Del Norte History

Del Norte County -the setting for amazing Movies

Published: October 18, 2008 in The Tripicate

By Kelley Atherton

In the quiet of the forest, broken only by the crackle of breaking twigs and the creaking of gently swaying redwoods, the sounds of drums and singing in an unfamiliar tongue can almost be heard even after all these years.

Just walking around remote places in Del Norte County can bring back cinematic memories, like an Ewok village or the spot where an extraterrestrial was reunited with others of his ilk.

Del Norte has provided the backdrop for several popular movies. Most memorable and recognizable is the heavily wooded land of Endor, where rebel forces and Ewoks take down the evil Empire in the "Star Wars" saga, "Return of the Jedi."

A handful of films have been at least partially shot here, including the 1936 version of "The Last of the Mohicans"; a 1981 horror film, "The Final Terror"; "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" in 1982; and an independent cult favorite, "Dead Man," starring Johnny Depp and an aging Robert Mitchum, in 1994.

Lucasfilm shot the scenes on the mythical planet of Endor for "Jedi" just outside Smith River on Miller-Rellim Redwood Company land from April 26 to May 26, 1982. A crew was in the area for almost a year building sets.

Up to $3 million was spent in Del Norte during filming. About 200 locals were hired as stand-ins and extras. Others did hair and makeup, built sets and washed laundry for the actors.

Lots of people have their stories about the crew and the excitement of a major motion picture being filmed in their back yard. The redwoods — what Del Norte is most famous for — were precisely the look George Lucas wanted for the third installment in his epic tale.

A hush-hush operation

The Daily Triplicate caught wind of filming and the hundreds of people, including a few famous actors, who were staying at Ship Ashore Resort and ran a story on May 12, 1982.

At that time the movie's working title was "Revenge of the Jedi." It was also referred to as "Blue Harvest" to throw off anxious fans and would-be plot spoilers.

Producer Howard Kazanjian gave vague details about the filming and refused to allow a Triplicate reporter on the set in order to keep surprises intact for "Star Wars" fans. He also wouldn't explain what role 39 little people would play in the film.

Taking on the big guys

In the DVD commentary for "Jedi," writer and producer George Lucas said he wanted a primitive look for Endor. To take down a technologically-advanced, oppressive super-power, the rebels and Ewoks used natural resources like stone and wood.

"The thing about Endor is that I wanted an environment that was different from any other environment — a jungly kind of place, the color of life, a cradle of life environment," Lucas said. "The only thing I could come up with was giant sequoia (redwood) trees."

In 1982, the crew ended up on Morrison Creek Road, where old-growth redwoods were fated to be cut down. However, before filming began in May 1982, some of the surrounding ground had to be leveled, according to Kazanjian.

"We came in about 11 months ago with bulldozers to level the ground and replant ferns and seeds so we had an area that looked natural," Kazanjian told The Triplicate in 1982.

The filming included a famous chase scene through the redwoods, which gave the audience a first-hand sense of flying through the trees at high speed. The scene was shot by a cameraman walking through the forest. The film was then sped up to get the thrill factor, while actors shot their sequences in front of a green screen.

According to Lucas, "stop-motion in a forest had never been done before."

Morrison Road was also used to film the climactic Battle of Endor. The Empire's shield generator is blown up, thus allowing its "Death Star" to be destroyed.

"This location was about to be cut down for logging anyway, so it was alright to go in and sort of blow these trees up," said Dennis Muren on the DVD commentary. Muren did visual effects for "Jedi."

The movie provides a different look at redwood trees, which are revered and highly protected. Throughout battle scenes, redwoods smash to the ground and the shield generator is blown up amidst the giant trees.

"Here it is on film and at least the process entertained everyone before it had to be cut down," Muren said.

"E.T. phone home"

Just seven months after "Jedi" landed in Smith River for a month of principal filming of one of the most well-known and profitable movies of all time, another famous director, Steven Spielberg, found the perfect spot to open and close a now-beloved children's movie.

Deep in the forest outside Fort Dick, an alien is first abandoned and later picked back up by his comrades. The dense redwood forest is supposed to be just outside a major metropolitan city.

At the beginning of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," E.T. wanders away from the other aliens and peeks out over a cliff to modern suburbia — row upon row of lights stretching for miles — not exactly Crescent City.

One particularly famous scene was shot here. It's a tear-jerker for some as Elliott and E.T. race away on a bicycle from government types and with a little supernatural help fly over the trees across the moon. That scene provided the backdrop for the movie cover and posters.

Filming was also done on Miller-Rellim property off North Bank Road and Little Mill Creek in December 1982. Supposedly, Spielberg shot an additional scene of a dying E.T. lying face down in Little Mill Creek, which was not used in the film.

Fort Dick Market owner Clyde Eller said that during filming some of the child actors from "E.T." talked to the students at Redwood Elementary School. The cast included Henry Thomas as Elliott, Drew Barrymore as Elliott's sister, Gertie, and Robert MacNaughton as big brother Michael.

"My son came home from school and said all the kids came over to the school," Eller said, recalling the boy's excitement.

Crew members from "Jedi" also frequented the market, and Eller came to know some of them, while providing food and supplies. He said he was aware that another film was being shot nearby, but the crew didn't make itself known.

"E.T." flew right under the radar for The Triplicate, which did not run an article on the filming.

It is peculiar that two blockbuster films were shot in Del Norte in the same year, Eller said. Perhaps, George Lucas told Spielberg about the redwoods, or location scouts both happened upon the same area with few people and a lush forest.

"How they ended up here..." Eller said, "I have no idea."


Redwoods on a tropical island?

"The Lost World," the sequel to "Jurassic Park," was actually filmed just across the county border in Humboldt County in 1997.

Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park and Patrick's Point State Park served as the setting for dinosaurs supposedly living on a tropical island off the coast of Costa Rica.

The redwoods provided a prehistoric atmosphere. Yet when the film's stars watch a herd of stegosauruses walk through a rocky creek amongst the tall trees and ferns, it probably feels very familiar to local residents.

Reach Kelley Atherton at katherton@triplicate.com.

~ more history quoted from other websites ~

The discovery of gold along the Sacramento and Trinity Rivers in the mid-1800's drew thousands of people to Northern California. A supply route was needed to bring supplies and information to the remote mining camps of California. This need motivated settlers to begin building towns and settlements in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Del Norte County is full of historical sites. Be sure to visit this main town of the Del Norte County, the Historical town of Crescent City. A must see is the Battery Point Lighthouse and museum where you can explore the amazing history of this unique area and learn more about the people and the events that shaped this region of America. The main museum and office are at 577 H Street, Crescent City.

The ancient Redwoods were here when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Sixty-five million years later we can now stroll through these living artifacts and marvel at their beauty as they tower over us. The Redwood's life spans are about 800-1500 years. How out of scale the marvelous trees seem to be to us, the puny mammals that replaced the dinosaurs.

The Coastal Redwoods, the mighty Sequoia's, are the tallest living things in our world, some growing to 350 feet and beyond. The tallest living tree known at present is situated on Redwood Creek in the Redwood National Park. It measures in at 367.8 feet, which is higher than a 35-story building. Another giant is in Founder's Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Situated near the South Fork of the Eel River, it is the Dyerville Giant. Prior to March 24, 1991, when this 362 foot tree was toppled after being struck by another tree during a storm, it was the second tallest known tree in the area. Still standing in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, in the same grove is the Founder's Tree, which is 346 feet tall. The Founder's Tree and the grove are dedicated to the people who helped establish the Save-the-Redwood's League.

The need of the Save-the-Redwood's League was evident because of the popularity of these trees. To lumber companies, the Redwoods in North America offered immense logs of clear, straight, beautiful, long-lasting timber for an ever-increasing market. In just a few short decades groves of trees that took centuries to grow were gone. By the turn of the century the number of old growth trees had been severely decimated.

In 1914 the Northwestern Pacific Railroad opened the Eel River Valley for the first time to visitors. Eel River Valley was home of some of the last untouched coast Redwoods. Visitors were so inspired by these Redwoods that a movement to save as many of these mighty giants as possible began. The Save-the-Redwoods League was established in 1918 and began its efforts to save the Redwood's in Northern California. This and other parks hold most of the old growth Redwood's that still remain.


A Bit of History...

The lure of gold brought settlers in the mid-1850's. In 1853 gold was discovered in Myrtle Creek.

Placer mining continued there and was enhanced with the completion of a ditch in 1894 which allowed year round mining. In the hills east of Smith River, copper mining began in 1860. With increased demand and production, the small town of Altaville flourished from 1862 -1867, until mining declined. More important than the mining which occurred in Del Norte County was the transportation hub which centered around the mule trains that took supplies from Crescent City to the mining camps along the Klamath River in the 1800's. Traversing the Kelsey Trail up the South Fork of the Smith River, these pack trains supplied much of the essentials needed to support these camps.

History is rampant with the occurrences of ships going down off the Del Norte Coast. In 1850 the Paragon became the first ship to sink off our coast. This was followed in 1851 by the Tarquin and the burning of America in 1855. The steamer Brother Jonathan is the most celebrated shipwreck. This steamer hit an uncharted reef and sank with 215 passengers on board and a large gold shipment; only 16 passengers survived the heavy seas. In 1941, the oil tanker Emidio was hit by torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine. The ship drifted into Crescent City Harbor and sank. Five crewmen were killed by machine gun fire from the submarine. A large piece of the hull now sits in Beach Front Park as a memorial.

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