Michigan Timber

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The next step was not long delayed. In 1876 a young lumberman named Scott Gerish, who owned a fine stand of pine in Clare County, just a little too far away from the Muskegon River, visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and saw a narrow-gauge locomotive on display. The engine was light and cheap, so were the cars it would pull, and so also was the track it would run on, and a great light dawned on Mr. Gerish. A narrow-gauge railroad could be a temporary thing; you could run it through the woods without worrying about what the right of way would be like fifty years later, because fifty years later you would be long gone. The whole business was cheap, light, adaptable, and expendable. Mr. Gerish formed a small stock company and ran a narrow-gauge line from the heart of the deep woods to a convenient spot on the Muskegon River. The winter was mild, with hardly any snow and very little ice, and boss loggers either went broke or pulled in their belts and waited stoically for next year: Mr. Gerish ran his railroad, got his full consignment of logs over to the river, got other logs out, at a price, for other loggers in that area, and made a most handsome profit.

The point was too obvious to miss. Gerish’s tract of pines was about ten miles from the river: unreachable, according to old standards, unless he could build dams to flood some insignificant creeks and got blessed with a cold and blizzardy winter. With his pint-sized railroad, which could be picked up and taken somewhere else after it had done its work, he could get his logs to market easily and cheaply while other men were going bankrupt. All at once the vast stands of pine that had been written off because they were a few miles too far from running water became immediately available. Inside of six years there were forty-nine of these little railroads in operation in central Michigan, and lumber was going to the market so rapidly that the price began to fall.

One thing led to another. Once it was clear that logs could be got out regardless of the state of the winter weather, men tackled the problem of getting logs from the place where the trees were cut down to the place where the logs would be loaded. Some bright man in Manistee devised the Big Wheels: a pair of monstrous wheels, ten or twelve feet in diameter, with a wagon tongue hooked up with hoisting leverage. Three or four logs could be straddled by this big go-cart, front ends lifted off the ground, and an ox team or a pair of Percherons could haul the load from falling ground to railroad siding—at which point, by somebody else’s ingenuity, there was a donkey engine and a derrick to pick the logs up and stack them on the flatcars. R. G. Peters of Manistee devised a high-wire conveyor system, cutting off the tops of tall trees, running taut cables from one to the next, skidding tongs on wheels dangling beneath, picking up logs and whisking them cross-lots to wherever they were supposed to go. Mr. Peters came in just a bit late with this idea, but it grew great in the Far West when the tall timber there came in for destruction.

The point of all of this is that lumbering ceased to be a wintertime occupation. The logging streams of course were used right to the last, but by the final twenty years of the century the industry no longer depended on them, nor did it depend on the ice and snow a cold winter would bring. From the whispering pine trees in the remotest grove down to the lumber dealer’s yard in Chicago or Omaha, lumber was on a production line. Machine-shop efficiency had come to the wilderness, everybody prospered, and there was only one trouble. Just as they got everything perfected they ran out of trees.