Michigan Timber

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The book from which the following excerpt is drawn is to be published later this month by W. W. Norton O” Company; it is one of a series of bicentennial state histories being prepared under the aegis of the American Association for State and Local History.

Man’s muscles were still the primary source of power. Nothing could be done if they could not do it; they set the limits, and although for a long time they had been helped by the muscles of horses and oxen, this did not greatly change the basic rule: you can do what you are strong enough to do, and no more. So when the first assault on Michigan’s pine forests was made it was exactly the kind of job King Hiram of Tyre would have understood when he set out to provide the cedar for Solomon’s Temple. You took saws and axes and went to work.

Cutting the trees down and dividing them into logs was just the first step. The big thing was to turn the logs into boards, and in the beginning the only reliance was the whipsaw, which one historian called “plainly the most pernicious contraption that ever plagued a working man.” They began by digging a pit, six or seven feet deep, and rigging a set of cross timbers over the top. Then a man got down into the pit with one end of a long ripsaw in his hands, a log was snaked out on top of the cross timbers, and another man got on the log and laid hands on the upper end of the ripsaw. After exchanging signals the two men began to work the saw up and down, up and down, and as it bit into the log still other men edged the log forward, ft was slow work, and hard, and the man in the pit got the worst of it because the sawdust came down into his hair, his eyes, and his mouth and stuck to his sweaty skin, and to produce a wagonload of planks took time, strong arms and backs, and the ability to put up with abominable working conditions.

The first lumber from the Michigan pineries was cut up in this manner, and there did not seem to be much future in it. The part of the country that bought timber in quantity was the East, which was handy to the Maine forests; and Maine’s pinewoods, like all pinewoods everywhere, were known to be inexhaustible. Still, the country was growing, and as it grew it needed more lumber to build houses, and the great weight of the pineries in Michigan made its pressure felt just as the weight of the metals in the north country did.

COPYRIGHT © 1976 BY BRUCE CATTON

The pressure was most obvious in the Saginaw Valley. The Saginaw is deep and broad, but as an independent river it is short. It is formed by the union of five rivers —the Cass, the Flint, the Shiawassee, the Bad, and the Tittabawassee, and the last-named has tributaries like the Pine and Chippewa and Tobacco. All in all, these rivers drain a huge plat of land in the heart of the state’s lower peninsula, covering half of the thumb on the east and reaching more than halfway to Lake Michigan on the west, and some of the noblest stands of pine in the New World were to be found here. If men were going to make money selling pine lumber, the Saginaw Valley was the obvious place to begin. The hand-operated pit saw might be good enough to provide boards for the local housebuilders, but something better was needed if lumbermen hoped to sell on a national market.

Waterpower provided part of the answer, just at first. The whipsaw was put into an oblong frame and was hitched up to a waterwheel so that as the wheel revolved the frame moved up and down; the contraption was shaped like a window sash, and slid up and down the way a window sash does, and naturally it was referred to as a sash saw, or sometimes as a gate saw. It did the job all right, and it at least got the unlucky sawyer out of the pit, but it was not quite the device needed for volume production.

The first step was taken by a man named Harvey Williams, who came up to Saginaw in 1834 and started a steam sawmill. His power plant had a history of its own. First steamboat above Niagara Falls was a craft named Walk-in-the-Water , which operated between Buffalo and Detroit for a time and then, early in the i Sao’s, ran aground in the eastern end of Lake Erie and was wrecked. Her engine was removed and put in another boat—one of the interesting things about early Great Lakes steamboating is the way engines seemed to survive the boats that used them—and when that vessel in turn was wrecked, the engine was extracted again, and Mr. Williams bought it and took it up to Saginaw. With considerable mechanical ingenuity he devised a rig by which the old side-wheeler engine could operate a gate saw, and the lumber industry took a step in the right direction; but the step was short, because this mill was slow and clumsy and could do little more than meet the needs of settlers in the immediate vicinity. When a new mill was built on the east side of the river a year later, it limited itself to cutting lumber for the construction needs of the Michigan Central Railroad, and after a few years it quietly closed down.