Shanty boys, river hogs and the forests of Michigan

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

“George H. Rogers was instantly killed at Bosewell’s logging camp on the 25th of January,” the Manistee Times reported in February 1869. “The deceased (was) with a large load of logs that turned partially over, when in the haste of the moment he seized an ax and severed the cord that held the binder. The released binder flew back with such a terrible force to crush his skull. … This makes no less than eight men who been killed in the lumber camps north of Manistee this winter.”

Starting in the 1860s and for the next 40 years, Michigan was synonymous with pine lumbering, a dangerous and lucrative business. A vast belt of white pine grew across the Lower Peninsula and parts of the Upper Peninsula — towering cathedrals of Pinus strobus that could grow as tall as 175 feet, with stumps 8 feet in diameter. In addition, Michigan was blessed with a network of rivers and creeks to transport the timbered logs to mills.

The best white pine was called “cork pine,” and Michigan was loaded with it, especially in the Saginaw Valley. Dorothy Langdam Yates writes in her History of Midland County ( 1987) that in the last big year of logging — 1897 — the Saginaw River floated 125 million pine logs, representing a staggering 25 billion board feet of lumber. (A board foot of lumber is 12 inches square and 1 inch thick.) Yates states that enough board feet of lumber was taken out of Midland County from 1859 to 1897 to build a fence 43 feet high around the world.

The main Michigan lumber centers were Saginaw, Muskegon and Grand Rapids. After the 1871 fire in Chicago, pine lumber from Muskegon rebuilt the city; Grand Rapids, located near vast supplies of timber, became the world’s furniture center, and settlers in the vast American prairies had no trees, so bought white pine from Michigan to build their homes.

“A simple statement will explain why there is so extensive a demand for lumber,” wrote the Detroit Free Press in December 1866. “On the whole 55,000 square miles that is the State of Illinois, there is probably not a single pine tree large enough to make boards.”

Pioneers grapple with trees

It began in the early 1800s as settlers in Michigan struggled to clear their land of these mammoth pine trees. Once you had your log home built and perhaps a barn or stable, there was not much need for the remaining trees. The challenge of clearing 100-foot trees to begin farming was not trivial. When fallen green, these trees would not burn. Farmers tried to chop the trees so they would fall on top of each other in layers, and they would leave them until they dried, a process they called “windrowing.” Then they lit the fallen trees on fire, producing huge billowing flames and smoke.

“Logging bees” were called, in which relatives and neighbors joined with their oxen teams to roll the blackened logs into heaps. By the end of the day the men would be as black as the charred timber.

As the settlers prospered they wanted homes built from sawed lumber, not logs, so sawmills began to appear to take care of local needs. The first steam-powered sawmill in the Saginaw Valley was begun in 1834. It was built by Harvey Williams, a Detroit blacksmith who salvaged and rebuilt the engine from the first steam boat in Detroit, “Walk in the Water.”

Commercial lumbering starts

The commercial lumbering of Michigan began in the 1840s, when it was growing obvious to logging companies in Maine that they were coming to the end of their forests. Owners and investors started to visit Michigan, which was the next western area of the great pine belt. The land owned by the federal government was granted to Michigan. Once the state had properly surveyed it, land grant offices began selling off government land in “forties,” or 40-acre lots. Land sold for about $1.25 an acre in 1850.

These lumber companies, many located in New York, Boston or elsewhere on the East Coast, entered the business in several ways: either they bought up land and used their own crews, bought land and hired jobbers to harvest trees, or simply bought logs. Some land was acquired at cheaper rates by buying Military Benefit Warrants, good for 80 acres, from veterans of past wars. Some got land from swindling Indians. And some brought their entire crews over with them once they had established sawmills along the rivers.

Detroit multimillionaire David Whitney Jr. was just such an investor. Whitney made his millions in Massachusetts as a lumber baron. He moved to Detroit from Lowell, Mass. in 1857 to manage the operations of two East Coast firms, and continued to expand his lumber business into Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Whitney’s skill was in buying Michigan and Wisconsin pine lands, sometimes selling it for 100 times more than the original cost. When he died in 1900, Whitney was the wealthiest man in Detroit, with a fortune estimated at $15 million.

Whereas Muskegon served Chicago and the western prairie states, Detroit in the 1860s had five lumber yards and nine sawmills that delivered 40.5 million board feet of lumber to the growing city and on to the eastern states. Cut lumber came from St. Clair, Lapeer, Sanilac and Saginaw, towed by tug boat along the shore of Lake Huron, down the Black River and across Lake St. Clair. Over time Detroit’s role faded as more and more mills were built in the Saginaw Valley.

A walk in the wilderness

The first step for a lumber company interested in buying land was to send in “timber cruisers” to walk through the deep wilderness with surveying tools and grade the trees, rivers and overall landscape. They were generally honest but not always; sometimes they undervalued trees or identified land as “swamp land” only to buy it for themselves later. Timber cruisers were not paid with money but with a percentage of the land purchase; therefore, their land holdings were typically scattered throughout a region or the state and consequently difficult to harvest or even keep secure. They seldom made money.

Jobbers had logging crews and equipment. They were hired to get the trees down and cut into 16-foot logs, skid those logs to the riverbank, and then in the spring, float them down the river to the saw mills. They might be paid $4 per thousand logs, and they were paid when the logs were sawn into board feet – a very high-risk business because if they didn’t make it they got no money. Most of their operations were financed on credit. Sometimes crews walked off, winter weather got warm and stalled work or an accident occurred. However, those who made it pocketed a healthy wad of cash and usually bought land to start their own company.


This woods is so quiet

That if it weren’t for the buffer of trees

I could hear everything on earth.

From the book “Locations,” by Jim Harrison


The process of timbering began with a jobber or a lumber company sending out their most experienced man, armed with maps, compasses and descriptions of the sites, into the woods to locate their “forties” of trees. It was usually the summer before the start of the logging season; until 1875 logging was restricted to the winter months when the ground was frozen hard and wheels would not sink into the ground.

He would tromp through the primeval wilderness searching for the “blaze” or mark on the tree put there by the timber cruiser that indicated it was a corner of a “section.” From this corner the blazed lines went out at right angles in two directions, and an experienced man could then identify isolated forties, eighties, quarter sections and sections. But it was not easy as land went up and down, through valleys, wetlands or over hilltops. Skills with a compass were essential.

The foreman also had to locate the rivers and the best future road sites to haul out the logs to the nearest river branch. This also required a lot of experience walking around swamps and down steep inclines; he needed to determine whether a team of oxen or horses pulling sleds piled high with logs could make it without stumbling. As he picked his way through, he chopped small trees and marked others to be removed by his crew.

Next, a crew would be hired and a camp set up near the river. Time was urgent because they would need to cut roads into the wilderness 25 feet wide and without any obstacles or encumbrances such as roots, saplings or low-hanging limbs. Low spots would be built up with logs. All this was done by men called “swampers.” The main road typically needed to be five miles long into the timber. At the end of the main road would be a large square cleared for a “skidway” where logs would be loaded onto the huge logging sleds for their trip down the road to the river.

When they reached the first 40, the cutting teams might be instructed to cut every tree with a trunk diameter greater than eight inches and the trees had to fall in a specific direction to be cleaned and hauled out. In their times they were not called lumberjacks but “shanty boys.” While the shanty boys began their work, the swampers were busy clearing roots and rocks to produce narrow little roads from the pines to the skidway and the main road. They were called “travoy roads,” after the French “travois,” and needed to be very level and smooth. On these narrow paths in winter, horses would drag logs on chains or on small skids to the main road.

Until 1870, shanty boys cut the trees with a narrow bladed cutting ax, saving the crosscut saw for sawing trees into logs. Later, with technical improvements to the saws, the companies switched to the iconic two-man crosscut saw.

‘A kind of mental illness’


The sawing of trees took partnership to its maximum; men would compete, testing their strength, trying to outdo each other. The writer Norman MacLean, who worked as a lumberjack in Montana logging camps, described this relationship between sawing teams: “… A [lumberjack] could not remain a logger and be outworked. If I had to ask for mercy on the saw I might as well have packed my duffel bag and headed down the road. … Sawing it is something beautiful when you are working rhythmically together— at times, you forget what you are doing and get lost in abstractions of motion and power. But when sawing isn’t rhythmical, even for a short time, it becomes a kind of mental illness—maybe even something more disturbing than that. It is as if your heart isn’t working right. “

Sawing teams typically tried to saw 20 trees a day. Steel wedges were used to keep the tree from binding the saw and to direct the fall of the tree. When they neared the end of the trunk, one of the sawyers would yell, “Timber!”

Swampers and others stopped what they were doing and moved to safety. The sawyers using the side of their ax would hammer in a bigger wedge: a ring, ring of hammer strokes on the wedge until “Crack!” the sound of the tree echoed through the silent forest. The tree shivered and leaned ever so slightly, then began to fall – first slowly then with rushing violence that snapped limbs of other trees and finally smashing to the forest floor in a cloud of pine needles, twigs and dust. Large falling limbs the crews called “widow makers.”

Once things settled, the swampers moved in to cut the limbs and branches off the trunk, being careful not to gash the trunk and damage the wood. The chopped limbs and brush were simply left by the crews in the forests and were considered a reason for the horrific forest fires of 1871. The sawyers measured off 16 feet and sawed through the trunk to make logs. The logs were then hooked up with chains to an ox or horse.

Oxen were used until 1857, when an economic depression and the cost of hay forced companies to switch to horses, who ate less. The rock-steady oxen were preferred by loggers because horses could be jumpy and slip or cause log stacks to dislodge. French Canadians were frequently teamsters, the logistics experts who handled the teams of horses or oxen.

Maneuvering the logs

The skidder’s job was to stack up the logs on the huge sleigh through use of a pulley mechanism and parallel logs that acted like a ramp. A log was chained up, then hoisted up the side of the sleigh via horse power; the skidders carefully guiding the log onto a spot, then chained down tight using a “binder.”

A company man called a scaler made the rounds of the wagons to measure the logs and calculate the board feet of lumber for each one. Then, using a heavy hammer, the log was stamped on both ends with the logging company’s registered mark. Marks on logs acted like brands on cattle; these logs would be riding on the river with hundreds of thousands of others.

When the heavy sleigh was fully loaded, it headed down the road to bank the logs along the frozen river until spring thaw. Each night a crew drove a wagon with a dripping water tank down the road to keep it iced. Debris of all kinds, even horse manure, was removed from the iced road. On inclines, “sluicing teams” tied ropes to trees to ease the load gently and prevent the sled from running over the horses.

Ward Estate logging in Deward, Mich.

The David E. Ward Estate in the Deward area between Grayling and Gaylord, Mich., contained some of the largest white pines in the Lower Peninsula. The number 7,225 is the number of board feet that the load contained. A board foot (12″x12″x1″) was the standard measurement of lumber. (Hartwick Pines Logging Museum)

Needless to say the work was very dangerous. A 27-year-old teamster described the scene at a Michigan logging camp in 1885 to the Chicago Tribune:

“When we had a good load, I took the reins and sat down on the butts of logs, leaving the two loggers on behind…. The road was a sheet of ice for the sprinklers had run over it every morning and the horses were sharp-shod so we slid along smoothly until we got to the slide which was a pretty steep (de)cline ending in a curve which was mighty sharp. As soon as we began to descend my hair was standing on end for the horses galloped like fury to keep ahead of the bobs, which were slewing (swinging) all over the road. (The logging sled was divided in two parts called “bobs.” The bobs were linked by a pin and chains to improve the sled’s turning ability.)

“I got so paralyzed and nervous that when we approached the turn I reined in too suddenly. I felt the front bobs jump one way and the back bobs the other. The hind ends of the logs whistled through the air like willow switches, and I heard the loggers yell, ‘For God Sake! X&$2#!’ The next thing was a loud snap! snap! snap! Like three tremendous paper crackers as the big log chains broke like so many cotton threads….

“I was shot off into the air over and over and over where I struck in a snow bank 100 feet or more from the road. …later, I found the horses trying to kick loose from the few bits of harness that dangled about them. The bobs of the sled were wrapped around a small pine tree, and the logs scattered to the four winds. One logger crawled back with a fractured leg, the other with a dislocated shoulder…. They afterwards told me in camp these things were not at all unusual.”


The logging camp

Logging camps were located near rivers. They were temporary, used only for a year or two. In September, swampers, the blacksmith, camp carpenters and the camp cook cleared land and built the log shanties. Roofs were flat and tiled with overlapping boards. There were five buildings: the cook shanty; the bunk house for 100 sleeping men; a stable for about 20 teams of horses, with room for storing hay and oats; the blacksmith shop for the giant sled-building and tool repair; and a small building where the foreman and scaler had their office and slept. Provisions such as tobacco, clothing and boots were kept there as well.

In the early days the bunk house did not even have split log floors – only dirt. Inside walls were covered with tree bark and sealed tight with mud. They were heated with an un-vented, open fire in a floor pit, called a “camboose,” a word derived from the French Canadian for cooking fire. In the early days, cooking and bunking were all done in the same building. Since everyone smoked tobacco, the room was likely choked with smoke. Later temporary chimneys were built for the bunkhouse out of hollowed out logs. Much later enormous stoves were used for heat.

The shanty boys slept on bunks made of cedar posts. Mattresses were hay and the pillows were the grain sacks they used to carry their belongings. Bed bugs and lice were notorious. Lights were out at nine o’clock. No alcohol was allowed in camp and no gambling beyond betting the next supper’s dessert. But the shanty boys stayed generally happy, telling stories, listening to fiddling or a harmonica.

Grayling lumber camp

The lumber camp in the white pine at Grayling, circa 1890. (Detroit News Archives)

The cook may have been the most important person in the whole camp. The men were always ravenous. The cook and his helpers (the “cookees”) started at 3:30 a.m. and had breakfast on the table at 5 a.m., after which the men tramped out to the cutting sites in the dark. The cook called the men for meals with a long tin horn called a “Gabriel,” or hammered at a steel triangle.

Breakfast was typically fried potatoes, sowbelly, picked beef, sour-dough flapjacks, molasses, gravy, cookies and doughnuts washed down with tea or coffee. Men were not allowed to talk during meals to prevent quarrels and fights in the confined cook shanty.

Farmers, drifters and deserters

Many of the men were farmers or sons of farmers who came to the camps when work slowed during winter. In the Saginaw Valley in the winter of 1875, between 7000,-8,000 men were employed in the forests. Every lumber company had its share of drifters or “flying geese”; they would work for a week or two then disappear. Lumber companies considered them hoboes. Finding enough labor was a chronic problem for logging companies, so these men would move from camp to camp picking up jobs. They might quit because another camp had a warmer bunkhouse, tastier pie, or less exacting boss.

Some were army deserters or fugitives who, when the sheriff showed up at camp, hid out in the woods. The Civil War and later the Spanish American War in 1898 nearly caused a crisis in the industry, taking all the labor for soldiers. Forty-six percent of the workers were bachelors, contributing to the restlessness of the labor. Some were young teenagers. One logging baron boasted that he started his first job as a cookee at a lumber camp at age 11.

By the turn of the century, logging companies depended upon European immigrant labor. Some advertised in Europe for men and would cover their travel expenses if they worked for them. Every nationality was represented. One camp foreman interviewed in 1909 claimed he liked “Irish for bosses, the Germans, Finns and Swedes for hard work, but the men of southern nations, The French and Italians, were too light and erratic for heavy work, besides being too quarrelsome…” One employer complained about the Austrians and Montenegrins he had hired; they could not speak English, did not know how to log, and seemed intent on eating enough meat to make up for all they had missed in the old country.

Sundays the men washed their clothes in boiling tubs (or rather deloused them.) Some waited for the “sky pilot” – the preachers who traveled through the wilderness to reach the far-flung lumber camps. Many were former lumberjacks so understood the men and how to talk to them. They were unique characters; the most famous was Frank E. Higgens, who rode a tiny wagon pulled by two St. Bernard dogs through the north woods of Minnesota.

Another preacher from Kalamazoo, Jack McCall, walked 12 to 15 miles a day to reach a remote camp. The men loved music so he lugged a heavy wind-up phonograph to play religious records. Along with preaching to the men he brought books and magazines, wrote letters for men who couldn’t write, and talked to those boys who seemed troubled.


The river drive

In spring, the logging ceased and the shanty boys and the rest of the crew were paid off in camp orders drawn on the lumber company, payable at the company’s office in Saginaw. No money circulated in the camps.

But some turned in their axes for peavies. A peavy was a long pole with a “cant hook” — featuring a steel tip and a hinged hook to snag logs — which was used to guide and separate logs on the water. The men who rode the logs were called “river hogs.” To help walk on the floating logs they wore “calks” – boots with needle-sharp spikes. This work required the most skilled men and accordingly they were paid more (up to $3.50 per day), and still injuries were expected.

Hardwoods do not float, but white pine logs do. It was said you could walk 130 miles from log to log from Midland to Saginaw and never touch water or land.

“Hovey and McCracken have commenced their drive for the spring,” the Detroit Free Press reported in 1889. “They broke rollway (rolled stacks of logs into the river) last Saturday, thus getting start a month earlier than last season. They have about 10,000,000 logs to run and expect to hire about 120 to 150 on the drive.”


Tourists flock to watch

The river drive began with the rollway, which was so spectacular tourists traveled miles to watch the enormous stacks of logs thunder and crash into the river below. Some of these stacks were reported as high as 160 feet. It was also the single most dangerous aspect of logging.

The key to the river drive was the log marks. Each company had its own registered mark, hammered into both ends of the logs. While companies generally kept their logs together, other companies mingled in their logs as the rollways continued and the drive increased.

River hogs worked to “keep space” among the logs. When the river ran straight and deep you could relax but as it bended and turned, logs twisted, flipped and piled up. Some logs got hung up on the bank. These were moved off by “sackers” who walked along the river bank, pushing them off the shore.

They worked 12 hours a day in early spring and 16 hours a day in June. They brought only the clothes they wore and slept in the open air on the river bank in wet shoes and socks; it was believed that changing out of wet clothes gave you a cold.

To feed the men on the drive, “Wanigans” were built and floated at the rear of the drive. They were log rafts with small cabins and platforms. Here cooks using stoves secured on logs made breakfast, lunch and dinners, cruising along with everyone else. River hogs and sackers squeezed onto the Wanigan platform and ate, watching the scenery go by, or took their meals to the shore to eat. River hogs in the front of the drive were too far away to make it back, so their meals were carried out to them. Wanigans also served as company supply stores, repair shops and offices.


The booming grounds

As the logs neared the mills they reached the enormous gate boom that ran diagonally across the river to stop the drive, and guide the logs into a bottleneck where they could be sorted. The equipment was owned by a boom company that charged for handling the logs.

The first job was to sort the logs by log marks; this was not easy as there were 1,100 registered marks. Logs were poled along into the sorting gap by helpers. Two men stood on a platform: a Head Gap Sorter and an assistant Sorter who called out the mark: “A.T. Bliss—one!” “Hay—two! Tom Merrill—one!”

Once logs were identified, men guided the logs to established spaces, called “pocket booms,” dedicated to each mark. The boom company leased narrow strips of shoreline from farmers who owned the land along the river. Their men walked along the shore, pushing the logs into the pockets. Others then “rafted” the logs for transport by tug boats. Youngsters called “pin wackers” stood on the logs and pounded spikes in them which were used to tie logs into rafts; the floating logs wouldn’t support the weight of a full grown adult. A tug boat then towed trains of the rafts to each company’s mill. Boom companies charged 50 cents for a thousand logs. Things moved fast.


Twilight of the logging era

In 1890 there were 1,957 sawmills in Michigan thatcut some 4 1/2 billion board feet of lumber. Demand was insatiable. Railroads reached deeper into Michigan to haul logs that were too far from rivers. Innovations such as logging wheels allowed lumbering to extend its season without the need for hard, frozen ground. Invented in 1875 by Silas Overpack of Manistee, these pairs of enormous red wheels, 9 to 10 feet high, could drag logs beneath their axle. In 1919 the horse was replaced by the motor truck. But the returns were shrinking.

In 1875, Manistee carriage shop owner Silas Overpack invented the “big wheels” that enabled logging in all four seasons. The giant iron-rimmed wheels came in three sizes and could carry logs from 12 to 15 feet long beneath their axles. (Archives of Michigan)


Trees used for purposes other than building material, such as “pulp lumber” used to make paper, were likewise going fast: hemlock, beech, spruce, basswood and poplar. In 1916 the Detroit Free Press reported that it took 120 cords of pulp lumber, a pile 4feet high, 4 feet wide and 960 feet long, to make the paper needed for a single Sunday edition of its newspaper. The forests were harvested faster than anyone conceived possible and left a desert of stumps.

Much of the deforested lands made poor farmland as it was too acidic and sandy. By 1906 it was reported that one-fourth of the land was held by the state of Michigan for delinquent taxes. Land holders like the Cleveland Cliff Iron Co. held nearly a million acres of barren land.

However, a new degree in forestry was being promoted at the University of Michigan. Germany was leading the way in reforesting their “cut-over” pine lands and reporting revenues from new growth pines.

According to Professor Filbert Roth, who headed the new U-M Forestry Department, “As a profession forestry will compare favorably with law or medicine, that the care of our state and national forest reserves assures a good living, and a career of highest usefulness and interest… The studies include Spanish, French, German rhetoric, political economy, advanced algebra, analytic geometry, plain trigonometry, a year of electricity and mechanics, mineralogy, zoology, biology, botany, a year of inorganic chemistry, a systematic course in qualitative analysis, special studies in law, surgery, engineering, together with numerous courses in forestry.”

So the college-educated forester replaced the Michigan lumberjack of the past, as wistfully described by the Detroit Free Press in 1916: “The picturesque lumberjack, riding debonairly down a swollen stream astride a log during a spring drive, or tossing recalcitrant tree trunks about with the strength of a colossus and a sublime disregard for peril… has passed from the new order of things along with the one time cowboy of the western plains and other cherished institutions of our youth.”

According to Michigan State University, by 1897 more than 160 billion board feet was logged from Michigan forests. Logging continued in Michigan, mainly for hardwoods to turn into charcoal for smelting iron ore. Today, the forest has about 70 billion board feet of lumber.

The federal government formed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s to help the nation’s forests begin to recover from the intensive logging of the 1800s. Beginning in 1933, the Michigan CCC planted almost half a billion trees, built roads and stocked lakes with fish, among many other improvements to the forests.

From the turn of the century to the 1930s, land continued to be abandoned and returned to the government, which started to map out state and national forests. National parks and wildlife refuges also began during this time. Michigan now has 4 million acres in six state forests and 2.6 million acres in three national forests. Today there are approximately 1,000 timber producers — harvesters, truckers and brokers — in Michigan. Half of them are in the Upper Peninsula, and most employ one to five people. The forest industry in Michigan is worth more than $9 billion.

Some acres of the original old growth pines were preserved and can be visited at Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling, Michigan.