In 1849, the California Gold Rush results in a flood of immigrants to the West Coast whose demand for lumber triggers economic development in the Pacific Northwest. Lumber from the Columbia River and from Puget Sound is more plentiful and more easily transported by sea to San Francisco than from the Sierra Nevada. As California grows, so will the timber industry and the economy of the Northwest.
Carpenter James W. Marshall (1810-1885) is credited with first discovering gold on the American River in 1848. Word of the find leaked to the world and the following year, tens of thousands of Forty Niners travel to California by ship and overland. Sparsely settled Oregon Territory experienced a temporary drop in population as men left their farms to find gold. Supplying the miners and the growing city of San Francisco quickly became a major industry and ships called at Northwest settlements looking for logs, which the homesteaders could easily cut close to the water.
After the first big influx of miners -- and the return of many to their homes -- San Francisco and California continued build to houses, wharves, railroads, and mines, all of which required lumber. Water- and steam-powered mills sprang up along the inland shores of Oregon and Washington Territories. Loggers felled trees both to sell and to clear land for farms and cities. The lack of laws governing land use at the time made timber essentially free. Lumbering became the leading industry in the Northwest for the rest of the century.
Improvements in technology -- geared locomotives, donkey engines, and sawmill efficiencies -- helped increase production from 160 million board feet in 1879 to one billion board feet 10 years later. Completion of transcontinental railroad lines in the 1880s and 1890s opened the rest of the country as a market for Northwest forest products.