Daylight In The Swamp

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Though the I. W. W. never troubled to consolidate its gains in the manner of conventional unions, it did put the fear of God, or possibly of Marx, into the lumber barons. Violence broke out sporadically in the camps and the sawmill centers—not just the violence of clubs and stones and brass knuckles but of guns in the hands of desperate and determined men who were playing for keeps.

Neither unions nor laws nor the slow national decline in the per capita consumption of lumber could put a stop to the steady progress of logging technology. Steam had inspired uncounted inventors to experiment with power machinery. In steep country, counterbalance incline railroads appeared. A primeval steam saw for felling timber, a forerunner of today’s gas-driven chainsaw, was built and tried. A noted woods boss, C. C. (Whitewater) McLean, left his name secure in the industry by inventing the McLean loading boom. Some genius around Puget Sound came up with a truly fearsome combination of steam, wheels, and lines he called a Walking Dudley. Other men were already playing with the idea of a tall yet portable steel mast to perform the duties of a spar tree. And at least two brave fellows rolled into the timber aboard a monstrous overland steam engine they hoped would replace both a yarding donkey and a locomotive. It didn’t.

Then, on a day heavy with portent—unmarked in history, it may have been in 1911, or even 1913- somebody went into the woods with a homemade truck operated by an internal-combustion engine, loaded it with logs, and drove it away to the sawmill on a road made of planks laid end to end. Here was a warning of things to come. Steam was to be driven slowly yet relentlessly from the woods by gasoline and diesel oil. A great thundering era was ending.

But not yet. There were still 3,400 miles of standardgauge logging tracks in Oregon and Washington—over half the total in seven western states and the province of British Columbia—in 1929, a peak year when almost twelve billion board feet of timber went to the sawmills of the two states, most of it by rail. It was hauled by more than 600 steam locomotives, of which 400 were geared engines made by Lima-Shay, Climax, and Heisler; the rest were engines from Baldwin, Porter, American, and Vulcan.

Back in the early igzo’s, I used to know gray old loggers, shaggy-headed and grown dim of eye, who would sit on the deacon seat, of an evening in camp, and damn the “modern” methods, by which they meant steam logging, and weep for the days when noble bull teams lurched down the skid roads, bellowing and grunting, while the bullwhacker cried aloud in protest to a Deity who had made such miserable oxen. In that great time, it seemed, men had been men, with hair not only on their chests but ^n their faces too. My own generation, according to these veterans, was a group of sheared weaklings dependent on machinery, coddled in camp with company mattresses, even sheets; with white crockery, not tin plates on the cookhouse table; with pretty female waitresses; with shower baths and electric lights; with mail and newspapers daily, or almost daily.

I realized, of course, that all this was merely a lament of ancient men for their youth, a youth gone now into the mists where ghostly bull teams walked a rotted skid road. Thus it is with me, thirty years later, when memory gives me pause to reflect on how little has survived of that so-called modern era I knew only yesterday. That era did not come to an end with a bang. Eras seldom do. But the logging railroad and the steam donkey had, by 1955, virtually disappeared in the Oregon and Washington timber. A few Shays work in West Virginia, but in general this locomotive is now an antique, drowsing with cast-iron generals in a park—a park past which highway trucks loaded with logs streak at dizzying speeds.

It makes my generation men out of Genesis; we can remember, for instance, when western loggers used snuff, not cigarettes. We can recall when loggers would eat hay, if you sprinkled a little whiskey on it. Above all, we can remember when logging was done by single men who lived in logging camps at the end of a railroad through the woods. Today, even the camps are passing, and loggers are young married men who prefer to live with their families in communities on the highway, to drive to and from the logging works in their own cars.

There is, however, one change in the industry which no man, no matter how beset with nostalgia, can fail to welcome. It is this: Every logging outfit worthy of the name—at least in the Pacific Northwest—has on its payroll from one to one hundred graduates of accredited forestry schools. Thirty years ago, the few foresters seen in the logging woods were exotics who had no more standing than a botanist. Loggers referred to them as bug-chasers, as pismire superintendents. No longer. Industrial foresters today advise cutting practices to be followed and are responsible for the care and protection of company lands—from which one crop has been harvested and another crop from ten to fifty feet tall is growing.

Such lands used to bear the timber baron’s mark of Cain when he was Public Enemy Number Two, if not Number One, his devastated acres strewn with debris, ready for burning again and again. Today these lands are tree farms, registered as such and expensively cherished. Timber is a crop. Forests are everlasting. Such is the theory now held by major loggers and lumbermen all over the country, and the theory has largely turned to practice.