while he believed a canal cut between the Eel River and Humboldt Bay would cost about a third of that. Freight costs, he predicted, would be cheaper, too.

When some argued against the idea, Nieber dismissed their skepticism as “silly nonsense.” At the time, steamers traveling from the coast into and out of the Eel were slow and subject to the weather and tides. A canal, Nieber argued, could move timber and people efficiently and be used all year. 

By 1880, Eel River Valley farmers joined the call for a cheaper, faster and easier means of transportation. Moving timber was expensive and transferring produce from wagon to steamer to wagon and more took time, which meant damage, a shorter shelf life and lost profits. While some supported rail, others pushed for a community owned steamboat to make regular trips to San Francisco.

White Alder stubbornly pushed for a canal, convinced it would allow Eureka businesses to “join hands with the farmers of Eel River and … speedily build up a new standard of prosperity.” Nieber’s persistence finally paid off when he convinced a powerful ally. Of all the transportation projects that had been proposed, the Humboldt Times finally conceded in January of 1880 that building a canal around Table Bluff was the most feasible. In February, the Ferndale Enterprise publicly agreed.

Citizens organized and in December of 1881, the Humboldt Times reported that a petition advocating for the canal had been sent to Congress “but Congress had other fish to fry.” The community defaulted to rail and by November of 1883, grading for the new line between Field’s Landing and Springville (Fortuna) was all but complete and workers were making the “hole through the bluff” (now known as the Loleta tunnel). 

It wasn’t until the steamer Weott was “bar bound” in the Eel River in October of 1895 that support for the canal reemerged, no doubt pleasing Neiber. The Humboldt Times reminded readers that a canal would allow loaded vessels from the Eel and Salt rivers to reach Eureka — and the sea with markets north and south all year long. The savings in transportation costs could pay for the canal within a few years, the editorial said. The idea gained no traction, though, until 1904, when a letter from a Port Kenyon resident appeared in an issue of American Lumberman.

 “You may not be aware that by building a small canal, less than 2 miles in length, connecting a slough from Eel and Salt river with Humboldt Bay at Fields Landing it is possible to increase commerce … at a comparatively little outlay, and at a saving in freight and fare for the inhabitants of a large part of this county…” the letter said. A canal would also shorten the trip from Arcata to Ferndale by 20 miles, the writer added, and could be cut with a suction dredge. 

This time the idea took hold and in 1905, another Ferndale resident took up the cry. Otto Neuhaus argued that salmon and other Eel River Valley goods went to waste lacking easy transport to larger markets. He also pointed out that quicker, cheaper freight costs would drive down the price of goods in Ferndale – which were generally higher than those same supplies bought in Eureka and Arcata.

By 1906, these arguments convinced the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce and Humboldt Chamber of Commerce to form a joint committee to explore the idea but they decided driftsand, construction costs and other barriers made the project infeasible. When Nieber died Sept. 13, 1906, at age 73, he must have thought his dream was dead, too.

But the Ferndale Chamber had not given up. In January of 1909, when Congressmemember W.F. Englebright visited the county, chamber representatives pushed the idea and in March, Englebright’s congressional office shared the “great and glorious news” that the recently passed river and harbor bill included a provision to survey proposed dredging of the Eureka-Arcata channel, the South Bay channel and the Eel River canal.” Quoting Nieber’s dismissed prediction of 40 years prior, the Humboldt Times noted that a canal would allow ranchers of the Eel River valley to ship produce direct to Eureka more quickly and with less expense. This time the idea was endorsed by “prominent local people,” the county’s many chambers of commerce and more.

But alas …

In April of 1909, Col. Biddle, chief of the government engineering corps for the district, and Capt. H. L. DeMerritt, Biddle’s “right-hand man,” arrived from San Francisco and Eureka Mayor H. L. Ricks and President B. F. Stern of the Chamber of Commerce brought them to Table Bluff to look over the proposed route of an Eel River canal. The officials were convinced the project had merit and initiated surveys that summer.

Unfortunately, the region’s hopes for an Eel River/Humboldt Bay canal ended permanently in October of 1909, when the Humboldt Chamber of Commerce received a letter from Col. Biddle declaring the canal infeasible “not on account of its impracticability” but because of its cost. Without significant infrastructure, currents in the Eel River during “freshets” (seasonal floods) would wash too much debris into the bay and make the river too swift for navigation. Valley farmers and ranchers were left with the county rail system and hard-to-navigate dirt roads until 1914, when the Northwestern Pacific Railroad finally bridged the transportation gap, and linked Humboldt County with the rest of the state.

By Lynette Mullen

Originally printed in The Enterprise July 14, 2022

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