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River Monster

A century back, and then on back into the century before, the sun shone on huge redwood and fir that had not yet been felled. Back into the first half of the 1880s, when the railroad along the Albion traveled only a couple miles, not yet into fresh water, and not yet extended the twisting miles from the Boom to the sawmill on the Albion flats. One summer Sunday morn, two of the Lilley boys from Albion Ridge ventured through the woods, passing hemlocks near as thick as the mighty redwood. Down a ridgeback here, an Indian trail there, then following horseshoe tracks to the side of the river they did go with rifles in hand ready for a hunt.

They stepped out onto a drift pile of jammed logs in an effort to cross the river. Treading carefully from log to slippery log they halted at the sight of some sort of water serpent sticking a head up between the floating timber. Its head appeared big as a canine pup. As they tiptoed from log to log, the serpent head followed, cutting a parallel path through the dark water. It looked as if the creature intended to cut them off, block their journey across. They jumped backward to a broad redwood log. The serpent bobbed under, out of sight for a few pounding heartbeats. then rose again a mere two feet from them. 

The boys fired their rifles wildly twice each. The serpent disappeared beneath the surface and the gladdened boys hopped, verily skipped over slippery bark to the far side of the stream. There they stood on the riverbank, transfixed. Something of a mist seemed to cover the log jam. Perhaps it was only the last of the morning river fog, but whatever it might be, the boys swore they saw the serpent rise once again, farther and farther above the logs, until it scaled out at six feet tall. As quickly as the critter ascended, it dropped down out of sight once more; a bubble at the surface the last they spied of the mystery figure.

Tales of river monsters are as old if not older than those of Bigfoot. The Lilley boys were not fabricators of malarkey. They hunted for themselves, worked hard around home, attended school until paying labor beckoned. They were descended from folks who lived and died on the land. An uncle had been shot dead as a young man by the notorious Dr. John Wheeler. What happened along the Albion that July morn perplexed them and everyone they recounted the tale to, though no further sightings of the watery beast occurred.

A best guess as to what the Lilley brothers saw in the Albion River leads to what is commonly called a monkeyface eel. The monkeyface prickleback is actually a species of  fish native to the Pacific coast. They are not from the order of real eels. They are most common in rocky, tidal areas in southern Oregon and northern California, though infrequently sighted as far south as Baja California. The monkeyface eel is generally no more than two and a half feet in length. Perhaps the Lilleys spotted an extraordinarily long one, exaggerated in their excitement, or the fish jumped momentarily creating the illusion it might be as tall as a full grown man.

Nearly four decades later, thirty-seven years to be precise, another kind of Albion monster reared. This time it proved a mechanical monster. One of the most trusted and skilled employees at the Albion Lumber Company's sawmill was a fellow who had labored for several years on the log deck. He regularly participated when it came time to change the large band saws. One late summer afternoon, near 5:30, he assisted as usual in this task. Ahead of him, the carriage jerked forward inexplicably, trapping him against the end of a log as the spinning saw bore down on the poor workman. The band saws blade nearly severed his head and death proved more or less instantaneous.

The man was but 47 years, a native of Finland who had emigrated to the United States with his parents as a child. He resided in Minnesota for some years before traveling to the Mendocino coast. He left behind a widow and seven children. 

Two and a half months later, at the Apple Show, my paternal grandmother, Lillian Robertson Macdonald, won blue ribbons for her Maiden's blush, Missouri Pippin, and Gravensteins. Each first place prize brought in $1.50, no small amount for a widow with two grown sons along with an adult daughter and two younger boys at home with her on their ranch and farm where a three year drought had premiered.

Thus was life along the Albion a century ago and more; a place filled with wondrous mystery, tragedy, and hardscrabble existence, with a touch of profitable celebration rearing its head here and there.

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