- Historic Sites
An excerpt from a new bicentennial history of his native state
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
When the logs hit water the real work began. In the Saginaw Valley, counting the main river and its chief tributaries, there were some 864 miles of water on which logs could be floated, draining millions of acres of woodland with an estimated 5,000 feet of timber on each acre. This of course was only one of the big river systems that came out of the pine timberlands, but it was the first to be exploited thoroughly and it can stand as an example. The end of the line was the long chain of sawmills that lined the riverbanks from Saginaw to Bay City, and between the banking grounds and the mills the rivermen marshalled a vast moving carpet of logs and tried to keep it from getting stalled anywhere. Many things could stall it—a stretch of shallow water where a few logs would run aground and pile up other logs behind them; a dry spring that lowered levels all along the stream; a sudden freshet that sent logs drifting off into swamps and cut-over meadows and then stranded them there when the flood receded. On tributaries where the water was not deep the rivermen built temporary dams, so that the tide of logs would move up to the dam in a great mass, and then the dam would be blown up—or, if it was a little more elaborate, a floodgate in the center would be opened—and the rush of released water would carry the logs on downstream.
Any of these things could create a logjam, which inevitably caused delay and very often killed men. A jam was a chaos of logs matted together every which way, like jackstraws, so thick sometimes that the river itself was dammed and its flow below the jam was reduced to a trickle. It was up to the rivermen to break up the jam, working along the downstream face of the mass, pecking and tugging at what looked like the key logs, opening the thing up by hook or by crook, usually getting back to the bank on time but sometimes failing and getting mashed. Getting a log drive all the way down the river often took weeks, and the men camped out on the banks as they worked, or slept in crude floating shanties that followed the drive. The cook shack, known as the wangan, was built on a scow, and the cook was a busy man: rivermen ate four meals a day, and sometimes five. The rivermen spent a good part of the day working thigh-deep in cold water, and when they went to bed they were almost always more or less wet. They scorned to change to dry clothing during the drive; they believed that this caused a man to take cold and led to pneumonia, and besides they had a tough-guy tradition to live up to and as a matter of fact they seem to have been all but indestructible.
When only one company was using a river the operation was clear enough, but when the river was full of logs put there by eight or ten different operators things got complicated because all of the logs looked exactly alike. The loggers met the problem just as western cattlemen met the problem raised on a common range—they branded their stock. Before the logs went into the water an official went along the spillway with a marking hammer and pounded the owner’s brand (duly registered with the authorities) into the end of each log. Thus when the logs got to the mouth of the stream, where the mills were, it was possible to make sure that a man’s logs went to the proper consumer. On all of the major logging streams booming companies were formed, and their employees guided the logs into big pens for delivery to the firms that had bought them.
The logging camps always closed down when warm weather came and the hands were paid off. A few would be hired as rivermen, but most of the men simply headed for town, their paychecks in their pockets; they had worked hard all winter, living in squalid quarters and toiling under firm discipline, and now they wanted to relax, and since each man had from four to six months’ pay, the lumber towns were happy to offer facilities for relaxation. A whole literature has developed about the enormous binges that rocked the foundations of these towns, and most of it is quite true … and yet it is possible to suspect that there has been a great deal of exaggeration.