Accidents In Local Coast History—With Octopus
by Katy Tahja, January 25, 2017
Historians doing research are always coming up with interesting tidbits that deserve sharing, like a file full of gruesome accidents reported to the local newspaper. I must say, Mendocino Coast residents in days gone by found some unusual ways to maim and kill themselves and these events got excellent newspaper coverage. Good old-fashioned transit accidents, be it horse, wagon, or auto, took many lives. Some stories were so truly gruesome I could not share them in this story, but you can bet the newspapers of the time reported every gross disgusting detail.
EXTRA in the headline the newspaper proclaims. Three young men died in 1928 and a fourth was “dreadfully injured” in a “frightful accident” after midnight on a bridge over Mitchell Creek. A tire blew out on a big Nash car, it went out of control, crashed through the railing and fell 30 feet down with “horrific force.” This bridge must have been poorly designed or maintained because in 1935 three young men were lucky to be alive after their car plunged over the side. A car ahead of them had slowed and the vehicle with the young men put on the brakes and the frost on the road caused the vehicle to skid, take out 50 feet of bridge railing, and go over the side. These travelers were lucky as the worst injury was a broken arm.
Before auto cars could kill you, a ride in a stagecoach could. In 1888 a stage had runaway horses on the Pullen Grade between Albion and Little River. The brakes gave way and the horses were unable to hold back the heavily laden stage which went downhill at breakneck speed. A short distance down the grade was the undertaker with a loaded hearse and a coffin. Unable to get out of the way the runaway stage crashed into the hearse and passengers were thrown in a heap and one of the large glass windows in the hearse was smashed. Luckily, living persons, horses, and the stage came out OK.
Accidents abounded in the woods during tree falling. In 1951 a photo showed roots and a tree trunk. Under the oak was a man crushed to death and a Caterpiller tractor. The logging operation had undermined the tree and it fell on the worker on Brushy Mountain southeast of Fort Bragg. In 1937 a man was killed when a log rolled on him while working alone. The logger was crosscutting a log outside Camp 2 on the Ten Mile River. When a log is sawn in two it is released from a tense position and it rolls.
Fishing in 1921 a logger was standing on a log-jam in Big River. His foot slipped between two logs and a broken branch pierced his shoe and pinned his foot to the log. The next morning a train crewmember on the logging railroad saw him and came to his rescue with a jackscrew and got him into town for medical attention. Albion Lumber Company had a jitney bus on rails for hauling loggers into the woods for work. It had a flip down stretcher attached so injured loggers could be hauled out of the woods to the doctor.
Another source of peril was railroading. A worker on the Albion Lumber Company railroad lost a leg in a track construction accident. A boulder was being dynamited out of the way and unexpectedly sent rock flying 500 feet away and tore a man’s leg off. He survived. Another young man died after being crushed between two cars while he tried to uncouple them in 1908.
In 1911 on the Albion Railroad three men were blasting a cut in a hillside. They failed to count their blasts to make sure everything planted had exploded. They returned to the cut and started drilling again and the drill hit an unexploded charge. It exploded. One man died, another had his skull fractured and part of his leg, arm, and hand torn off. Two others survived but one was crippled for life.
Big River’s lumber mill by Mendocino Bay had its own dangers. In 1909 a man examining a sawdust conveyor belt had his clothing snag on a revolving shaft and he was wound up and thrown around the shaft. He grabbed a stanchion and his coworkers cut his smoking clothing off his body to release him. In 1913 another man was terribly mutilated when caught by a revolving shaft. It was reported his arm was torn from its socket, a leg was cut off and his body mangled.
In 1907 the mill in Elk a portion of a log being sawn clogged the machinery. The operator left the machine running while he removed the obstruction. The log holding carriage shot forward and the operator just escaped being cut in two. However the carriage threw his left hand against the running saw cutting off four fingers close to the knuckle.
Many people couldn’t swim but still got too close to the surf. In 1926 a dead body was found 60 miles from the place of his death. Possessions identified the man as someone who had come to visit relatives at Navarro. He and friends went to the coast to collect mussels and a big wave swept him off the rocks.
So how do you have an accident with a octopus? In 1934 a 16-year old boy down on the rocks at Noyo Point abalone fishing with friends was grabbed by an octopus. It wrapped a tentacle around his waist and pulled him into four feet of water. His friends beat on the octopus with abalone irons until it died and let go. They dragged it on shore and it was eight feet wide.
Another accident that same year at Agate Beach in Mendocino had a young man reaching under a rock and having his wrist grabbed and pulled by the sea creature. Again the kids beat the critter to death and shared their newsworthy story with the Mendocino Beacon.
Even Hollywood got into the local accident scene. In 1947 when “Johnny Belinda” was being shot locally a helicopter was filming scenes from the air. Lew Ayres and Jane Wyman were in a horsedrawn buggy when the horses were spooked by the copter and took off for the steep ocean bluff a quarter mile away at full gallop. The first and second assistant director took off on foot after the runaway buggy and brought it to a stop. Accident averted!
Jane Wyman handing baby to Lew Ayres in "Johnny Belinda"