Abstract: Roots, Branches, and Other Forest Networks: The Redwood Lumber Industry in Northern California, 1850-1929

James Michael Buckley


Using primary documentation from California's redwood lumber industry, this paper explores the development of the industry from its origins as a series of external networks of production to a consolidated structure dominated by a few, internally integrated firms. The study uses a cultural geography approach, making use of visual resources, such as fire insurance maps, photographs, and surviving buildings, to reconstruct the physical and social environments of this industry. This paper demonstrates the value of examining cultural production for understanding the dynamics of industrial production, allowing us to see modern business practices through the lens of everyday life in a distinctive locality. Redwood production in the nineteenth century consisted of a number of disaggregated activities spread among a variety of small, undercapitalized firms across an extensive regional geography; excessive competitiveness in the industry led to a series of unsuccessful efforts to organize the market through cartels and associations. In the early twentieth century, consolidation brought the industry's external networks into a few major corporations and, in turn, led to a new cultural landscape of lumber: the formal company town. The built environment serves here as an artifact that provides a deeper understanding of the contingent conditions imposed by economic structures on specific people and places.