Editor’s Note: This column is published courtesy of Times-Standard of the Humboldt County Historical Society.
Today, Falk’s name rings true among Humboldters who love the outdoors. Road signs and tourist brochures indicate this is a site along the Elk River Trail to Headwaters Forest Reserve – a trail dotted with interpretive signs. What they perform is an important, but often overlooked, part of Humboldt County history.
Noah Falk, 18, was swept to California from Ohio as part of the gold rush. He soon discovered that the “red gold” of wood was more reliable and began working in sawmills, first in Mendocino and in 1867 for William Carson’s company here. A few years later, he was co-owner with Isaac Minor of two sawmills in Arcata.
As the more easily transportable timber near the bay was exhausted, logging activities moved inland. In the 1880s, Falk teamed up with a few San Francisco investors to acquire land on the South Fork of the Elk River and formed the Elk River Mill and Lumber Company. Falk brought in his two brothers from Ohio – Elijah to design and build the mill and Jonas to manage it.
In 1884 the town of Falk was officially formed – one of several company towns appearing around Humboldt County. Before the advent of automobile travel, workers had to live close to their place of work. The company provided housing, food and community to workers working 10-hour days for, initially, the princely sum of 25 cents a day. The town offered a general store, post office, dance hall, two kitchens, dormitories for single workers, and modest houses for families. Nearby, a school and a Congregational church served the residents of Falk.
Teams of oxen and later steam-powered “donkeys” brought the wood to the mills, then the river and a dedicated railway took the produce to the bay for shipment around the world. One of Falk’s most prosperous periods came after the 1906 earthquake, when huge amounts of lumber were needed to rebuild San Francisco. When not in his town itself, Noah Falk and his family lived in a large mansion in Arcata on the large overlook where Wildberries now stands.
The people of Falk came from many European states and countries. A special effort has been made to attract experienced woodworkers from Scandinavian countries. Falk has become a tight-knit multilingual community. Reminiscences of generally happy lives can be found in several books.
The community changed with the advent of the automobile, as workers could then commute from outdoor locations such as Eureka. With the crushing impact of the Depression on the timber industry, the town of Falk and its mills officially closed in the 1930s, although some residents remained for a few more years. The forest eventually returned and Falk became a ruined ghost town visited only by young adventurers and relic hunters. In 1979, the remains were demolished.
Today, the Bureau of Land Management’s interpretive center in the old rotunda building and its plaques along the footpath are all that remains of the once bustling town of Falk, but information about its past and all aspects of local history remain accessible to everyone at the Humboldt. County Historical Society.
Pam Service, a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, also holds an MA in History and Archeology from the University of London. After decades as a museum director and curator in Indiana, she arrived at the Clarke Museum in 2000. She began working as an archivist at the Humboldt County Historical Society in 2015. In addition, she has done archaeological work on four continents and has published 32 books. For more information on becoming a member of the Humboldt County Historical Society, call 707-445-4342.