Daylight In The Swamp

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Along with the loggers, even if most historians have rather prudishly ignored it, came a notable migration of fancy women from the old sawdust towns. They had seen altogether too much daylight in the swamps of the lake states; and now the more enterprising among them went out and bought new bonnets with sweeping feathers and one-way tickets to Spokane or Portland or Seattle.

In Montana and Idaho and in eastern Oregon and Washington, the loggers continued to use horses, but west of the Cascades, it was found, the timber was much too big for such temperamental animals. What was needed here was a lot of power and a slow, steady pull, so the west-side loggers reverted to the primordial force of the eastern pineries—oxen—only here they were called bulls. Sleds would not do to handle the big sticks. There was seldom snow enough for sledding anyway, and there were few streams deep and wide enough for good river driving. But the boys were adaptable—they invented the skid road.

The skid road was the western loggers’ first and greatest contribution to the technology of the woods. A path was cleared in the forest. At suitable intervals trees were felled across the path, cut free of limbs, then half-buried in the soft ground. These were the skids that made a skid road, a sort of track to keep moving logs from hanging up on rocks or miring in mud.

It was crude, yet effective. They hitched the bulls to the logs—five or six, maybe ten yokes of them, in charge of the bullwhacker, or teamster, who was perhaps the all-time master of profanity, and the big sticks, held in tandem by hooks, were pulled over the skids. It was something to see, this skid-road logging. First, you heard the clank of chains and the loud, clear call of the bullwhacker’s voice echoing down a forest road that was like a deep green canyon, so tall and thick stood the Douglas fir. Then the powerful line of red and black and spotted white would swing by with measured tread, the teamster, sacred goadstick over his shoulder, walking beside the team, petting and cursing them by turns. Back of the bulls walked the skid greaser, daubing thick oil on the skids, which smoked from friction. And then came the huge logs themselves, sliding along with a dignified roll.

Bull-team logging was drama. Small boys in Oregon and Washington, late in the last century, wanted to be bullwhackers when they grew up. More than a few authentic timber barons started to make their piles by whacking their own bulls down a skid road. Even the term “skid road” survives long after the last bull team has disappeared. In modern usage it refers to that district of western towns which, says the big Webster quite correctly, is “the part of a town frequented by loggers.”

Use of the word in this sense originated seventy-odd years ago in Seattle, where Henry Yesler’s pioneer skid road ran through the settlement from the timbered hills to the mill on tidewater. It was natural that hotels and saloons and other dives seeking logger trade should have been established along the skid road, and in good time the entire neighborhood became known as The Skidroad, a logical and useful term that quickly spread to all Far Western towns. Of recent years an abominable corruption has appeared, “skid row,” whose use is confined to the glib who wish to appear sophisticated but patently don’t know what they are talking about.

Bull-team technique developed one serious fault, best described by the maxim that any operator who attempted to haul logs more than one mile to a sawmill, or to water where they could be floated, was heading straight for bankruptcy. What was more, that mile must be a downhill haul, or at least level. Such a limit could not last long in a country where operators could lift their eager eyes to see billions of feet of fine timber all over the foothills, the valleys, even the mountains up to, say, the 4,ooo-foot level.

It is the history of technology that it advances according to need; and it was an inventive logger, John Dolbeer of Humboldt Bay, California, who in 1881 devised the rig that was to drive the bull teams from the woods. Dolbeer’s invention, which he patented in 1882, was a new kind of donkey engine with a single cylinder, a vertical boiler, and a horizontal engine with a drum, or capstan. Though other men were simultaneously experimenting with steam in the Douglas-fir forest, they left no clear record, and the Dolbeer became the machine that supplanted the ox. By the early nineties Dolbeers were operating in Oregon and Washington.

The Dolbeer brought ground-lead logging: By means of a cable pulled by the turning capstan, the logs were led along the ground to a “yard.” Once a turn was in, a line horse hauled the cable back into the timber. The animals became very knowing, needing scarcely any guidance at all. A man listed on the payroll as “sniper” prepared the felled logs for easy yarding by rounding their head-ends with an axe. “Choker men” put wire slip loops called chokers around the logs, then hitched the chokers to the main line from the donkey engine. On a high stump stood the signal boy. When the yarding crew’s boss yelled “HiI” the boy dipped his flag, or waved an arm, and the engineer put on the steam.

Ground-lead logging brought speed and volume. Throughout the nineties and well into this century, the donkeys grew in size and power to meet the increased production of the mills. By the turn of the century the influx of eastern operators and their men was getting into full swing in the Northwest. Camps grew from an average of perhaps 20 to more than 200 men each. Railroads were being laid to haul the logs from camp to mill, or to tidewater.