April 29, 1950 – The Mendocino Beacon reported that the Union Lumber Company had demolished Hellsgate Dam on the Southfork of Big River. This dam, which was used for logging operations from 1913 until 1937, was located about 40 miles upstream from Mendocino.

Men standing on top of a wooden dam, with water pouring out of the gate

Undated photo of Hellsgate Dam. Hellsgate Logging Camp can be seen in the background. (Gift of Emery Escola)

In his 1991 book, “Big River Was Dammed,” W. Francis Jackson documented 27 dams that operated on Big River. Remote logging camps used the water collected behind these dams to transport their harvested trees down the river to the Mendocino Mill. When the water behind the dams was released, man-made flash floods drove the logs downstream.

In late 1912, the Mendocino Lumber Company hired John Norberry, the head machinist for the Glen Blair Mill Company, to build a dam near a logging camp that had been operating in the Hells Gate area for three years. Norberry employed men from the camp to help with construction, which took four months. By Jackson’s count, Hellsgate was the 22nd dam built on Big River but only the third built with the aid of machinery. A small pile driver was used to build the base.

Hellsgate Dam was 33 feet high and 200 feet wide at the top. It backed water up for nearly two miles and took almost five hours to drain. In January 1913, the dam was used for the first time. Although construction was not completely finished, Woods Superintendent Ed Boyle went out to the dam and tripped the gates, washing 6,000 logs into the main river where they floated downstream to the mill.

After the Mendocino Mill shut down for the last time in 1938, the Hellsgate Dam was no longer needed and prevented fish from swimming upstream. The Beacon reported that “it was destroyed to make Big River an even better fishing stream for the hordes of fishermen who visit this coast each year.”

“Murder, She Wrote” Walking Tour of Mendocino (Cabot Cove) – Join us on this delightful walking tour of landmarks that appeared in the hit TV show “Murder, She Wrote,” starring Angela Lansbury. Locations you will visit include the 1888 Victorian residence of Lansbury’s mystery-solving character, Jessica Fletcher, and the hotel that was home to many suspects (and the crew and actors while filming). Saturday, May 4, at 11:30am. $25.