When the topic is the World’s Largest Totem Pole, size matters.
While there’s a plaque at the base of the pole declaring that the pole is 160 feet high, that
number had to be called into question being that the pole was taken down in 1984 and put back up with antennae at the top to make it taller.
After I asked professional surveyors to measure the height of the McKinleyville landmark in December 2011, I assumed the matter was cleared up. The highest point on the pole – the little brass rod protruding from the top – is 159 feet, 5 1/2 inches up from the base of the bottom of the pole.
The surveyors – David A. Crivelli and Michael D. Pully of the Points West Surveying Co. – noted the accuracy of their measurements, stating “These measurements should be considered to be plus or minus one-quarter of an inch due to sighting and angular measurement error.”
Cased closed. Right? Not quite.
I recently met Bob MacDonald, the man who poured the cement in 1962 at the base of the McKinleyville Totem Pole. MacDonald had worked closely with the late Ernest Pierson, who carved the pole along with Johnny Nelson.
According to MacDonald, Pierson considered the cement base on which the pole stands to be part of its height.
“It’s part of the pole. That’s what Ernie told me. I asked him about it. What’s the height? And he said the tree was about 157 feet and the base is three feet. So that’s 160 feet.”
So I went over to the pole last week with a tape measure, a yard stick, a level and some string. My crude attempt at measuring the height of the base is a far cry from the accuracy of the pros at Points West Surveying Co., but the measurement did come to about three feet.
So if one includes the base of the totem pole when calculating the height, the World’s Largest Totem Pole is actually 162 feet, 5 1/2 inches.
The reason that this is higher than the height claimed in 1962 is because the pole was taken down and re-carved in 1984. That was done because the original totem pole characters were carved in the sapwood, which rotted over the years. When the pole was put back up in 1984, Pierson added antennae at the top to make it even taller. Those metal protrusions have since fallen over and are now dangling with one rod sticking up above the round disc.
The top of the round disc comes in at 160 feet, 6 5/8 inches if you include the base as part of the height.
Still the World’s Largest Totem Pole
This doesn’t change the pole’s status in the record books. Whether it’s a little taller or a little shorter, it’s still the World’s Largest Totem Pole. After all, there’s no where else on earth with trees as large as the 500-year-old, old-growth redwood that the totem pole was carved from. Note, however, that Pierson used the word “largest” to describe his masterpiece, not “tallest.”
The tallest totem pole – standing at 173 feet – is in Alert Bay, British Columbia. It was put up in 1973 and consist of two logs spliced together and held up with guy wires, Before the Alert Bay pole was put up, the McKinleyvile Totem Pole was both and largest and tallest. Now it’s just the largest.
Why did Pierson carve the landmark?
MacDonald shed light on why Ernest Pierson carved the highly unusual masterpiece.
“He wanted a landmark for his new mall,” MacDonald said. Pierson hoped newspapers and magazines would write about the totem pole, thereby giving the McKinleyville Shopping Center free publicity.
Although it was a big totem pole, MacDonald doesn’t recall its installation as being a big deal back in 1962.
MacDonald said he was working night and day pouring concrete for the shopping center. The totem pole base was just another part of his job.
MacDonald recalls that Pierson told him to just dump the concrete into the forms that were layed out for the base and leave it unfinished.
“I said ‘Ernie, that’s my profession. Everybody will come by and see the ratty job. They’d say who did it? Bob MacDonald. Oh Christ, I’ll never get him again, they would say.”
“Ernie said ‘You’re right Bob. Finish it up,” MacDonald recalled.
The cement was smoothed out, and MacDonald etched in the compass points on the base,
Shortly after the totem pole went up, Ernie Pierson opened the Totem Pole Cafe at its base. The entrance to the cafe is still visible, with carvings on either side similar to the totem pole.
MacDonald said that the cafe lasted six months before closing.
“He was better at building homes than running restaurants,” MacDonald joked about Pierson, who he described as a generous and wise man. “I sure miss him,” MacDonald said.
Sixty-four years after going to work for Pierson, MacDonald is still an employee of the company.
Once the manager of the Pierson Building Center, 85-year-old MacDonald is now a consultant. He visits the store at least once a week.
Asked what his duties entail, MacDonald quipped “I check the coffee to see if it’s OK.”
Rare video of 1984 re-carving
The same week that I met with Bob MacDonald, I had a rendezvous with Hank Pierson, the son of Ernie Pierson.
Hank had a rare video to share – footage of the pole being re-carved and put back up in 1984. Hank shot the video himself.
It includes images of Ernie Pierson and Johnny Nelson working on the pole, as well as the crane operators putting the pole back up.
On these pages are some still images taken from the video. Here is a short excerpt from the video: