- Historic Sites
Daylight In The Swamp
Old-time logging in the Pacific Northwest was “a wildly wonderful if tragically heedless era”; there are those who still mourn its passing
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
The tradition of the American lumberjack is an ancient one, as industrial antiquity goes in the united States. It began more than three hundred years ago, some say in 1631, when colonists set up the first sawmill in America in what is now South llerwick, Maine, and ted it with the great white pines, a classic species whose graceful outline was soon to appear on (lags, provincial coats ot arms, even on shillings.
It was here in the New England timber, too, that certain customs and practices originated which were to follow the loggers across the continent. For instance, an early timber baron was Sir William Pepperell, who, says an old memoir, appeared at his log landings along the Saco River “attired in a coat ol scarlet cloth.” This is the earliest record ol brilliant garb worn in connection with logging, and one likes to think it was irom Sir William that the lumberjack took his liking lor red, whether ol sash, shirt, or honest woolen underwear.
There was also the attempt of the Crown to prevent the loggers from cutting every tree that grew, The Royal Navy wanted the best trees saved lor masts, hut the attempt to reserve them was futile. Neither the royal taboo mark of the Broad Arrow on the finest timber nor penalties as severe as those against heresy could stop the red-shirted boys from tutting everything that stood in their way. Their persistence stirvived down to our own time.
Meanwhile, the isolation of logging camps, combined with an occupation so dangerous to life as to remove all but the toughest and most alert, conspired to produce a uniyuc race of men whose dedicated goal was to let daylight into the swamp and thus, as they saw it, permit the advance of civilization. lor generations the customary getting-up cry in camp was “Daylight in the swamp—all out!”
When the Yankee loggers had cleared the white pines, the main body of them moved to join their kind in New York and Pennsylvania, where more pine and then the spruce and the hemlock went down before them like so much wheat in a storm. They did not slop. Mefore the Civil War they were letting daylight into the swamps around Saginaw May in Michigan, and when they had mowed their way across that state they tied into Wisconsin. Here in the lake states they began to discard the slow oxen in favor of horses; their steam-driven sawmills meantime were growing in sixe and speed and responding to native ingenuity. When cold weather froze the log ponds, they no longer sat around waiting for spring: some genius ran a stcampipe into the frozen pond, thawed it, and sawed boards all winter. They discarded the old circular saw and replaced it with a bright, thin band of glittering teeth that wailed like a banshee as it made boards to build Midwestern cities and sawdust piles so high they could be seen decades later. In both mills and woods they bent every ellbrt to get more speed—speed to cut the timber which they believed would last a hundred years, if not forever.
The Michigan and Wisconsin timber did not last lorever, so the boys tore into Minnesota like locusts, and like locusts took all before them. What they did not cut they and the settlers managed to set afire, creating some of the most horrible disasters imaginable. The timber line receded, and before long the lumberjacks began to notice signs in hotels and saloons that read “No Calked Boots Allowed Here.” Civilization had caught up with them. As they peered forth from the middle of billions of stumps, the boys could see it was time to move again. There was always more timber west, just over the hump.
Perhaps a quarter of the migrating lumberjacks of the lake states moved into the southern pine region, but the main army moved west. A few stopped in Montana. More went on into Idaho. Still more of them crossed the Cascade Range and came down the Columbia, the Snohomish, and the Skagit, tossing from the windows of the steamcars the now-emptied bottles and snuffboxes they had bought in Duluth, in Chippewa Falls, in Muskegon, in Saginaw. They were cutting the Big Swath, the Big Clearing, and now, although they didn’t know it, they were in their last stronghold. Their backs were to the mountains, their faces to the sea.
Here they were in the largest forests of big timber they had ever seen. There are two distinct forests. East of the Cascade Range the woods are dominated by the ponderosa pine (western yellow), standing up to 200 feet on the best sites and running to six feet in diameter. Between the Cascades and the sea is the Douglas fir, standing up to 325 feet, with diameters up to fifteen feet. In the fir region also are large stands of western red cedar of enormous girth; and in coastal strips called the rain forest are stands of Sitka spruce and west coast hemlock. (The latter, for many years rarely considered worth cutting, has come into its own with the rise of the pulp and paper industry.)