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Michigan Timber

July 2024
29min read

An excerpt from a new bicentennial history of his native state

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.


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.

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.

Finally, the band saw came into use—a thin band of flexible steel, notched with teeth along the edge, drawn down from one wheel by the revolution of a lower wheel, kept taut by still other wheels, slicing the pine logs up at a speed beyond even that of the circular saws. The band saw had the added advantage of being thinner than the buzz saw; it cut with a smaller kejf, as men said, which meant that much less of the log was wasted in the form of sawdust. It could square up a really big log the way a buzz saw could hardly do, and it won a place in the battery of every well-equipped mill.


The sawmill, of course, was the end of the line. The operation began in the deep woods, and originally it was gang labor pure and simple. Also, it began as a very smallscale affair. One of the first camps to cut pines on the Cass River had a gang consisting of fifteen men; they built one log shanty where everybody ate and slept, and a little room was walled off at one end for the boss man’s wife, who came along to cook for the crowd. In the early days lumber camps averaged just about that size, and it was not uncommon for a man to recruit a logging crew and take the men to the woods before he had even lined up a stand of timber to cut. Sometimes, venturing into regions where there was nothing resembling a road by which supplies could be hauled into camp, the logger simply loaded men and their food and equipment on a scow and poled the thing up the river.

Early lumber camps were primitive, not to say repellent. One log shanty housed everybody except the oxen, which had a shanty-stable of their own. The men’s shanty had no floor but packed earth, and it had no windows. There was no stove; just an open hearth of stones in the middle of the room, with a hole in the roof above to carry off the smoke. The fire that burned on this hearth cooked what the men ate and provided warmth (and a choking haze of woodsmoke) for the occupants. Bunks were platforms made of poles, with pine boughs, or sometimes hay, for mattress. Food consisted mostly of salt beef, salt pork, beans, bread, and tea, and the one certainty was that the tea was going to be strong; one old-timer remarked that it was powerful enough to raise a blister on a boot. (A very old gag: lumbercamp tea was tested by dropping an axe head into it. If the axe head sank, the tea was no good; if it floated, the tea was acceptable—and if it actually dissolved, the tea was super!) The men used to remark that the oxen were housed better than they were, and this probably was true; at least the oxen had plenty of clean straw to sleep on.

This state of things did not last long. Business expanded rapidly and the operators had to compete for men, and to get them they had to provide better food and housing. Before long a camp had one building for a bunkhouse and another for cooking and eating quarters, with a stable for the animals, a blacksmith shack, and a separate building for supplies. The buildings had proper floors, and stoves with chimneys replaced the old open fireplaces; there still was next to nothing in the way of ventilation in the bunkhouse, although sometimes a barrel open at both ends was let into the roof. Since the men spent more than half of each twenty-four hours in the open, it was felt that they did not really need fresh air at night. The most notable improvement was in the food. Pork and beans hung on, but there were many supplements: pancakes with molasses, big platters of fried or boiled potatoes, beef stew of great staying power, canned tomatoes, pies and doughnuts and cookies without end, fresh bread, and, if not actual butter, at least plenty of margarine, which the loggers unemotionally referred to as axle grease. There was always fried salt pork on the table, and slabs of corned beef, and the cook usually brewed a pork gravy that many of the men used on pancakes in place of molasses. All in all, the diet was robust and ample, and a man could do a day’s work on it.

That was as well, because a day’s work was certainly required of him. Six days a week, all winter and into the spring, the logger went out to work before daylight and stayed out until dark. He was aroused in the morning by the reverberating cry “Daylight in the swamp!” This meant that he must be up, cutting down trees so that daylight could be admitted to the swamp; contradictorily, it also meant that there was already daylight in the swamp and that therefore it was high time to be up and doing. Either way, the logger got up, pulled on his boots and mackinaw, washed his face in a tin basin, ate as much breakfast as he could hold, and headed for the tall timber. There his job was simple, but tough.

The routine was obvious: cut the tree down, remove its useless top and branches, cut the tree into logs—sixteen feet was taken as the proper length, but there was no hardand-fast rule—and get the logs stacked up on the bank of some river down which, come spring, they could be floated to the sawmill. In the early days a tree-length log, anywhere from seventy-five to a hundred feet long once the top had been taken off, would be dragged to the banking ground and cut into logs there. Hauling it there was slow work. Three or four yoke of oxen could pull almost anything, but they did not move fast, and it took a long time to get one end of this king-sized log off the ground on to a sleigh or a wishbone-shaped tree crotch known as the go-devil. Before many years this system was largely abandoned, and the tree was cut into logs where it fell.

Axemen were the aristocrats of this sort of work, and State of Maine men were much in demand because they had been cutting down pine trees all their lives. They worked in two-man crews, swinging their double-bitted axes in alternating blows, from right and from left, and a veteran team used to brag that if you drove a stake partway into the ground sixty feet away, they could fall a tree with such finesse that it would drive the stake in the rest of the way. (In pinewoods language, by the way, the loggers would fall a tree, not fell it.) Once the tree was down, less prestigious axemen got at it and trimmed off its branches and its top, after which men with long crosscut saws came up to reduce it to logs.

The hard work was by no means over then, because the logs still had to be taken to the banking ground by the river. Two things were necessary, above all: a roadway of sorts, and a good deal of snow and cold weather. The logs could be skidded over to the roadside by oxen or horses using the go-devil or a device like an overgrown set of ice tongs, but at the roadside they had to be loaded on a sleigh, and since the load was usually piled up as high as a two-story house, this involved a great deal of sweating and straining. Logs are heavy, awkward to handle, and possessed of the inherent cantankerousness that sometimes gets into inanimate objects, and although horses or oxen could be used to pull on the chains that dragged the logs up on the pile, men still had to handle the logs, guiding and controlling them, adjusting their position, turning them this way and that so that the load was compact and balanced, and they could not possibly do this with their bare hands.

Originally they used a stout pole with a ring around it and an iron hook dangling from the ring, known as a cant dog, but it was dangerously unreliable because the hook was likely to slip sideways just as a man was putting his weight on it and when that happened the man could get killed. Fortunately, just about the time the Michigan boom was beginning, a blacksmith in Maine invented a new tool: strong staff of ash or rock maple, shod with iron at the lower end, with a hook swinging from a fixed hinge that kept it from slipping sideways. With this a man could grip a log firmly, the long staff gave him the leverage he needed, and the thing would not betray him when he was handling a big log that was trying to mash him. To use it took skill—a man had to know just what he was doing on any job in the woods—but this tool was indispensable. It was known as a cant hook. Fitted with a spike at the lower end it was a peavey, named for the blacksmith who invented it; either way, they had to have it to get out the logs.

A load of logs properly stacked weighed many tons, and no wagon ever built could have carried it over a dirt road. On a sleigh it could be moved easily, always provided that the road was icy. The camp boss sent a sprinkler out at night to spray water that froze instantly, and as long as he had cold weather all was well. Horses with calked shoes could pull on such a roadway, and if the road had no hills there was no special problem. It was impossible to take one of these big loads up a real hill, and although going down was possible it was extremely dangerous—if the sleigh once picked up speed it ran over the horses, wrecked itself, and probably killed the driver. On the downhill slopes they scattered sand, sawdust, horse manure, ashes, whatever was handy, to reduce the danger, and a good teamster was highly prized.


In all of this except the downhill drag the emphasis was on speedier movement. Peavey and cant hook set a fast tempo, the great horse-drawn sleighs moved logs to the river faster than the old method, especially when trouble was taken to keep the skid road iced, and now someone discovered that the trees came down more quickly if crosscut saws were used. Axemen still began by cutting a deep notch on the side where the tree was supposed to fall, but once the notch was cut they went to the opposite side and started pulling the seven-foot saw back and forth, back and forth, until at last the top of the tree swayed a bit, there was a cracking noise just where the notch had been cut, the sawyers pulled their saw out, stepped back, and set up the long warning cry—“Timmmberrrr!”—and everyone near looked up and took cover. When a giant pine came down, it came down hard, and people gave it plenty of room.

One way or another they got the logs to the banking ground. When warm weather came and the ice went out, and melting snow raised the river level, they could get the logs down to the mills; and in some ways this was the hardest, chanciest part of the whole business.

The rivermen who took the logs down were picked crews, the best of the wintertime loggers—whose jobs, of course, were gone once the snow melted and the roads could no longer be iced. It was up to the rivermen first to tumble the logs down the banks and into the water; hard enough, and often most dangerous, because the logs were piled up high on a downhill slope, and as likely as not they would roll down with a thunderous rush once the first two or three logs at the bottom were yanked loose. The yanking, of course, was done by rivermen with peaveys, who worked with thousands of tons of logs banked up over them and who had to start running at the right second and run fast once they got things loose.

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.


The same kind of overdressing is found in the traditional accounts of life in western cow towns, where cowboys apparently spent all of their waking hours drinking whiskey, playing faro, and shooting out the overhead lights; although the cowboy, obviously, spent most of his time on the ranch or on the range and came to town to tie one on only on rare occasions. The same thing was true of the logger. He came in for a spree once a year, and that was it. No matter how freely he squandered his pay it would last just so long, and then he was finished. About the time the loggers completed their annual orgy the rivermen came in, all loaded for bear, but they operated under the same restraints. This was a once-a-year bender, and the wild, shouting, fighting carnival of tradition burned itself out rather quickly. The Catacombs of Bay City, the Sawdust Flats of Muskegon, and the oddly named tangles of saloons and brothels of all the other lumber towns had to subsist most of the year on the trade of regular residents. The average lumber town, to be sure, was well able to support such establishments unaided, and most of them took an inverted pride in the reputation thus gained: this year Such-and-Such was the wickedest town in Michigan, three years later it was some other place, after that it was still another, and so on, but the point is that neither the logger nor the riverman really spent much of his time drinking and roistering about. Actually, after the first years of the lumber boom a great many of the loggers had farms in the cut-over lands, and when they got paid off they headed for home to put in a crop, spending perhaps one evening on the town first. Others took jobs’ in the sawmills, which operated all summer long. A few hung around the saloons and went on the bum until autumn opened new jobs in the woods, but they burned themselves out rapidly and were never characteristic of the great mass of the lumber country’s workers.

What was characteristic was that the were strong men who worked very hard with substantial skills in a calling that was always demanding and often most dangerous. They were ruthlessly exploited, from beginning to end. Pay was moderate, they had to shift for themselves more than half of each year-, and if a man was hurt—as a great many were—he had to look out for his own hospitalization. As the industry grew mature, hospitals in most of the bigger lumber centers organized a hospital insurance plan, by which the logger who bought a ticket could get up to a year’s hospitalization; but it was the logger who had to buy the ticket, and if he did not have one, and was sent to a hospital penniless after some accident, he wound up in the county poorhouse.

Isolated in the deep woods from November to April, the lumbermen had to provide their own amusement. Sunday was the day off, and a good part of the day was spent washing clothing and trying, usually in vain, to rid the bunks of bedbugs. Sunday evening was a time for entertainment; if there was a fiddler in camp he had to perform, anyone who knew a song had to sing it, and poetry was recited on a dealer’s-choice basis. One favorite ballad dealt with the fabulous Silver Jack Driscoll, famous as one of the toughest rough-and-tumble fighters in the woods; famous also as a man who got into so much trouble on his visits to town that he had spent several years in the state’s prison. According to this poem, Silver Jack took offense one day when one Bob, a camp-mate, lounging in the bunk shanty on a Sunday afternoon, announced that he was an atheist and declared the whole Bible story a myth, adding that there was no such place as Hell. Silver Jack challenged him for this, and the two had an epic fight, leading to a great climax:


But at last Jack got him under And he slugged him onct or twice, And Bob straightway acknowledged The divinity of Christ.

After Bob had also confessed that there probably was a Hell, Silver Jack let him up. Someone brought out a bottle and the two gladiators had a drink, and it was agreed that the fight had been a great step forward toward righteousness:

And we drank to Jack’s religion In a kindly sort of way, And the spread of infidelity Was checked in camp that day.

One fireside game was a little more rugged. One lumberjack would bend over, the seat of his trousers drawn tight, a semicircle of his friends around him; one of them would give him a hearty spank in the proper place—a blow that would knock out an ox, as likely as not—and the victim would wheel around and point to the man he considered responsible. If he picked the right man, that one took his place for the next round; if he failed, he bent over again, took another, and again tried to identify the spanker. Somehow this game never quite caught on anywhere but in the lumberman’s shanty. It was known, logically, as hot-ass.

In the early days most lumber camps were small and most operators were working on a shoestring basis. Right to the end the little fellow held a place in the industry, but the whole setup was obviously made for the man with ample credit and plenty of capital, and more and more the industry was dominated by substantial capitalists. It was strictly a cyclical operation, with money going out every month of the year and coming in just once, and there were many unpredictable things that could cause loss. From September to November the operator had his gang laying out a tote road—a rough trail leading from town to camp, so that supplies could be brought in—and building the camp itself. Late in November he brought his gang to the camp, and from then until spring took the ice and snow off the land, everybody was at work making logs out of trees. The spring months were spent getting the logs to the mills, and it was at this time that the operator got paid. In the summer months he was likely to be cutting marsh hay and recruiting his teams for the coming year’s work.


Opportunities for going bankrupt were numerous. A mild winter was the worst thing that could happen; without snow and ice the skid road from cutting ground to banking ground simply could not be used, and the camp could not do much; the men might indeed cut down trees and turn them into logs, but logs that had to lie in the woods all spring and summer and fall brought in no money and could easily deteriorate. A dry spring, or a spring following a winter that was cold enough but had little snow, might mean that the river did not have enough water to float the logs away properly. Thus in 1864 only 71 per cent of the logs cut during the winter reached the market; conversely, after the fine winter of 1879, when there was plenty of snow and ice for the lumber-camp crews and plenty of run-off water in the streams, the receipt of logs at the mills rose sharply—on the Menominee by more than 12 per cent, on the Muskegon by 26 per cent.

All of this favored the big operator and handicapped the little one. The big one could usually command enough capital to carry him through a bad year; he would not enjoy life, but at least he would survive. The little man was likely to go entirely out of business. Lumber prices had a way of fluctuating sharply from year to year, and here again the man working on a shoestring was apt to find himself in trouble.

And yet, with all of these ways of stacking the cards in favor of the wealthy, this business did offer an opportunity to the man who was eternally industrious, canny, and now and then a bit lucky. Typically, there is the case of a ?5o-pound immigrant from Luxembourg, Bill Bonifas, who got to the Escanaba area in the early days and hired out doing piecework for a contractor who was cutting cedar ties for a railroad. Bonifas cut and carried out the six-foot cedar logs for starvation pay, but he cut and carried two logs to the other men’s one and at last he saved enough money to buy a cheap horse to haul the stuff down to the dock. (When the horse proved a weakling, Bonifas got into the harness with him and helped him pull.) He saved more money, brought his brothers and sisters over from the old country, and at last set up a camp of his own, with his sisters doing the cooking. In the best Horatio Alger fashion, it all worked out; from cutting cedar ties he branched out into big timber, bought pinelands, sent logs to the mills—and, not to labor the point unduly, became exceedingly wealthy and died a Grade-A lumber baron. It could be done … once in a while.

For with all of the handicaps the lumber industry in Michigan was basically an industry that grew great in a time when it could hardly do anything else. The great years of this industry, roughly from the early i84o’s to about 1910, were years of rising immigration from Europe, and they also were years when the great rich territory from the Alleghenies to the Missouri River was filling up with towns and farms. These people needed houses, barns, town dwellings, stores, warehouses, sheds, and fences, and to build them they had to have immense quantities of cheap lumber. The weight of their demand was shown in one simple fact: the great wholesale center for finished lumber, which had been Albany for generations, was Chicago after 1856. The Saginaw River, facing to the east, was developed at amazing speed, but so was the Lake Michigan trade, which faced west and south, and the Muskegon became the country’s great lumber river. Muskegon and Manistee, Menominee and Escanaba and Manistique, and a vast number of smaller places in between and beyond these, became indescribably busy with a great fleet of schooners carrying boards, laths, shingles, and beams down to the Chicago docks and yards. While all of this was going on the Middle Western railroads were expanding rapidly, needing timber for bridges and trestles and loading docks, sheathing for stations and cars, and incredible numbers of ties. An individual operator could of course fail if his luck ran badly, but the industry as a whole simply could not lose.

So the pressure on the industry was unceasing. King Hiram was forever out of date, and mill towns were becoming mechanized islands in an all-embracing wilderness. Sawmills, less than a generation away from the handoperated pit saw, began to look like factories that Eli Whitney or Samuel Colt would have understood, and (hey attracted men who knew machinery and taught other men what machinery could do. Flint, which began strictly as a sawmill town, found itself with factories making buggies and carriages. Pontiac, another lumber town, built factories to make wagons and developed foundries to serve its industrial plants. Grand Rapids, isolated above the rapids in the Grand River, presently was operating the world’s greatest furniture factories. There were shipyards at Bay City, Port Huron, and Grand Haven, and railroad passenger cars were being built at Saginaw. These beginnings were slow and many of them came late, and none of these cities had yet freed itself from reliance on the abundance of cheap lumber. But the climate in which industrialization could take place had been created and it was beginning to have effects.


In addition to all of this there were the railroads, which touched the lumber industry like a bucket of turpentine tossed on a fire. Sign of their coming was the appearance of thriving lumber towns that had virtually no proper logging streams to rely on—places like Clare, Farwell, and Cadillac. It was the railroads which finally enabled the major lumber operators to escape from the primitive conditions that compelled them to idleness for half of each year. Now they were able to go on a full-time basis.

This did not happen all at once, of course, yet the process really was not long-drawn-out. It began when people noticed that the Michigan Central and Lake Shore railroads, privately owned and completed to Chicago, were making excellent profits; it was also noticed that these railroads brought better times to the regions they served and left regions not served to struggle along as best they could. For a brief example: farmers in the western part of the state’s bottom tier of counties raised much wheat, which was their only cash crop, but had trouble getting it to the port of St. Joseph, where boats could take it to the Chicago market. To avoid a ruinously expensive wagon haul, farmers living near the St. Joseph River built what they called “arks”—big square boxes of cheap lumber, some (if them forty feet long, resembling boats only in that they would float. These were piled full of wheat, and with a man or two to guide them (and very little guidance was possible, aside from fending them off of the shallow places with long poles) they were floated down to the docks at St. Joseph. The arks were so little regarded that they were either sold for what their lumber would bring, which was next to nothing, or were simply abandoned and allowed to drift wherever they chose out on Lake Michigan. The new railroad relieved the farmers of this burden, no more arks were made, and the cash position of the man who raised wheat improved.

So the pressure for more railroads became strong, and results were soon evident. At Toledo the Lake Shore already hooked up with a line to Cleveland, the Michigan Central made connections with Buffalo via Ontario’s Great Western Railroad, and in the early i85o’s Buffalo had a regular railroad route to Albany and thence to New York. Of more immediate importance to the lumberman in Michigan was the fact that before the Civil War a line was pushed through from Detroit, by way of Pontiac and Grand Rapids, to Grand Haven, on the Lake Michigan shore. At the same time the general enthusiasm for railroads induced Congress to make lavish grants of public land to subsidize railroad construction, and Michigan was awarded more than 3,800,000 acres, which the state authorities promptly augmented by making an additional grant of more than i ,500,000 acres. After some spirited infighting among various interested parties—with a pie of this size being cut, everybody came running to the table—a number of routes were blocked out and construction was started. There was inevitably much delay, waste, and lost motion, but the upper peninsula got lines tying Marquette in with both Escanaba and Ontonagon, and in addition to lower peninsula lines aimed at the Straits there was a road that connected Port Huron, Flint, and Saginaw with the booming lumber town of Ludington, at the mouth of the Pere Marquette River on Lake Michigan. This road was in full operation by 1874, and the first step away from half-time lumbering was taken.

For it quickly became obvious that a logger need not be compelled to get his logs to a river, and that a sawmill town did not need to be situated at the river’s mouth. If the lumber camp was on a railroad the logs could come out regardless of the rivers, and if the mill town was on a railroad it could get the logs and ship out the boards. Water transportation was still cheaper, but it was no longer an essential.


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.


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