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TREE MINING The Voice of History
When European settlers first touched upon the eastern seaboard of North America, they were confronted by a thick and apparently endless forest. Centuries earlier, Europe itself had been covered with a similar forest; but an increasing population, which required an increasingly high standard of living, had transformed the deep woods of the Old World into farmland. Now, the colonists would attempt another conversion in their new home: razing the mysterious, wild forest to make room for fields and pastures. These people perceived the forest more as an obstacle to progress than as a precious resource.
With trees to spare, the settlers developed a technology that utilized wood for a variety of purposes. Houses, barns, ships, bridges, fences, carriages, furniture, tools, barrels—the appliances of daily life were fashioned from the trees that the settlers wished to clear from the land. Wood was burned in every home for cooking and heating; it was also turned into charcoal for the blacksmiths' forges. With the introduction of the steam engine in the eighteenth century, charcoal became the primary source of energy for industrial production. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, more wood was consumed as fuel than was made into lumber in the United States.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, most of the desirable farmland east of the Mississippi had been cleared of trees. During the Civil War the remaining forests—mixed hardwoods situated on hilly terrain or infertile soil—were cut down for charcoal to fire blast furnaces for wartime production. By the time the industrial furnaces finally switched over to coal a few years later, the vast eastern woodlands had been totally consumed. Forests once thought inexhaustible had, in fact, been exhausted.
Forestry's age of innocence had ended: the timber resource could no longer be taken for granted. Lacking the timber for both fuel and lumber, several eastern states offered bonuses and tax incentives for the planting and nurturing of trees. But the forests could not grow back overnight, and the demand for wood products continued after the first generation of trees had been used up. Lumbering interests did not wait around for the better part of a century for new trees to mature. Instead, they moved on to where the trees still stood tall, to forests that had not yet been cut. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the pines of New England were superseded by bigger and better pines from the great North Woods of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. But these, too, proved finite in number. As the century drew to a close, the best of the timber in the North Woods had been cut. Once again, the tillable land was turned into farms; on the areas unclaimed for field or pasture, another crop of trees would be a long time in the making.
Farther west, there were trees still bigger and better than any that had been seen before: the majestic redwoods of California and the giant Douglas-firs, cedars, spruces, and hemlocks of Oregon and Washington. The forests here were on an altogether different scale. Many of the trees stretched 250 feet into the sky and measured 50 feet around at the base of the trunk. A single tract of forested land could be as large as an entire New England state. Confronted with a logger's paradise, the western pioneers boasted that they had at last discovered an inexhaustible source of timber. "California will for centuries have virgin forests, perhaps to the end of Time," remarked an awe-struck admirer in the 1850s. There was no talk in the Old West about trees being a renewable resource; if the virgin timber would last forever, the trees didn't have to be renewed. Timber was extracted from the surface of the earth in much the same way as minerals were mined from underneath the ground. There was no more thought of replacing a 250-foot tree than there was of returning gold dust to the streams.
The unsettled tracts of western timberland were so vast that the government had to develop special strategies for dispensing with them. Some fell into the hands of the railroads as part of the land-grant rights-of-way, but the avowed goal of the federal government was to disperse the ownership as widely as possible. To this end, the famous Homestead Act of 1862 was supplemented by the Timber Culture Act of 1873: a homesteader could add 160 acres to his claim simply by agreeing to grow trees—that is, not to cut them down—on 40 of the extra acres that the government gave him. The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 enabled citizens of the West Coast states to purchase 160 acres of public timberland, for personal use only, at the nominal charge of $2.50 per acre. In this manner the spoils of the ubiquitous timber were supposed to be distributed equally to a democratic army of independent loggers, the West Coast equivalent of the small, independent farmers of the East and Midwest.
It didn't work out that way. In practice, the laws were easily manipulated to serve the purposes of more organized logging interests. Companies employed individuals to purchase public timberlands at the nominal fee and then turn over the deed. Homesteaders who took up the 160-acre timber preemption satisfied the government by preserving 40 acres of trees, but then quickly sold off the timber on the remaining 120 acres to whichever company happened to be operating in the area. The trees were thus made available to those who could most readily utilize them: the local logging empires that were emerging up and down the Pacific Coast.
Only in rugged terrain or inaccessible localities did the democratic distribution of timber work as intended. Far from railroads or rivers, homesteaders in the backwoods harvested products of the forest primarily for use by themselves or their close neighbors. Occasionally they processed the trees into small hand-split products that could be transported out of the woods on the back of a mule: shakes, fence posts, railroad ties, grapestakes. But the logs had to be processed right in the middle of the forest. The mules could not carry uncut logs to the mills, so full-scale lumbering remained impractical in the backwoods.
For the most part, the ideal of settled, self-employed loggers could not be realized in the West. Nothing short of a fully organized crew working in a coordinated effort would suffice to move the giant timber out of the woods. In the eastern and Great Lakes states, a homesteader had only to wait for winter if he wanted to log by himself: he then placed his logs on sleds and had his horses slide them out of the woods over the snow and ice. In the West, though, the trees were too large and the land too uneven for such a one-man operation, and there often was no snow or ice in the winter. Here, logging required a new assortment of techniques utilizing a unique combination of gravity, water, animal power—and human sweat.
Big Tree Technology
The first problem faced by a western lumberjack, strangely enough, was to climb the tree to its trunk. At ground level the swell in a giant redwood or cedar might be eighteen or twenty feet in diameter, while ten feet up the trunk would shrivel to a mere twelve or fourteen feet. To save work and avoid the pitch in the stump, the fallers climbed the tree by chopping a small hole through the bark and inserting a springboard, a flexible plank. Often, three or four springboards would be used as a ladder to reach the desired height. Working from these portable scaffolds, a pair of fallers could chop down the tree with axes and two-man saws, a task that might take a day or two for each tree.
Once the tree lay safely on the ground, the buckers removed the limbs and cut the trunk into logs. With hand-jacks and peavies, the lumberjacks rolled the logs around stumps and down the sidehills into the gullies. There, teams of oxen or horses would drag the logs to the main skid roads. Since there was no snow or ice upon which the logs might slide, roads were constructed of solid rows of timbers which had to be watered or greased to minimize friction. The bull-puncher or bull-whacker (his name varied with the location) pounded dogs (hooks) into the end of each log, connected the logs to his team with a rope, and drove the team down the skid road to the nearest mill or river.
Skid roads were seldom more than a mile or two in length, for overland travel was difficult and tedious. In the early days, the preferred means of transportation over long distances was by water. The presence of any type of water—oceans, rivers, and even streams—facilitated the movement of logs. Along the Pacific Coast, logging schooners anchored in "dog-hole" ports to take on their cargo. Sometimes primitive wharves were constructed; more often, the logs were loaded by cables suspended from the nearby bluffs. Inland, the logs were dumped into the still backwaters of the rivers during the dry summer months. If several outfits operated along the same river, logs were branded with the insignias of the owners and sorted out down at the mills. When the high water came at the end of the season, the logs tumbled downstream. If a log got hung up on a shallow riffle, the "river rats" pried it loose with their peavies. If all else failed, the troublesome log was hitched to an animal team on shore and dragged over the riffle to deep water.
In most areas, it was only a matter of a decade or so before the forests immediately adjacent to the rivers had been exhausted. To reach farther into the hinterlands, the loggers had to utilize smaller and smaller streams. In order to trap enough water in these tributaries to transport the logs, the loggers built splash dams upstream from the decked timber. When released, these dams created man-made floods that literally flushed the logs down to the mills.
Soon even the timber along the streambanks was stripped away. Millions of acres of untouched forest remained throughout the West, but the trees could not be reached by water. Full-scale harvesting in the backcountry awaited the development of a mechanized overland technology that could transport giant logs over extended stretches of rugged terrain.
Lumberjack and Saw Filer
"My grandparents come out here in the fifties. On my mother's side, eighteen and fifty. My dad's folks come in about eighteen and fifty-six or seven. Worked in the woods—that was all there was in them days.
"They had ox teams at about that time, and then it wasn't long 'til they got horses. Team of good horses will outpull a team of good oxen. Faster. Them old oxen was slow, you know. They'd just mope along there. But when they come out here, you see, when my grandparents come across the plains, that's all they had was oxen. The horses was zero. In the East they had a few horses, but out West was empty country. Finally they got to bringing horses in, see.
"I was seven years old. My dad was logging up here on our old homestead. Had quite a lot of timber there. He logged it to go on the river drive. I run the old water sled. I was big enough. I didn't have to know much, the old horse knew more than I did. Just had a barrel on a sled, and these skids was so far apart. Two runners on it, planks across it, and a big old fifty-gallon barrel set on that. You'd get her started out ahead of a string of logs—gosh, I don't know how many logs. After they got them on the skid road, they'd trail them. So I'd go along with that and pull the pin in the barrel, and that water'd string out along there and help them skid. A lot of them used grease—go along with a bucket of grease and a mop ahead of a big turn of logs. Those logs, if you didn't have the skids watered or greased or something like that, they'd just pull harder than heck. Made worlds of difference.
"The old river drives were about turn of the century, along in there. All the men would dump the logs into the river 'til they got their logging done. They'd get together, all of these outfits that was dumping in the river, and they'd get a big log drive a-goin'. Took quite a time. They'd start in the fall. Maybe it'd rain a little and raise the water, and then they'd take off. They'd end up way late at the old millrace down there at Eugene, where it takes out of the river. Big logjams. They'd have to pull the logs out to get them going. Farther down the river, all the logs would get hung up on a riffle. Just one riffle after another, they'd have to pull the logs off.
"They'd get the logs into the millrace, and it'd be freezing. They had to wade out and drive the dogs in the logs, and then they had a guy who rode the logs out. They'd get on a log where it's about waist deep and off they'd go, hollering all the way. Cold! But once they got wet it wasn't so bad. They'd get wet anyway, so a lot of them would just jump in and get it over with.
"One time they was logging sugar pine way up the Willamette. So they logged that sugar pine and put it in the river. They even built a dam. The Willamette up there isn't too big, so they built a flood dam. They got a few logs in and they turned the water on and by-golly—nothing. The logs just laid there. They'd sink, see, just go down like a rock. Sugar pine don't float. I don't know why they didn't know they'd sink. They had to go down there with hooks and fish them all out.
"I was too young to work on the river drives. I was just a pest along about then. Later ones, I was probably about twelve. First job I really went out on, I was sixteen years old. I was bucking wood for an old Willamette swing donkey. I worked in the woods, on the rigging or anything, 'til nineteen and seventeen when I got a job filing the old hand briars, the misery whips. From then on I did some falling and bucking, you know, but mostly my job was filing old hand brim. That was my trade for about thirty-five years.
"Worked for lots of different outfits. Lived in logging camps. Dirt floors and straw mattresses. It was a mess, you look at it now, but we didn't think much about it in them days. One place, they had just a little old rake and they'd rake it out every once in a while, when you couldn't get in. Those old beds were just made out of boards: poles up and a bottom on it, and you'd fill that with straw. When it got too hard, you throwed that one out and built yourself another bed of hay. Had to carry your own bedroll. They'd have a row of bunks clear around the wall, two bunks high, one at the bottom and one at the top. And benches to set on, and that's all they had. Set there to put your cork shoes on.
"The old cookhouses, they fed good. But, boy, you get a big crew sitting down to the table, and you had to be fast or you wouldn't get much to eat. Fellow had to raise up and reach clear over the table, if he wanted to get a good hunk of meat. By golly, it was quite a deal. They had good cooks; mostly women cooked in those camps. Just common meat, potatoes, and vegetables when they got them, and they'd bake pies and stuff like that. Lot better than you get now. That come from the ground up, what they cooked. If they didn't put out the food, well: 'Ain't nothing to eat here, I'm going someplace else.' And away they'd go.
"It was rough living in them camps. West Fir was one of them in the twenties. To get a place to live I lived in a tent. All I had was a little, wood, two-door cookstove. Tough going. If you wanted to work, you had to put up with it until something come along better.
"Booth-Kelly, they was a bigger outfit. They had these houses built on skids. So they'd move them on a flatcar, and then when they got to where they was going to have a camp, they'd slide the houses off. When they got to working quite a ways off in some other direction, why they'd slide the houses back on and move to another camp.
"You know, there was always a joker around one of them camps. Worse then than it ever is now. This one guy he got up early and built this fire up good and hot and then wet on it and away he went. Man, I tell you the covers was a-flyin'. But they got even with him somehow. Son-of-a-gun, there was always someone pulling something on somebody.
Excerpted from More Tree Talk by Ray Raphael, Mark Livingston. Copyright © 1994 Ray Raphael. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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