Lecture #20: Forests: The Westward March of Logging

Suggestions for Further Reading:

William Cronon, Nature's Metroplis: Chicago and the Great West (1991).

Michael Williams, Americans and their Forests: A Historical Geography (1992).

Thomas R. Cox, et al., This Well-Wooded Land: Americans and Their Forests from Colonial Times to the Present (1985).

Agnes M. Larson, The White Pine Industry in Minnesota: A History (1949; 2007).

Robert F. Fries, Empire in Pine: The Story of Lumbering in Wisconsin, 1830-1900 (1951).

Paul Wallace Gates, The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University (1965).

Reminder: The Place Paper is due on Monday in lecture. Due to the Thanksgiving holiday there are no sections next week, but there are lectures on both days.

I. Frontiers, Wests, Peripheries

We're back now to the Chicago River, the grain elevators, and the section of the river where the Main Branch splits. Today's story hinges on this little part of the landscape of Chicago. If by the 1850s Chicago was the largest grain and meat market of the world, it was also the largest lumber market in the world. Why?

One vital frontier economic activity which has been consistently ignored by historians is lumbering. Almost no standard texts in American history or even western U.S. history devote more than a page or two to the lumber industry. Yet we saw on Monday what a serious challenge the lack of wood represented for agricultural settlers on the prairies and plains. The settlement of all of the U.S. west has depended on a continuous supply of wood – for buildings, fences, fuel, transport, tools, plow handles, etc. Before the rise of coal in the second half of the 19th century, wood was the fuel of all sorts of processes. Historians so often overlook this fact.

The great timber woods of 19th century America were all evergreen softwoods – pine, fir, cedar, redwood, most especially white pine. One of the great attractions of white pine in a landscape without railroads is that it floats, while maple or oak or other hardwoods don't. If rivers were how one would get raw materials to market, the capacity to float was crucial. In this lecture, as is the case in so much of this lecture, we will focus on understanding how raw materials got to markets.

The story of pine begins in Northern New England, especially Maine — the dominant lumber-producing area of the U.S. up until the middle of the 19th century. Bangor, Maine was the leading lumber center in the world. But by mid-century, Maine forests near the coast were being depleted, and experienced lumbermen began to look westerward for better opportunities, especially to Pennsylvania and New York.

II. Great Lakes and White Pine

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Saganaw River in Michigan—a watershed very rich in white pine—became a major white pine producing area: lumber was shipped into Lake Huron and Lake Erie, then transported via the Erie Canal to Albany and Tonowanda, N.Y., which became the largest lumber markets in the U.S.

Saginaw shipped mainly east, but as settlement in Illinois, Indiana, and southern Michigan expanded, lumber regimes bought into production (1850s, 60s) at Muskegon, Green Bay, and Marinette-Menominee. It was in these watersheds—which feed into Lake Michigan—that companies would sell lumber to Chicago. Chicago became the supplier of wood to those sodbusting farmers on the plains that we saw in our last lecture.

Methods of labor and capital in the Great Lakes lumber camps were, at first, very much like those of Maine. The shanty was a center of camp activity, and probably more than 80% of men who come to dominate Wisconsin and Michigan lumbering came from a handful of New England states with experience in eastern lumber.

The interior of the camp hut was crowded and a very masculine space filled with young, hardworking men. Place yourself inside the hut using all of your senses: imagine the smell of baked beans, bacon, wood smoke, sweat and drying clothes producing a characteristic stench. Remember, too, that as time went on, it was not just Yankee, English, and Irish workers in these spaces, but also French-Canadian, German, Scandinavian, and Polish workers – Northern European populations from forested nations bringing their expertise to bear on Midwest lumber operations.

Working men typically bound themselves by winter contracts or annual contracts -- $100 pay, room, board, and washing in exchange for work from sunrise to sunset or at least 12 hours, whichever was longer. Contracts were generally struck either at camp or at labor recruiting centers in major metropolitan markets like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Some portion of that workforce worked seasonally, because in the rest of the year the chief labor was farming. Men were generally hired in the fall—showing a clear seasonality to lumber work—and many lumbermen also worked the agricultural harvest when wages there were high, returning to woods in the winter. So the lumber industry was inversely seasonal with agriculture.

The bulk of cutting trees went on all winter long, because massive and heavy logs could only be moved when the ground was frozen and iced. Notice the season change: come spring, meltwater would allow downstream movement. Most Midwestern tree felling was done by ax work – undercut with saw, chop the rest of the trunk by hand. Once a tree was down, workers used a cross cut saw to cut wood to manageable lengths. They attached the logs to horses and maneuvered the horses to a nearby sled road, where the logs were piled up. Oxen were also often used for this maneuvering work. Block and tackle was then used to move logs onto a shed consisting only of runners and flat bed for support. Roads were watered every night to make sure the ice coating them was sufficient to slide the heavy logs along. The system worked fairly well, though there was a real problem with braking going down slopes, to avoid killing the horses dragging the logs. Workers would try to keep ice down in those areas.

Note size of logs in some of these historic photographs, and recall the interior photos we've seen from Old World Wisconsin: trees of that diameter are impossible to find in most of Midwest today. The nineteeenth-century saw long-term decrease in the size of merchantable timber.

At the end of sled road was a frozen stream generally so small no log would float on it. The whole lumber season depended on 2-3 weeks in spring when floodwaters were high enough to carry logs. So regulating the spring melt, and the movement of the logs till the stream was at peak flow, was a crucial part of the seasonal callibration of the lumbering process. When and if that time came, men hurried to load piles into stream, and rode downstream with them to keep the movement orderly.

Deforestation, of course, was one product of this process, though notice that at some distance from the river or stream, hauling logs stopped paying for itself. And think again about seasonality: if one winter of little snow happened, the whole watershed might be threatened with financial disaster. City markets where wood was sold were constantly skittish in January through March over the state of snowfall.

Here was another problem – most logging operations in the 1850s and 1860s were fairly small scale, so many might operate on single stream. How could one keep logs from different companies separate from each other? Companies began using log marks or branding, as with cattle. The state of Minnesota alone has over 20,000 log marks on file.

The mixing of logs from multiple companies, of course, created major problem at other end of stream, at Lake Michigan, where most of the lumber mills were located. Who was going to sort out all of these logs? The job of sorting logs was a collective problem, so mills generally combined to create a boom company – an organization responsible for maintaining an elaborate sorting structures at the river's mouth, which took care of delivery to mills and other transport facilities. As you can imagine, boom companies became choke points in the process of moving lumber to market. We've spoken about the phenomenon of chokepoints at other times in the class: John D. Rockerfeller's special deals with railroads, for example. Because theirs was such a crucial operation, boom companies very powerful, served as coordinating agencies for general lumber production. Their birth pointed the way toward coordinated corporate control of the entire lumber industry, as we’ll see.

In addition to the problem of sorting logs at the end of the river, there was also the problem of the logjam. Men work to clear jam, but this was hardly an easy task. A loggers’ nightmare was a jam. Small jams were solved by men working at it with peaveys, a metal or wooden poll with a hook at the end. This was highly dangerous work. For large jams, horses were used to pull logs from the sides of the river, or dynamite was used at the center of the jam, those this often damaged too many logs. One of the most dramatic moments of logging might come when a jam about ready to break, with a few key logs remaining. A few men volunteered to go out with ax, with a rope around their waists. They would chop away until they heard the enormous roar of moving logs, then men on the shore would haul them back, often bruised and bleeding, or even killed when a jam broke.

Eventually the logs arrived at milltowns, where they were sawed into lumber of various sizes and either shipped off directly or stacked for drying. Most lumber in 19th century was used too green, always warping. The demand for railroads, farms, and buildings was so great that few builders waited until wood had dried completely. So uneven floors, windows, and door frames of 19th-century farmhouses are historical documents which provide quiet evidence of the rate at which green lumber was consumed.

From drying yards, lumber was loaded onto sailing ships or steamboats on Lake Michigan and taken to urban markets, principally Chicago. Let's turn to Chicago.

III. Chicago and the Metropolitan Marketplace

By 1856, Chicago had surpassed Albany as the greatest primary lumber market in the country, the result of increasing demand from areas of frontier settlement as railroads moved across Illinois toward Iowa. Maps show the percent of Chicago lumber coming from various points, and reveal that the bulk of wood was coming across Lake Michigan from especially Muskegon and Green Bay – a clear core/periphery relationship developing between the city and core periphery areas. Once in Chicago, where would this lumber go? To the greatest rail hub in the world: Chicago's rail yards.

Lumber would be bought and sold by the shipload. It’s hard to imagine what it means to dump so much lumber on a single place. In 1883, Chicago lumber receipts peaked at over one billion board feet. The lumber district of Chicago became a distinct, underpopulated area of the city, a fire hazard, and a center of violent labor activity.

Chicago used some of that wood, but a great bulk was only passing through. Lumber went everywhere that railroads did, further and further West as they did. Railroads were themselves consumers, too. Railroads brought changes not only in distribution but in production.

As had happened in Maine, lumber near streams was continuously cut and disappearing. To expand the areas from which lumber could be profitably harvest, producers started building narrow-guage railroads in northern Michigan and Wisconsin. With the construction of these small—intended to be temporary—rail lines, lumber was increasingly not floated downstream but instead put on railroad cars. Unless wood could be gotten to mills, lumbering became too expensive; railroads supplied the solution. Small-gauge lumber roads pushed deeper and deeper into forests by 1870s, allowed previously unprofitable areas to be cut.

Smaller trees were cut but left behind, so one of the consequences of this pattern was fire. We all know of one iconic fire in U.S. history: the Great Chicago Fire, on October 8, 1871. By the time it was extinguished, it had burned 3.3 square miles of the city; 300 lives lost and 100,000 residents were left homeless.

But we likely know less about the more horrific fire that happened that same weekend: the Peshtigo Fire, October 8, 1871. That fire burned 1875 square miles and killed an estimated 1500-2500 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history. The scale of the fire was in part caused by the accumulated fuel load on the floor of the forest. The history of wildland firefighting in the U.S. is partially connected to wildfires like these from the late 19th century.

So here's the last part of this story: as logging roads made their way into the north woods, in about the end of the 1870s there was a steady decline in the percent of Chicago’s total receipts arriving by lake. This number continuously fell after 1880; by 1900, less than 40 percent of wood arrived in Chicago by floating. Railroads were now crucial, not only to selling but obtaining lumber. This was true of all lumber markets in the country. Notice the relative reliance of places like Muskegon and Green Bay on Chicago: virtually all of their harvest was going to Chicago, though maybe only 10% or 15% of lumber sold in Chicago came from any one of these places. Looking at this map of 1879 Chicago Lumber Supply helps us see the change in where the city getting wood from: new big inland areas in Upper Penninsula opened up by the reach of the railroad.

IV. Weyerhaeuser and Mississippi Valley Lumbering

Chicago’s hegemony was temporary: remember, lumber, like mining, was a classically unstable economic activity in the 19th century, one continuously destructive of its own resource base. By the 1860s and 1870s, Chicago was beginning to receive competition from a whole series of producing areas on tributaries to the Mississippi River. Producers could float lumber to, say, Iowa mill towns and compete with Chicago: via the Wisconsin River, the Black River, and the Chippewa River. Logs flowing into the Mississippi River watershed ran into the railroad. Logs getting off the Mississippi were milled into boards, and then put back onto the railroad to be transported to points of demand: Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa.

Rivers flowing into the Mississippi River were larger and more regular than those flowing into Lake Michigan, so new transport developed – rafting. Logs were assembled onto frames, and set afloat downstream. Here we can look to the Dells as an example: rafts were large, slow-moving structures enabling what we might think was a calm, lazy life … but the Dells could be dangerous and turbulent. Rapids in the narrow Dells could test any raftsman’s skill, and rafts could break apart in the turbulence. Note men steering at the front and back of a large lumber raft.

At the Mississippi River, rafts were dismantled and logs were sold to mills. Key Mississippi River milling centers developed at La Crosse, Clinton, Davenport, where lumber was then shipped west on major railroads. Let's look at a specific place to watch this story unfold: the Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann Mill in Rock Island.

Frederick Weyerhaeuser was almost certainly the single most important figure in American lumbering, the Rockerfeller of the industry, responsible for transforming it into its modern corporate form. He is nearly so well known by historians as he should be. Born in the Rhine Valley 1834, he came to thge U.S. in 1852 at age of 18, worked in humble jobs in the East before setting up the Rock Island mill in 1860. From there, he began learning the nature of Mississippi Valley business. In particular, he realized that the whole trade of the Mississippi depended on a handful of chokepoints: La Crosse near mouth of Black River, Praire du Chien at the mouth of the Wisconsin River, and at the mouth of the Chippewa River, all main drainage points connected to the western Wisconsin pine forests.

As an interesting aside: the area in which Ezra Cornell had amassed land for Cornell University in New York was the Chippewa white pine lands. Ezra Cornell (1807-1874) helped Cornell University reap an unprecedented endowment of $5 million (almost $100 million today) by careful withholding pinelands bought via the Morrill Act public lands scrip until their price was maximized. (See Paul Wallace Gates, The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University, 1965.)

At the mouth of the Chippewa, the river divided into two: one stream was navigable, the other was a backwater called Beef Slough. Weyerhaeuser began to make arrangements to control Beef Slough, and eventually succeeded in making the backwater the largest lumber center in the United States. What Frederick Weyerhaeuser realized was that if you could control Beef Slough, you could control the Chippewa white pine market.

He created a pool called the Mississippi River Logging Company in which most mills on the Chippewa River took part. Mills above Beef Slough resisted vehemently, but Weyerhaeuser controlled river and began buying up other companies – such that by 1887, only one independent mill was left on the Chippewa River. Like Rockerfeller’s monopoly on oil refineries, Weyerhaeuser had found a controlling link in the lumber chain. His mills coordinated the activities of the entire Mississippi Valley, mounting a formidable competition to the Chicago lumber market.

Because of the Mississippi River’s size, Beef Slough was able to assemble larger lumber rafts than had ever before been seen. The rafts were enormous, now pushed by steamboats and pulled by tugs. Photographs help us understand the scale of these rafts: crews built substantial structures aboard and sat on them, eating at picnic tables. The growing scale of operations, as in cattle and mining, was one sign of growing corporate dominance.

19th-century lumbering practices were wasteful and ultimately destructive. Michigan production (the main supplier of wood to Chicago) plateaued in 1880s and fell rapidly thereafter. By 1910, Michigan, which had been a major producer in the country, became a net importer. Maps of Michigan supplies in 1920 tell us much about where the lumber industry moved once the Great Lakes forests were gone.

The decline of Minnesota lumbering happened only a little later. As in Maine, the decline of Minnesota lumbering happened with the big migration of lumber interests to new areas: Southern yellow pine forests, and the Pacific Northwest. The Mississippi Valley forests followed not long after. By 1915, the last big lumber raft had made its final journey downstream. Birch trees were primary successional species in the North Woods. The challenge of the cutover for the Upper Midwest for next half century pointed the area towards replacement industries: pulpmills and tourism. By then, major corporate interests had moved to different kinds of wood (hardwood, pulpwood) or gone elsewhere to other parts of country entirely.

V. West Again: Pacific Northwest and Rise of Corporate Lumbering

Among those corporate interests moving west was Frederick Weyerhaeuser. In 1891, he moved to St. Paul, and bought a house almost next door to James J. Hill, the Great Northern Railroad magnate. The two talked endlessly and—even though Weyerhaeuser tended to doze off during Hill’s monologues—he listened long enough to learn that he should begin purchasing land in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1900, Weyerhaeuser bought from Hill 900,000 acres at $6/acre, one of the largest single land purchases in U.S. history. At 10 cents per 1000 boardfeet of lumber, Weyerhaeuser rapidly became the largest holder of timber in Washington state. He brought his Midwestern experience with him as he moved his business west.

The Pacific Coast of course had had a lumber trade with California for years. The early character of this trade is shown by the location of its chief centers: all along coast. These were akin to Chicago's trade routes on Lake Michigan. Using streams and flumes like those we saw in the Sierra Nevadas, trees were logged and milled along coast, then delivered to harbor where sailing ships were loaded up, much as Lake Michigan ships had been. These ships would proceed from there to San Francisco, the chief lumber market of the West Coast. San Francisco played a role much like Chicago’s in this sense.

As with Chicago, San Francisco lost its market dominance by end of the nineteenth century.

The Pacific Northwest lumbering had number of differences from Great Lakes area which necessitated alteration of techniques lumbermen brought with them. For one, some tree species in the Pacific Northwest (cedar, redwood) were much bigger than their counterparts in the Midwest (white pine). Axes were first abandoned in the redwood country of California, which saw rapid adoption all up and down the coast for most trees.

Once cut, the work of sawing felled trees into logs was more severe. Workers used oil to keep the blade working, and confronted the big question: How could one move the damned logs? Winter was no good, as it had been in the Midwest: too little snow, wet and muddy ground, no ice. So summer was the key period for moving logs. Oxen, then horses, were used at first, pulling logs on skid roads well greased by a grease monkey.

With fewer rivers in Northwest, there were not many floating operations. So workers also confronted this challenge: how to move logs over land? Answer: the Skid Road. A skid road was simply a set of smaller cross logs lining a road. A cable at center points along the way replaced horses hauling logs. A great revolution came in 1881 with John Dolbeer’s invention of the steam monkey: a steam engine used for hauling. The steam donkey pulled logs along a log trough called a fore-and-after. The log was loaded into the fore-and-after, a cable attached, and the log could be pulled for miles until it finally reached the mechanical donkey.

The fore-and-after was obviously insufficient. It was logically replaced by rails if capital investment justified the investment of building rail line with cars to put the lumber on, but cable were still used because of steep inclines.

In flatter areas, locomotives could be used, and massive lumber trains became increasingly common in the early 20th century. Of course, using lumber trains represented an increasing capital cost, as did the trestle bridges supporting railroads. Wages and materials for these could be afforded only by large investors. But once a railroad was built, it could be used to haul not only logs, but also men, changing the whole structure of lumber camp activities. Lumber camps becaming increasingly semi-permanent central camps that were bases of operations with tendrils of railroads extending out from them.

The mass of wage labor at the core of lumbering in the Northwest made this area a center for radical union activity in early 20th century, the heart of Industrial Workers of the World organizing, as we’ll see in later lecture. Notice, too, that lumber camps were close communities that were predominantly male, ethnic, with expropriated surplus value.

When an area lumbered out, lumber bunkhouses were loaded onto rails and moved to new area. As work went onto steeper slopes and more remote areas where rail investment were not worthwhile, new techniques for clearcutting were developed. One of these techniques was the use of a spar tree: high climbers removed branches from a tree and eventually cut off the top of the tree, clinging for dear life while the tree swayed back and forth under the strain. Cables were then attached to this spar tree, an engine was brought into places, and logs were hauled to central point, aerially, from hundreds of yards around.

Notice here how capital investment created incentives for modern technique of clear-cutting which has become controversial for modern environmentalists: strips bare entire forest to maximize return on capital.

The result of the spar tree technique was an enormous pile of logs at the base of the spar tree. This pile was called a cold deck, which could be as much as 1.25 million board feet, 2-3 weeks to cut for an average mill. This drove towards a greater efficiency of harvest. So with the spar tree, lumbering was moving toward a era of clearcuts, with this increasing investment of capital. Sawing itself changed from clearcut up and down, to rotary, to enormous bandsaws capable of cutting these immense trees; from mom-and-pop operations to mechanical handling; a increasingly globalized economy of wood; and the emergence of branding.

Paul Bunyan – our quintessential hero of the woodlands, apparent folk creation of the lumber camps – actually entered American popular culture via an advertising campaign in 1914, becoming the trademark of the Red River Lumber Company in Minnesota.

Clearcutting was itself a kind of landscape that was made possible by increasing investments of capital. Though you may not see this landscape in a positive light, it was one also being replanted, something that did not happen in the Wisconsin cutover.

In the early 20th century, we also see the emergence of the National Forests, a story we'll return to in later lectures.