- Historic Sites
An excerpt from a new bicentennial history of his native state
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
However, the idea had been planted, and this mill was presently bought by an energetic operator named Curtis Emerson who spent ten thousand dollars on new machinery and found himself with a plant capable of cutting three million feet of lumber annually. (It was assumed that planks were cut one inch thick and one foot wide; such a plank, twelve feet long, would constitute twelve board feet of lumber. It was also assumed that the mill would operate on the standard twelve-hour day.) Emerson got into production, and in 1847 he shipped out the first cargo of lumber ever exported from the Saginaw Valley, sending a load of first-grade cork pine to Albany, New York.
That started it. The high quality of this lumber attracted a good deal of attention, and suddenly the market was clamoring for Saginaw pine. The firm of Grant and Hoyt built a second mill east of the river, and Sears and Holland built a third, and then things went with a rush, and in no time at all there were fourteen mills in Saginaw with more abuilding. In 1854 these turned out sixty million board feet of pine, and the lumber boom was on.
Cutting logs into boards is a task as old as civilization, but now it was geared to steam and the old ways were no good. Once a secondhand walking-beam engine was hooked up to a gate saw, the tempo and style and the very price of sui-vival in the industry changed beyond recognition. Do-it-by-hand was out because mechanical power was cheaper, faster, and stronger than human power, but one rule had to be observed: it had those fine qualities only when it did as much work as possible as quickly as possible with’a minimum of waste. Otherwise it was far too costly to endure.
It was found, for instance, that a steam-powered mill making boards in quantities produced also a dismaying amount of waste material—slabs, edgings, and whole mountains of sawdust. For a time the pioneering Emerson mill spent good money hauling this stuff away where it could be dumped; and at the same time it spent even more good money buying cordwood to maintain the fires under its boilers. At last somebody realized that the waste woodstuffs might as well go into the furnaces, eliminating both the haulage fees and the need to buy cordwood. As business picked up, the big mills found that they produced wood waste faster than they could use it. Some of them, toward the last, built enormous cylindrical brick consumers to burn what could not be used to power the boilers. Still others, in Saginaw and in lumber towns like Manistee, learning that valuable deposits of brine lay far underneath the mills, burned the waste to power steam pumps to bring the brine to the surface and burned more of it to evaporate the brine and produce dry salt. To the very end, however, the industry produced more slab-and-sawdust refuse than it could use, and uncounted tons of sawdust went to fill in streets and building lots; which made for an interesting situation when a building caught fire.
It was also found that the gate saw was not really efficient. The circular saw—buzz saw of popular usage—had been invented, but when it bit into a log while spinning at high speed it was apt to break its teeth, and now and then it simply flew apart and sent razor-edged fragments flying about, which was not good for the men who were running it. But at last, just as the Michigan mills were getting into production, someone invented a buzz saw with replaceable teeth held firmly in position by curved sockets, a saw that would stand up under any amount of hard usage. Also, some other operator replaced the gate saw with the gang saw, a prodigious extension of the original, which held a dozen or more vertical saw blades in one wide gate, reducing an entire log—and sometimes two or three at once —into planks in one devastating operation. Between the buzz saw and the gang saw, planks and slabs and edgings came out faster than men could handle them, so it was necessary to devise automatic conveyors to carry the planks where they had to go and take the slabs and edgings off to the furnaces, the converters, or wherever.
The mill had to be situated on a millpond, not merely because most of the logs were floated in by river but because the pond offered the best way to get the logs on an automatic conveyor system. Circular saws and gang saws were put on the mill’s second floor, and down into the pond on a long slant came a runway up the middle of which travelled an endless chain spiked with stout iron points every few feet. Down by the pond, which was full of waiting logs, a man with a pike pole steered the logs to the place where this endless chain would catch them, and it carried them up and dropped them on the moving carriages that took them through the battery of saws that turned them into finished lumber. This worked so well that even when mills were built on railroad supply lines, with no logs at all coming in by river, a millpond was dug out and the arriving logs were dumped into it from railway sidings. In wintertime, of course, these ponds were likely to freeze, so people learned to run a few steam pipes into them, below the surface, and in January and February the ponds were kept free of ice and the logs floated off to the endless chain.