In Humboldt County, America’s ‘Last Company Town’ Getting PG&E Power
SCOTIA — On a quiet, cloudy afternoon, this small town south of Eureka easily resembles dozens of other hamlets tucked along the redwood forests not far from the Pacific Ocean. Kids walk home from school. Teens hang out near the market, eyeing “No Skateboarding” signs. Pickup trucks are parked outside the hardware store.
But spend a few hours here and you’ll notice your first impression was wrong. Scotia really isn’t like any other place in America.
Some call it the nation’s “Last Company Town.” That’s because it was once completely owned by one firm, Pacific Lumber Company, also known as Palco, for more than a century. Citizens worked in the Palco mills, lived in houses owned by Palco, went to Palco doctors and had their children educated by Palco teachers.
Even their utilities, including electricity, came from Pacific Lumber.
But it’s all changing for this community of about 800 in Humboldt County. And one of the most obvious changes is the fleet of blue trucks and PG&E workers who have been building an electric grid in, around, over and under 262 homes and other buildings, many of which date to the 1920s.
“We’re essentially building a whole new distribution system right alongside their existing system. And they will be dismantling theirs. New poles, wires, transformers, services right to the homes,” says Carl Schoenhofer, the senior manager in PG&E’s Humboldt Division. “It’s pretty unique.”
Like many in this region, Schoenhofer has a connection to Pacific Lumber and Scotia. He grew up in nearby Rio Dell, and crossed the river on his bike as a young boy to visit friends in Scotia and play hide-and-seek and baseball. (He also swam in the pool and played basketball in the company-owned gymnasium.)
“My dad worked in the mill. I myself worked in the mill during my college years, stacking lumber from the green chain during the summers,” he says. Schoenhofer became vice president of a different local lumber company before joining PG&E in 2013.
The entire town is still owned by one entity; the Town of Scotia LLC was one of the results of Pacific Lumber’s bankruptcy settlement.Frank Bacik, the president of the town and chief counsel for the LLC, is overseeing a huge project to update Scotia’s infrastructure —putting in new sewer and water pipes, installing handicapped-accessible sidewalks and working with PG&E on bringing in electricity. (Residents have gotten gas from PG&E since the 1950s.) Then, at some point in the near future, the houses in Scotia will go on sale.
Eventually, Scotia will become like most other small towns. But not yet.
“Scotia’s almost 150 years old,” Bacik says. “Our building boom was in about 1915.”
It was built and designed before the advent of the automobile, which means the homes don’t have driveways. It even had electricity before the White House, thanks to the mill’s power plant that burned wood waste.
Now, these historic homes will benefit from a new infrastructure, including water, sewer and electricity.
Last fall, Schoenhofer led of team of PG&E employees who spoke to residents at a Town Hall meeting at Wi-Ne-Ma Theater, a historic theater built of old-growth redwood. Residents heard about everything from available energy efficiency rebates to vegetation management practices to where they can pay their PG&E bills.
Leaving and coming back to Scotia
Steve Abrams, a Scotia resident, attended the meeting with his wife Renee. Abrams grew up in Scotia and he had family members who worked in the mill. The family moved away after a 1964 flood and Abrams went to college and then worked in Silicon Valley.
“We were looking around for a change of pace in our lifestyle so I transferred my job up here (with the U.S. Postal Service) and my wife transferred her job up here and we decided, well, we’re coming back to Scotia. We’ve been here since 2001. It’s been a really nice experience for us,” he says.
The Abrams love the weather and the quiet and the beauty of the scenery.
He has noticed PG&E crews at work. “They’ve been diligent, from what I’ve seen, bringing their equipment in and working hard and quick and fast,” he says.
As far as the changes to Scotia, Abrams admits that there are “a lot of unknowns,” including housing prices. But he says the changes have been fascinating.
“We live in a house that is almost 100 years old and yet at some point in the next year or two we’ll have infrastructure from the 21st century here so that’s kind of a nice thing to have to go along with a classic home,” he says.
These days, maybe just 25 Scotia residents still work in the local mill, Bacik says. Other residents work in businesses operating in town, such as the Aqua Dam, a water storage company, and the Eel River Brewing Company.
Once upon a time, Bacik says, Pacific Lumber “blew a steam whistle to wake people up and tell them when to come to work and when to take lunch and when to go home and when they ought to be in bed. Today, it’s a much more varied and broad selection of the community but, in general, it’s still an integral community.”
The historic homes won’t change, nor will the Wi-Ne-Ma Theater nor the town’s museum. There’s also a historic inn with a downstairs pub.
Most company towns, built near steel mills or coal mines or textile plants, have gone away. But not Scotia.
“We have to accomplish a great deal,” Bacik says. “But along the way we’ve been given the opportunity to preserve what’s important and historic in the community to preserve the opportunity for members of that community to see their town continue and not change drastically and overall this has been a lot of fun.”