- 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
Rail logging had been made feasible by perfection of a geared locomotive credited in large part to Ephraim Shay, a Michigan logger as bearded as Moses and something of a prophet himself. A Shay engine could negotiate grades and curves that would have defeated a rod locomotive. This was sufficient. Old Shay’s name went honorably into logging history.
Then, one inspired day, some unidentified logger in a hurry figured out a method to improve the ground- lead system. What he did was to hang a block or pulley high up in a big tree. Thus was the high-lead born. Through the block ran the main line from the donkey engine. A log could now be yarded with its head end in the air, riding free above the stumps and underbrush. The line horse was supplanted by an extra drum on the donkey, the haulback, which returned the main line to the woods after each turn more quickly than a horse could turn around. The high-lead speeded production almost beyond knowing. It also brought into being the most spectacular occupation in the timber, or perhaps anywhere—that of the high-rigger or high-climber.
With sharp steel spurs on his legs, a safety belt around his waist, and an axe and saw dangling from a rope beneath, this steeple jack of the woods hitches himself up a tall fir, limbing as he goes. At somewhere around 150 feet from the ground he straps himself in place and saws off the treetop. Hanging there against the sky, he must work carefully lest he cut his belt and crash to his death on the circle of stumps below. When the great top starts to lean, then to fall, the high-climber must brace himself well. The trunk vibrates wickedly in wide arcs. For an instant, top and man are little more than a blur. Down goes the top, tons of it, to crash on the forest floor and send echoes up the canyon.
The topped trunk is now a spar tree—an anchor for subsequent high-lead operations. It is guyed all around with steel cables. Then the high-lead block, weighing some 1,800 pounds, is hoisted to the top and secured. The main line is run through the block and its end taken into the woods by the haulback. When a turn of logs has been hooked to the main line, the signalboy, now called a “whistle-punk,” gives the go-ahead. The huge donkey engine snorts noise and steam and sparks; then, rearing up like some prehistoric monster from the underbrush, comes an imposing sight—a log six feet in diameter, forty feet long. It is yanked swiftly, one end dragging, surging, the head end clear, to the donkey where it is unhooked by the “chaser,” and the rigging sent flying back into the timber.
High-lead logging almost doubled production. It also brought a notable increase in the accident rate, which was already far too high. With timber sailing through the air, rather than moving with moderate speed over the ground, there was an infinitely greater chance for a man to be hit—and harder. Added to this natural hazard was the yarding bonus offered by many logging operators. The boss, the “bull of the woods,” set a footage quota, usually high rather than otherwise, for the crew. If they managed to yard more than this figure, every man got a dollar or so added to his wages that day. It was the timber-country version of the industrial speed-up. If it doubled production, it also doubled accidents; and it may well have tripled discontent.
Discontent among the loggers did not originate in the Northwest. There had been strikes, chiefly against the twelve-hour day then in force, back in Michigan. There had been protests over low wages and poor working conditions in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Yet labor unions failed to get a real foothold. Only the shingle weavers of the Far West cedar mills had managed to keep alive an organization of any effectiveness, and it had nothing to do with loggers.
It was often said of loggers—and they believed it themselves—that their isolation and the nature of their work made them individualists unfit to band together against the boss. And the babel of tongues characteristic of logging camps from the eighties onward was no help. But now, in the first decade of the new century, came a new union, the Industrial Workers of the World, led by Big Bill Haywood, an ebullient, one-eyed hard-rock miner who had also worked in the woods. He had just become labor’s hero in a sensational trial in Idaho in which he was acquitted of a murder charge. Advocating a dictatorship of the proletariat, the I. W. W., or “wobblies,” as they were called, were shrewd enough to go after membership by promising loggers higher wages, better food, the eight-hour day, safe working conditions, and almost anything else which organizers could think up to bring the boys running to get the Little Red Card denoting I. W. W. membership.
The wobblies were less a labor union than a religion. They staged strikes, first in Portland, later in the Willapa and Grays Harbor logging camps, then in Seattle, Spokane, and Everett. When they couldn’t pull a strike on the job, it was their delight to get themselves arrested for speaking on the streets; then they would shout that they were making a “free speech fight,” meanwhile sending word out over the remarkable wobbly grapevine for the boys to rally in number. They came in number, too, commonly on freight trains, to fill town and city jails to overflowing and make bedlam for days and nights on end. Among their organizers was a woman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn- young, handsome, a flaming red tie at her throatpossessed of enough eloquence to send skid-road males hurrying to get their membership cards in the nearest wobbly hall.