Logging: Technology Then

Perhaps one of the most fascinating elements of logging is how the industry, even the small business owners, adapted and invested in innovative technologies, especially through the late 1800s and early 1900s. Doing so allowed them to keep up with the demand for timber, and push deeper into the woods and away from the waterways as the timberland by the water became depleted. Developments in machinery also allowed access to more challenging terrain.

1893_a2The hewing of the trees were a feat considering the diameter of those original trees. To get pass the tangled fibers of the root system, the loggers would make nicks in the side of trunks and insert spring boards to stand on while chopping an undercut in the tree, and then often with a partner, sawing in rhythm until the tree came down.[1]  The intensity of the labor and how long the process must have taken is unfathomable to me. Yet one of these trees would yield a sizeable amount of board feet.

In the early days when stands nearer the waterways were being logged, oxen, and sometimes horses, would be used to haul the logs down the skid road to the water to boom and/or transport to mills. A series of wheel sizes, trailer and vehicle inventions to more efficiently haul logs were developed.[2] To further speed up the process, flumes, essentially waterslides for logs, were built of logs, to send logs rushing from the higher cutting ground to the lower ground for transport to mills. When I first saw the photograph of this flume,[3] 1880_a2 my shocked thought was, “The Knott’s Berry Farm log ride was real!” And the theme park log ride is not just used in California; apparently Busch Gardens in Florida actually gives their ride the proper name of “flume”. My assumption that the theme park designers wanted to create a ride down a river and decided a log would be the boat was false; there was no ingenuity, they just took something directly from the past. In the 1890s in Oregon, someone took the flume idea to the extreme, but instead of using water to lubricate the slide, logs were sent down the greased 2650 foot Pokegama Chute, where they reached speeds of 100 miles per hour on the 18 to 20 second slide with a change of 834 vertical feet. Midway through, the logs would start smoking and burning until they hit the Klamath River with a 90 foot splash. Or flew straight across the river when it was icy.[4]

Water, clearly, was critical for early transport of the timber. When possible, the rivers themselves were also used. Upstream, an assembly of logs and men with caulked boots would “ride the logs” on a log drive, herding the logs and prodding stuck ones all the way down to log dumps, a corner of water where logs were boomed and collected for the next step of the mill.[5]

Besides oxen, flumes and chutes, other mechanisms were developed for extricating the logs from where they were felled. 1882_a2Spar trees to which numerous cable lines were attached, especially within logging camps, was common. Watching footage of a high climber ascend a tree to a height of what would be equivalent to a couple of pitches to a rock climber, then seeing him saw off the top of the tree, remain on the tree while the top came violently down, is incredible. And this was captured in a marketing film by the Pacific Spruce Corporation and its subsidiaries, the C.C. Johnson Lumber Company and the Manary Logging Company, which the U.S. Forest Service rediscovered and published as Steam Whistles, Sawdust and Salt Air. The process was this. 1884_a2The high climber, also called high rigger, would wear tall boots with spiked spurs strapped onto the legs and boots. They would wear a specific belt with a life rope attached. A rope would be slung around the tree, and much like Mulan got up the spar in the middle of camp on the Disney cartoon, the high climber would similarly climb. Dangling from the high climber like tails were an axe and a one-man crosscut saw.  At about 70 to 80 feet high was when the high rigger would first start to encounter branches. 1885_a2At about 150 feet up a trunk, a climb which took about half an hour for someone adept at the job, was where the tree top was typically cut, though the actual tree top was another 40 to 60 feet above.  During the climb, somewhat like the belayer in rock climbing these days, people below would feed slack into the line connected to the rigger. From footage and photos, however, the safety in the process seemed to be solely in the hands of the rigger. After making a notch opposite the fall side of the tree, the high climber would saw. As the tree top fell at the cut, the top of the spar where the rigger held on would sway an arc of 25 to 30 feet.  1887_a2The rigger might sit or stand (or even dance) on the top of the 150 foot spar, having an area of 3 to 4 feet in diameter to do so.     Then the high rigger descended. 1889_a2If the top of the tree was taken down by dynamite, sticks would be placed five deep into the trunk, using about a total of 75 to 80 sticks, with a six foot fuse. The rigger then had about six minutes to descend. After all of this preparation, the spar tree then became the center of a staging area, with cables running every direction, 1891_a2 with blocks like this that cables would run through (this one being about to my waist), 0351_a1 along which trees were picked up in this manner[6] 2391_a2 or with chokers,[7] 0912_a1 and were hauled along the cable lines then put onto donkey engines, trucks, trains, and technologies in between to their next destination.[8]

Machinery innovations allowed the cut trees to be moved from the cutting ground to the staging area. The donkey engine, also called the steam donkey because of where it derived its power, was one of these innovations around the year 1880. Attached to the steam donkey would be cables used to haul logs over the ground. After 1905, the steam donkey began to be used in conjunction with the spar tree to move logs overhead. Crawler or caterpillar tractors made it possible to move logs on the steep slopes, which allowed selective logging and high grading, which were more common in the early 1900s. Bridges built in and of the woods, spanning deep, steep valleys opened up routes for trains.[9] By the 1930s, trucks were beginning to play a role in the forests.[10] There became a point where the cost of the more dexterous, efficient equipment exceeded the ability of the smaller companies to invest in such machinery, and the large lumber companies had the advantage.[11] In terms of logging practices, these technological innovations, when combined with expanded market demand, led to clearcutting as the dominant practice, as different sizes and species could economically be harvested.[12]

Sawmills transformed the timber into usable product for the consumer. There were many job roles, and many decisions to be made quickly to determine how to place a log through the saws to maximize the good wood and board feet output. The wood passed through the various processes of the mill: width, thickness, and length had their stages. Planks were sorted by length and for grade. Some wood were destined for the dry kilns. There was the planing mill, and sanding for special orders. There were inspectors. Monorails and other mechanisms would then stack high the trademarked wood ready to be shipped to customers. On site there were also shops to sharpen the saws, repair machinery, just as there was out in the logging camps.[13]

The lumber industry by necessity had to innovate technologically in order to adapt to the market and its own pace in the woods. While historically businesses in general can be slow to respond to the environments they exist in, it does not seem that it was so with the lumber industry, at least when looking at timber company business decisions around technologies in late 1800s and early 1900s.


See the rest of the Logging in the Pacific Northwest project



[1] Rizzo, Steve. (2014). Personal communication. Western Heritage Center, Monroe, WA. 5 July 2014.; U.S. Forest Service and Georgia-Pacific Corporation. (1991). Steam Whistles, Sawdust and Salt Air [Film]. United States: Northwest Interpretive Association.; Drawing from Darius Kinsey photo, page 144 in Bohn, D. & Petschek, R. (1978). Kinsey Photographer: The Family Album and Other Early Work. (Volume 1). San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

[2] Andrews, R.W. (1956). Glory Days of Logging. Seattle: Superior Publishing Company. (Pages 91-95).

[3] Andrews, Page 87. Benewah Creek Flume, 1915, St. Joe National Forest. Drawing from photo by William Roddy, courtesy Charles H. Scribner.

[4] Andrews, Pages 116-117.

[5] Andrews, Pages 67, 83-84, 86, 90.

[6] Drawing from U.S. Forest Service and Georgia-Pacific Corporation [Film].

[7] Example of choker from Forks Logging and Mill Tour. Forks Chamber of Commerce, Forks, WA. 30 July 2014.

[8] U.S. Forest Service and Georgia-Pacific Corporation [Film]; Andrews, Page 12, 57. Drawings from photos in Andrews, pages 59-63.

[9] Andrews, Pages 70-71; Chiang, C. and Reese, M. (Year unknown). Evergreen State: Exploring the History of Washington’s Forests. A Curriculum Project for Washington Schools. Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington Department of History. (Pages 7-8).; National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). Environmental issues in Pacific Northwest forest management. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. (Page 17).

[10] Andrews, Page 30.

[11] Chiang and Reese, Page 8.

[12] National Research Council (U.S.). Page 17.

[13] U.S. Forest Service and Georgia-Pacific Corporation [Film].