Totem Pole information

Short excerpt from video shot by Hank Pierson of the 1984 re-carving.

Click here for a gallery of photos of the World’s Largest Totem Pole.

From the Feb. 22, 2012 edition of the McKinleyville Press. 

All rights reserved.


By Jack Durham

Press Editor & Reporter


mckp022212_1At the request of the McKinleyville Press, a team of professional surveyors recently measured the height of the landmark McKinleyville Totem Pole, and the results are in.

But first, some explanation is due. Why measure the “World’s Largest Totem Pole?” Why not just look at the plaque at the base of the pole that declares that it’s 160 feet tall?

This is the height as listed on countless websites, tourist brochures and guidebooks. It’s a “fact” that’s been repeated many times in this newspaper. It was even a trivia question asked in a forum for candidates in the last election for Fifth District Supervisor, just to see how much they knew about Mack Town.

Pole alterations

But while researching the history of the McKinleyville Totem Pole, the McKinleyville Press discovered that it was altered back in 1984, when it was taken down and recarved.

The pole was first carved in 1962 by Ernest Pierson with the help of Johnny Nelson. Pierson wanted to create a tourist attraction for his newly opened McKinleyville Shopping Center.

The pole was erected and claimed the title of the “World’s Tallest Totem Pole.” (Although it’s worth noting that Pierson used the word “largest” when carving the plaque at its base.)

But 22 years after it was put up, the pole showed signs of wood rot. It had to be taken down, recarved and painted.

According to the McKinleyville Meanderings column by Gail Williams in an Aug. 23, 1984 edition of the Arcata Union, two giant cranes lifted the totem pole from its base. A photo with the column shows the totem pole sitting horizontal atop blocks on the ground.

“The original carvings in the totem pole were done in the sapwood of the single redwood tree from which the pole was made,” Williams wrote in her column. “Sapwood, unlike heartwood, rots. Over the years the totem pole has suffered the ravages of our McKinleyville weather, so much so that the sapwood layers must be taken down and the carvings redone in the heartwood. Yes, that means our totem pole will be a little slimmer. How much slimmer we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Not only did the pole get slimmer, which would change the weight listed on the plaque at its base, but it also got taller, at least according to newspaper accounts.

The late Monica Hadley wrote about the height increase in her Party Line column in the Sept. 27, 1984 edition of the Arcata Union.

When the pole was put back up, it included a 14-foot-tall copper lightning rod with antennae feelers at the end, bringing the total height to at least 174 feet, according to Hadley.

That’s a significant number, because it’s exactly one foot taller than a totem pole erected in Alert Bay, British Columbia in 1973.

That totem pole was carved out of two logs which are spliced together. The pole is held up with guy wires and still stands today.

When the Alert Bay totem pole was put up, the McKinleyville Totem Pole lost the distinction of being the tallest totem pole by 13 feet.

So when the McKinleyville Totem was put back up in 1984, it supposedly reclaimed the record for being the tallest.


Besides Hadley’s column, there was also a news article in the Arcata Union stating that 14 feet of copper antennae were added, bringing the height to 174 feet.

But sometime in 1999, one of the antennae flopped over and dangled from the top. Sometime later, the second antennae did the same thing.

So how tall is the McKinleyville Totem Pole? And exactly where on the pole should the measurements be taken?

Enter the professionals

On a clear, chilly day in December at the base of the totem pole, the McKinleyville Press met with David A. Crivelli and Michael D. Pully, both professional surveyors of the Points West Surveying Co.

They donned their orange safety vests, drove east a short distance from the totem pole, pulled out a giant tripod and began setting up their $30,000 Leica surveying instrument. They pointed it at several spots on the totem pole and collected data. Later, back at their office, they crunched the numbers.

The highest point on the totem pole is the tip of the brass rod protruding from the top. It’s 159 feet, 5 1/2 inches from the base of the wood pole.

The circular “ball” near the top came in at 157 feet, 6 5/8 inches tall.TotemPole.measure.visitor

The top of the wood hat on the Thunderbird came in at 144 feet, 8 inches.

“All heights were measured from the base of the wooden portion of the pole, not the bottom of the foundation that supports it,” stated a reported provided to the Press by Points West Surveying Co.

The surveyors noted the accuracy of the measurements, stating “These measurements should be considered to be plus or minus one-quarter of an inch due to sighting and angular measurement error.”

What does it mean?

It turns out that the height listed at the base of the pole is pretty darn close. The actual height is only 6 1/2 inches shorter than 160 feet. But that height includes the piece of antennae that was installed in 1984 and is now dangling, with a piece sticking up above the circle by 1 foot and 10 7/8 inches.

An old photo from 1962 shows a lightning rod with a circular “ball” on top. Assuming that the same rod and ball that are up there today, in 1962 the totem pole was actually 157 feet, 6 5/8 inches – which is 2 feet, 5 3/8 inches less than claimed.

It’s possible, however, that the original measurement included the height of the cement foundation, which would add a couple feet.

But what about the newspaper reports in 1984 claiming that the pole was 174 feet – exactly one foot higher than the Alert Bay totem pole? Those reports were false.

How did they come up with that number?

Here’s a theory: The people involved in putting the pole back up after it was recarved in 1984 mistakenly assumed that the original measurement of 160 feet was from the base to the top of the hat on the Thunderbird. The actual wood portion of the pole, they assumed, was 160 feet tall.

So when they reinstalled the lightning rod and put the antennae feelers on, they assumed that the totem pole was now at least 14 feet taller, making it 174 feet and thereby reclaiming the title of the World’s Tallest Totem Pole. It was an honest mistake made 22 years after the pole was first carved and put up.

It’s worth noting that on the day that the pole was put back up in 1984, Ernest Pierson was out town.

Ernest Pierson’s son Hank was interviewed about the new antennae for a Sept. 13, 1984 article in the Arcata Union.

“Yeah. My dad drew out a sketch just before he left town last week, I don’t think he wanted to be here when it went up,” Hank told the Union.

Asked how tall the lightning rods and antennae were, Hank Pierson told the Union “Oh, they’re right about 14 feet.”

Still holds a record

Although the McKinleyville Totem Pole is not as tall as the one in Alert Bay, British Columbia, it still holds a record: it’s the tallest totem pole carved from a single log, hands down.

It also holds the title of the World’s Largest Totem Pole – the title that Ernest Pierson used – because you’re unlikely to find any other totem poles carved from a 500-year-old old-growth redwood.

New mystery

While researching the McKinleyville Totem Pole, a new mystery was uncovered. Look at the photo below left.

On the Fox’s head are the initials D.A.H. Under these are another set of initials – S.M.A.

Who put them there and why?

If you know the answer, email Jack at



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From the July 4, 2012 edition


By Jack Durham

Press Editor & Reporter

It’s not easy being the McKinleyville Totem Pole.

Buffeted by wind and rain, hammered by hail, and pecked by birds, Ernie Pierson’s monumental masterpiece endures all sorts of abuse.

Sometime in the third week of June 2012, the elements were too much for the hat that crowns Thunderbird, the top-most character on the World’s Largest Totem Pole. A piece on the south totem.hatproblemside of the copper hat lifted up and now projects upward like an ear on a dog.

I first noticed the anomaly while driving by the totem pole while treasure hunting at garage sales on Saturday, June 23. “There’s a bird perched on top,” I told my wife, who patiently puts up with my obsession with what is arguably the greatest work of art on display in Northern California. Well, if not the greatest, it’s certainly one of the largest.

A few days later I looked up and noticed that what I thought was a bird was still there, and in a location where I’ve never seen birds perch. How could this be?

Upon closer inspection it became clear that it wasn’t a bird; it was a wardrobe malfunction.

From down below, one perceives that the protruding copper plate is small, maybe 6 inches. But that’s an illusion caused by the height of the pole, which is 144 feet and 8 inches from the bottom of the pole to the top of the hat. (As reported in the Feb. 22, 2012 edition of the Press, the pole was measured in December 2011 by David A. Crivelli and Michael D. Pully, professional surveyors of the Points West Surveying Co. )

Keep in mind that Thunderbird’s wingspan is 12 feet, big enough that two average size adults totem.hat.closercould stretch out, end to end, over the length of the wings. So the protruding copper is fairly large, although how large is anyone’s guess.

The damaged hat joins a few other broken items at the top of the pole. There used to be two antennae sticking up at the top. In 1999, one of the antennae flopped over and dangled from the top. Sometime later, the second antennae did the same thing. So the tallest point on the totem pole is the little metal rod sticking up, which is at 150 feet, 5 1/2 inches.

There are also several holes in the totem pole, including one right in Thunderbird’s eye. Birds nest in the holes. Sometimes you can see chicks sticking their heads out the holes, while their parents perch on Thunderbird’s colorful wings.

The damage, though, does not distract from the landmark. It only makes it more interesting.

It’s not a static work of art. It’s ever changing, with nature interjecting herself into the viewing experience.

On a clear morning, the pole is bathed in an orange light. Grizzly Bear, Redheaded Woodpecker and Beaver – characters repainted by Duane Flatmo in 1998 – take on a warm, cheerful glow. As the sun reaches its zenith, pinline shadows are cast in the carved outlines, giving the pole contrast in the harsh light. By evening, the pole becomes a silhouette.

The sky is always part of the viewing experience, providing a backdrop of process blue, or cottonball clouds, or, more often than not, a sea of gray. Sometimes the weather acts as a filter, with Crow and Blue Jay visible through gauze-like layer of fog.

People meander in the shadow of the totem pole every day, but often forget to look up. Their faces are buried in their mobile devices absorbing digital transmissions. But above them lurks a wondrous piece of folk art, erected 50 years ago in 1962, but still changing and evolving with Mack Town.

So next time you’re there, stop for a moment. Gaze up. Admire.

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From the July 27, 2011 edition:

Meet the McKinleyville Totem Pole characters!

Update: Since this was published, we’ve learned that the mystery character at the bottom is “Indian.”