Logging: Early Communities

Imagine a time in the Northwest when the majority of the conifers seemed to reach to the heavens and were wide around.[1] Before the settlers with European roots started establishing themselves in the Northwest, the Native Americans used the forests’ wood for shelter, transport, and tools. They also actively managed the forest, burning some sections to stimulate growth of certain berries[2] and to create clearings so as to attract elk and deer.[3] At that time, the necessary fire patterns that naturally occur in the different forest types was not otherwise altered or suppressed in the way they are now.[4] When the whites came and began settling, they did so in the river valleys, and began to cut the forests for farmland, houses, and towns.[5] In Washington, however, the originally forested area did not make good farmland.[6]

With timber so abundant, trees naturally became a commodity. Hudson Bay Company, diversifying its portfolio and operational season beyond the fur trade, established the first lumber mill in 1828 in Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River.[7] The lumber industry, however, was beginning to take root throughout the Northwest coastal and river areas, as those locales allowed easy transport for processing and to market. Although many of the lumbermen were of European descent, logging outfits also had laborers from China, India, and other parts of the world.[8] Native Americans also worked in the lumber industry. Job roles paid differently, and the higher paying positions were typically given to North American or northern European born whites.[9] There were the men who went solo or with a partner into the woods with hand tools – axes and jacks. Especially through British Columbia and Washington, protected inlets allowed loggers to fell trees down the steep slopes into the water, and the men would close off the outlet to the sea by stringing a chain of logs at the mouth, a boom. Homesteaders along the Puget Sound did this as well, would float their logs in the salt water until ships came by, and then the bartering – logs for goods – commenced.[10] There were also the full camp outfits, which had many jobs with many names: swampers, skidders, fallers, barkers, doggers, bull punchers, and the list goes on.[11] Muscle was needed to build the skidroads, the trails cleared and lined with logs, that the oxen and sometimes horses hauled the logs on. Someone was needed to manage the oxen. And of course there was the actually felling of the trees. Camp must also be kept up, so the bull cook tidied the camp, but despite the name, was not even the cook.[12] If women were mentioned in regards to working in the industry in its early years in the Northwest, it was as cook or helping the cook.

These logging camps and lumber mill towns were predominantly male, and the logging camps were often “temporary and portable”.[13] The camps and amenities were provided for by the company owners, but the laborers had to pay room and board. Especially for the logging camps, it appears the workers were dependent upon the company for providing even daily living essentials: gloves, shirts, socks, overalls, caulk boots, and even doctor visits. It was entirely possible for the sum of a week’s earnings (doled out by the company) to come out less than a worker’s debit to the company.[14] And when camp and work is out in the middle of nowhere and a long way from town, that dependency must have been acutely felt.

As at the camps, lumber mill companies often made efforts in the arrangement of the mill towns to support the needs of the laborers. Mill companies provided housing and food for the workers, for a cost. Some even had a medical clinic and church in town, as well as a saloon. In mill towns and in logging camps, companies would even build schoolhouses for the workers’ children.[15]

Passing through rural towns from Northern California on up the Pacific Coast, I used to wonder at the origins of their existence. Now I realize that these towns often began for the extracting and selling of natural resources. Nowadays, besides the sudden brief town, there is typically not any other indication to the passerby of the place’s economic history. 5009_a1So it was pleasantly informative to see, in a turnout at the edge of the Olympic National Forest, a sign with a brief history of the logging camp site it marked. 5013_a1From the remnants of the camp foundations,  one could begin to imagine the structure and space of the site in its heyday,  5022_a1and wonder at the equipment and routines that moved wood from the forests into our houses, to under the pencils of schoolchildren, and to the printouts and Post-its in our offices.

See the rest of the Logging in the Pacific Northwest project

[1] 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 4-5).

[2] Chiang and Reese, Page 4.

[3] National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). Environmental issues in Pacific Northwest forest management. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. (Page 27).

[4] National Research Council (U.S.). Page 4.

[5] National Research Council (U.S.). Page 29.

[6] Chiang and Reese, Page 7.

[7] Chiang and Reese, Page 5.

[8] Andrews, R.W. (1956). Glory Days of Logging. Seattle: Superior Publishing Company. (Page 11).; Chiang and Reese, Page 11.

[9] Chiang and Reese, Page 6.

[10] Andrews, Page 33, 40, 64.

[11] Andrews, Page 14.

[12] Andrews, Page 26.

[13] Chiang and Reese, Page 6.

[14] Andrews, Pages 55-57.

[15] U.S. Forest Service and Georgia-Pacific Corporation. (1991). Steam Whistles, Sawdust and Salt Air [Film]. United States: Northwest Interpretive Association.; Chiang and Reese, Page 6.