Skip to main content

Daylight In The Swamp

May 2024
14min read

Old-time logging in the Pacific Northwest was “a wildly wonderful if tragically heedless era”; there are those who still mourn its passing

The tradition of the American lumberjack is an ancient one, as industrial antiquity goes in the united States. It began more than three hundred years ago, some say in 1631, when colonists set up the first sawmill in America in what is now South llerwick, Maine, and ted it with the great white pines, a classic species whose graceful outline was soon to appear on (lags, provincial coats ot arms, even on shillings.

It was here in the New England timber, too, that certain customs and practices originated which were to follow the loggers across the continent. For instance, an early timber baron was Sir William Pepperell, who, says an old memoir, appeared at his log landings along the Saco River “attired in a coat ol scarlet cloth.” This is the earliest record ol brilliant garb worn in connection with logging, and one likes to think it was irom Sir William that the lumberjack took his liking lor red, whether ol sash, shirt, or honest woolen underwear.

There was also the attempt of the Crown to prevent the loggers from cutting every tree that grew, The Royal Navy wanted the best trees saved lor masts, hut the attempt to reserve them was futile. Neither the royal taboo mark of the Broad Arrow on the finest timber nor penalties as severe as those against heresy could stop the red-shirted boys from tutting everything that stood in their way. Their persistence stirvived down to our own time.

Meanwhile, the isolation of logging camps, combined with an occupation so dangerous to life as to remove all but the toughest and most alert, conspired to produce a uniyuc race of men whose dedicated goal was to let daylight into the swamp and thus, as they saw it, permit the advance of civilization. lor generations the customary getting-up cry in camp was “Daylight in the swamp—all out!”

When the Yankee loggers had cleared the white pines, the main body of them moved to join their kind in New York and Pennsylvania, where more pine and then the spruce and the hemlock went down before them like so much wheat in a storm. They did not slop. Mefore the Civil War they were letting daylight into the swamps around Saginaw May in Michigan, and when they had mowed their way across that state they tied into Wisconsin. Here in the lake states they began to discard the slow oxen in favor of horses; their steam-driven sawmills meantime were growing in sixe and speed and responding to native ingenuity. When cold weather froze the log ponds, they no longer sat around waiting for spring: some genius ran a stcampipe into the frozen pond, thawed it, and sawed boards all winter. They discarded the old circular saw and replaced it with a bright, thin band of glittering teeth that wailed like a banshee as it made boards to build Midwestern cities and sawdust piles so high they could be seen decades later. In both mills and woods they bent every ellbrt to get more speed—speed to cut the timber which they believed would last a hundred years, if not forever.

The Michigan and Wisconsin timber did not last lorever, so the boys tore into Minnesota like locusts, and like locusts took all before them. What they did not cut they and the settlers managed to set afire, creating some of the most horrible disasters imaginable. The timber line receded, and before long the lumberjacks began to notice signs in hotels and saloons that read “No Calked Boots Allowed Here.” Civilization had caught up with them. As they peered forth from the middle of billions of stumps, the boys could see it was time to move again. There was always more timber west, just over the hump.

Perhaps a quarter of the migrating lumberjacks of the lake states moved into the southern pine region, but the main army moved west. A few stopped in Montana. More went on into Idaho. Still more of them crossed the Cascade Range and came down the Columbia, the Snohomish, and the Skagit, tossing from the windows of the steamcars the now-emptied bottles and snuffboxes they had bought in Duluth, in Chippewa Falls, in Muskegon, in Saginaw. They were cutting the Big Swath, the Big Clearing, and now, although they didn’t know it, they were in their last stronghold. Their backs were to the mountains, their faces to the sea.

Here they were in the largest forests of big timber they had ever seen. There are two distinct forests. East of the Cascade Range the woods are dominated by the ponderosa pine (western yellow), standing up to 200 feet on the best sites and running to six feet in diameter. Between the Cascades and the sea is the Douglas fir, standing up to 325 feet, with diameters up to fifteen feet. In the fir region also are large stands of western red cedar of enormous girth; and in coastal strips called the rain forest are stands of Sitka spruce and west coast hemlock. (The latter, for many years rarely considered worth cutting, has come into its own with the rise of the pulp and paper industry.)

Along with the loggers, even if most historians have rather prudishly ignored it, came a notable migration of fancy women from the old sawdust towns. They had seen altogether too much daylight in the swamps of the lake states; and now the more enterprising among them went out and bought new bonnets with sweeping feathers and one-way tickets to Spokane or Portland or Seattle.

In Montana and Idaho and in eastern Oregon and Washington, the loggers continued to use horses, but west of the Cascades, it was found, the timber was much too big for such temperamental animals. What was needed here was a lot of power and a slow, steady pull, so the west-side loggers reverted to the primordial force of the eastern pineries—oxen—only here they were called bulls. Sleds would not do to handle the big sticks. There was seldom snow enough for sledding anyway, and there were few streams deep and wide enough for good river driving. But the boys were adaptable—they invented the skid road.

The skid road was the western loggers’ first and greatest contribution to the technology of the woods. A path was cleared in the forest. At suitable intervals trees were felled across the path, cut free of limbs, then half-buried in the soft ground. These were the skids that made a skid road, a sort of track to keep moving logs from hanging up on rocks or miring in mud.

It was crude, yet effective. They hitched the bulls to the logs—five or six, maybe ten yokes of them, in charge of the bullwhacker, or teamster, who was perhaps the all-time master of profanity, and the big sticks, held in tandem by hooks, were pulled over the skids. It was something to see, this skid-road logging. First, you heard the clank of chains and the loud, clear call of the bullwhacker’s voice echoing down a forest road that was like a deep green canyon, so tall and thick stood the Douglas fir. Then the powerful line of red and black and spotted white would swing by with measured tread, the teamster, sacred goadstick over his shoulder, walking beside the team, petting and cursing them by turns. Back of the bulls walked the skid greaser, daubing thick oil on the skids, which smoked from friction. And then came the huge logs themselves, sliding along with a dignified roll.

Bull-team logging was drama. Small boys in Oregon and Washington, late in the last century, wanted to be bullwhackers when they grew up. More than a few authentic timber barons started to make their piles by whacking their own bulls down a skid road. Even the term “skid road” survives long after the last bull team has disappeared. In modern usage it refers to that district of western towns which, says the big Webster quite correctly, is “the part of a town frequented by loggers.”

Use of the word in this sense originated seventy-odd years ago in Seattle, where Henry Yesler’s pioneer skid road ran through the settlement from the timbered hills to the mill on tidewater. It was natural that hotels and saloons and other dives seeking logger trade should have been established along the skid road, and in good time the entire neighborhood became known as The Skidroad, a logical and useful term that quickly spread to all Far Western towns. Of recent years an abominable corruption has appeared, “skid row,” whose use is confined to the glib who wish to appear sophisticated but patently don’t know what they are talking about.

Bull-team technique developed one serious fault, best described by the maxim that any operator who attempted to haul logs more than one mile to a sawmill, or to water where they could be floated, was heading straight for bankruptcy. What was more, that mile must be a downhill haul, or at least level. Such a limit could not last long in a country where operators could lift their eager eyes to see billions of feet of fine timber all over the foothills, the valleys, even the mountains up to, say, the 4,ooo-foot level.

It is the history of technology that it advances according to need; and it was an inventive logger, John Dolbeer of Humboldt Bay, California, who in 1881 devised the rig that was to drive the bull teams from the woods. Dolbeer’s invention, which he patented in 1882, was a new kind of donkey engine with a single cylinder, a vertical boiler, and a horizontal engine with a drum, or capstan. Though other men were simultaneously experimenting with steam in the Douglas-fir forest, they left no clear record, and the Dolbeer became the machine that supplanted the ox. By the early nineties Dolbeers were operating in Oregon and Washington.

The Dolbeer brought ground-lead logging: By means of a cable pulled by the turning capstan, the logs were led along the ground to a “yard.” Once a turn was in, a line horse hauled the cable back into the timber. The animals became very knowing, needing scarcely any guidance at all. A man listed on the payroll as “sniper” prepared the felled logs for easy yarding by rounding their head-ends with an axe. “Choker men” put wire slip loops called chokers around the logs, then hitched the chokers to the main line from the donkey engine. On a high stump stood the signal boy. When the yarding crew’s boss yelled “HiI” the boy dipped his flag, or waved an arm, and the engineer put on the steam.

Ground-lead logging brought speed and volume. Throughout the nineties and well into this century, the donkeys grew in size and power to meet the increased production of the mills. By the turn of the century the influx of eastern operators and their men was getting into full swing in the Northwest. Camps grew from an average of perhaps 20 to more than 200 men each. Railroads were being laid to haul the logs from camp to mill, or to tidewater.

Rail logging had been made feasible by perfection of a geared locomotive credited in large part to Ephraim Shay, a Michigan logger as bearded as Moses and something of a prophet himself. A Shay engine could negotiate grades and curves that would have defeated a rod locomotive. This was sufficient. Old Shay’s name went honorably into logging history.

Then, one inspired day, some unidentified logger in a hurry figured out a method to improve the ground- lead system. What he did was to hang a block or pulley high up in a big tree. Thus was the high-lead born. Through the block ran the main line from the donkey engine. A log could now be yarded with its head end in the air, riding free above the stumps and underbrush. The line horse was supplanted by an extra drum on the donkey, the haulback, which returned the main line to the woods after each turn more quickly than a horse could turn around. The high-lead speeded production almost beyond knowing. It also brought into being the most spectacular occupation in the timber, or perhaps anywhere—that of the high-rigger or high-climber.

With sharp steel spurs on his legs, a safety belt around his waist, and an axe and saw dangling from a rope beneath, this steeple jack of the woods hitches himself up a tall fir, limbing as he goes. At somewhere around 150 feet from the ground he straps himself in place and saws off the treetop. Hanging there against the sky, he must work carefully lest he cut his belt and crash to his death on the circle of stumps below. When the great top starts to lean, then to fall, the high-climber must brace himself well. The trunk vibrates wickedly in wide arcs. For an instant, top and man are little more than a blur. Down goes the top, tons of it, to crash on the forest floor and send echoes up the canyon.

The topped trunk is now a spar tree—an anchor for subsequent high-lead operations. It is guyed all around with steel cables. Then the high-lead block, weighing some 1,800 pounds, is hoisted to the top and secured. The main line is run through the block and its end taken into the woods by the haulback. When a turn of logs has been hooked to the main line, the signalboy, now called a “whistle-punk,” gives the go-ahead. The huge donkey engine snorts noise and steam and sparks; then, rearing up like some prehistoric monster from the underbrush, comes an imposing sight—a log six feet in diameter, forty feet long. It is yanked swiftly, one end dragging, surging, the head end clear, to the donkey where it is unhooked by the “chaser,” and the rigging sent flying back into the timber.

High-lead logging almost doubled production. It also brought a notable increase in the accident rate, which was already far too high. With timber sailing through the air, rather than moving with moderate speed over the ground, there was an infinitely greater chance for a man to be hit—and harder. Added to this natural hazard was the yarding bonus offered by many logging operators. The boss, the “bull of the woods,” set a footage quota, usually high rather than otherwise, for the crew. If they managed to yard more than this figure, every man got a dollar or so added to his wages that day. It was the timber-country version of the industrial speed-up. If it doubled production, it also doubled accidents; and it may well have tripled discontent.

Discontent among the loggers did not originate in the Northwest. There had been strikes, chiefly against the twelve-hour day then in force, back in Michigan. There had been protests over low wages and poor working conditions in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Yet labor unions failed to get a real foothold. Only the shingle weavers of the Far West cedar mills had managed to keep alive an organization of any effectiveness, and it had nothing to do with loggers.

It was often said of loggers—and they believed it themselves—that their isolation and the nature of their work made them individualists unfit to band together against the boss. And the babel of tongues characteristic of logging camps from the eighties onward was no help. But now, in the first decade of the new century, came a new union, the Industrial Workers of the World, led by Big Bill Haywood, an ebullient, one-eyed hard-rock miner who had also worked in the woods. He had just become labor’s hero in a sensational trial in Idaho in which he was acquitted of a murder charge. Advocating a dictatorship of the proletariat, the I. W. W., or “wobblies,” as they were called, were shrewd enough to go after membership by promising loggers higher wages, better food, the eight-hour day, safe working conditions, and almost anything else which organizers could think up to bring the boys running to get the Little Red Card denoting I. W. W. membership.

The wobblies were less a labor union than a religion. They staged strikes, first in Portland, later in the Willapa and Grays Harbor logging camps, then in Seattle, Spokane, and Everett. When they couldn’t pull a strike on the job, it was their delight to get themselves arrested for speaking on the streets; then they would shout that they were making a “free speech fight,” meanwhile sending word out over the remarkable wobbly grapevine for the boys to rally in number. They came in number, too, commonly on freight trains, to fill town and city jails to overflowing and make bedlam for days and nights on end. Among their organizers was a woman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn- young, handsome, a flaming red tie at her throatpossessed of enough eloquence to send skid-road males hurrying to get their membership cards in the nearest wobbly hall.

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.

Now that both logging camp and logging railroad are on their way to join the bull teams and the skid roads, I imagine that few of today’s loggers, by now thoroughly and, I trust, happily domesticated, regret their passing. Yet, here and there may be an old-timer with a stubborn atavistic streak who, when the melancholy is upon him, will suddenly recall a dawn, back when the world was new, when all of us were young and handsome, when all phonographs played “Margie” and “Dardanella,” and the wireless was not yet quite radio.

It was a magic time filled with dreams, even at the far end of a logging railroad in a logging camp, where the sun came over the mountain to slant in whirling mists, while the bull cook beat the daylights out of the camp gong, and two hundred single young men came stomping down the camp walk, their calks clicking rhythmically on the planks, heading for an incredible breakfast, then a thundering ride behind the rolling Shay to where the spar tree rose high above the round stuff lying among the stumps far below.

Such was my “modern” time. I thought then that it was a thumping great and wildly wonderful, if tragically heedless, era in the timber. Thirty years later I know it was.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.