How many readers are aware that Southern Pacific Railroad owned a good chunk of the land between the Albion and Navarro Rivers out to Comptche? No, the company wasn’t planning to build an extension of their railroad on this land…they needed timber.

Did you know Southern Pacific Railroad once owned a chunk of the county and would be happy to sell logged-over lands in 1940? Shown: detail of just the Comptche area from the 1940 map, “Southern Pacific Land Company Lands in Mendocino County, California.” (Kelley House Museum, gift of Katy Tahja)

If a company is going to build a railroad, first the tracks are built. Bridges and tunnels often need constructing, and that requires lumber. Railroad iron track is laid on wooden ties. All these timber products need to be obtained as cheaply as possible. So Southern Pacific bought forests.

In 1920 Southern Pacific, through its Mexican subsidiary Sud Pacific de Mexico, was building track from Guaymas to Guadalajara – 774 miles. There are about 3,250 wooden ties per mile of track. Doing the math, that is 270,900 railroad ties, each 8 feet-6 inches long, 7 inches thick and 9 inches wide. That’s one heck of a lot of wood needed. That’s why they owned a forest.

In 1907 the railroad bought the Albion Lumber Company and 20,622 acres of timber. In 1920 they bought 40,035 in the Navarro River drainage. Then came problems. The Mexican rail line was done by 1927 and the American public discovered motoring, and rail expansion slowed down everyplace. The mills in Albion and Navarro closed, the Great Depression ensued, and much of these timberlands just sat until after World War II.

Recently, I delivered to the Kelley House Museum’s curator and cartographic fan, Karen McGrath, a fine vintage map of logged over timberlands that Southern Pacific was offering for sale in 1940. It belonged to my father-in-law Andrew Tahja, who perhaps had ideas about adding to our property, as Southern Pacific owned contiguous lands. Outlined in red on the map were all the sections on the real estate market.

This crisply folded map will be scanned into the Kelley House Museum’s digital archives and be available to view online as soon as possible, as the archives are closed to in-person visits at this time. If local landowners ever wondered if their property was once Southern Pacific’s logged over timberlands, this map would tell them.

The majority of the 54,452 acres of the railroad company’s uncut timber to the east of Comptche was sold to Masonite Corporation in 1947 for over a million dollars, or about $25 an acre. Masonite sold everything to Louisiana Pacific Corporation in 1986 and it was later sold to Mendocino Redwood Company in 1998.