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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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Dolbeer steam donkey and Shay locomotive
change the face of logging

Named Two old Timers, this Bryn Leaf photo by Darius Kinsey was captioned in his own hand as following: "This old relic was one of the first three donkeys used in pioneer logging camps of Washington. It now has a place of honor in Anderson Hall at the University of Washington, where it may be seen by future generations." Can any of you tell us more about it?

John Dohlbeer
      As you will read in the April 1, 1884 issue of the Skagit News, the first steam donkey engine was used in Skagit logging camps that year. The year 1881 is generally declared the beginning of technological change in the logging industry. Up until then, men, oxen and horses carried the load. In that year, in Eureka, California, John Dolbeer applied for a patent for the steam donkey engine. Early loggers gave it that humble name because the original model looked too puny to be rated in horsepower.
      Back in 1864, Dolbeer, a very successful mill worker, became a partner with logger William Carson in a sawmill in Humboldt County. Together they built a logging empire called Dolbeer & Carson that was nearly as dominant as Pope & Talbot/Puget Mill Co. here in the Northwest. His donkey engine sat on heavy wooden skids. It was an upright wood-burning boiler with a stovepipe on top that was attached to a one-cylinder engine, which drove a revolving horizontal drive-shaft with capstan spools at each end for winding rope. Richard Wright, a Seattle author, described the process in the third book he wrote for the Time-Life series in 1975, The Loggers:

      Operating an early Dolbeer donkey required the services of three men, a boy and a horse. One man, the "choker-setter," attached the line to a log; an engineer or "donkey puncher," tended the steam engine; and a "spool tender" guided the whirring line over the spool with a short stick. (An occasional neophyte tried using his foot instead of a stick; when he was back from the hospital, he would use his new wooden leg instead.) The boy, called a whistle punk, manned a communicating wire running from the choker setter's position out among the logs to a steam whistle on the donkey engine. When the choker setter had secured the line running from the spool, the whistle punk tugged his whistle wire as a signal to the engineer that the log was ready to be hauled in. As soon as one log was in, or "yarded," it was detached from the line; then the horse hauled the line back from the donkey engine to the waiting choker setter and the next log.
      Dolbeer's donkey was actually patented in 1882. It evolved through even more labor-saving changes including a "haulback line" through a pulley attached to a stump that eventually put the horse out of business. By the turn of the century, donkeys were mounted on barges to herd raft of logs and "bull donkeys" lowered entire trains of log cars down steep inclines, all with the help of iron and then steel wire cable that replaced the original ropes. The article from 1884 is the first record of such a donkey engine that we found in the county.

Ephraim Shay
(Restored Shay)
To learn nearly everything there is to know about Shays, we refer you to Rick Henderson's comprehensive website It includes an amazing compendium of details about each surviving Shay engine, including the number assigned at the Lima factory, which company last used it and where it is located now — plus a map of them. There are even photos of the survivors. This locomotive above is the oldest known survivor, Lima 122, Big Rapids & Western 23 in Michigan. It dates from Aug. 21, 1887 and is standard. gauge; it has been restored.

      Also in the early 1880s, Ephraim Shay of Haring, Michigan, patented a locomotive that would become an important tool for logging companies that were faced with the challenge of transporting logs on steep hills that required switchbacks on hairpin curves. Like many other inventors, Shay started in another field. He was successively a schoolteacher, civil engineer, logger and merchant. Born on July 17, 1839 in Ohio, he taught there and in New Jersey and then served as a medical steward in the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, he married and farmed in Michigan and operating a steam-powered sawmill in the Sunfield Township, starting in the 1860s. When the timber tract was exhausted there, he moved his family to the Manistee River region of Michigan in 1873 — the same area where Karl Pressentin lived before moving to Birdsview, Washington. Shay set up a sawmill and general store in the new town of Haring.
      Shay estimated that obtaining timber represented only 17 percent of his actual cost, while as much as 73 percent was for transportation due to the extremes of weather, including maintenance of roads in the ice and snow. In 1875, he built a logging tramway out of wood rails spiked to a 26-inch gauge over a limited number of cross ties. He loaded logs onto a platform over a pair of trucks and horses pulled the contraption to his mill. But on downgrades, the momentum of the cars propelled them over the poor horses, killing or injuring them. He explained the impetus for his locomotive later in life:

      In 1873 I owned and operated a sawmill at Haring, Michigan. Business was dull and prices barely paid expenses. I was compelled to reduce cost or quit. Logging cost $3.50 per thousand from stump to mill, using horses and logging wheels, the best known plan at that time. I built a tramway using maple for rails, procured a double-truck car, and tried the plan out; resulting in reducing cost of logging to 1.25 per thousand, but the cars would catch the horses on the downgrade sometimes and kill them. Brakes were impractical. Logs run from 12 feet to 75 feet in the same bill sometimes, and trucks had to be separated to suit the load. We usually let the cars run down alone.
      Starting in 1876, Shay began designing a series of simple, steam-driven locomotives, based on a similar two-cylinder prototype built by William Crippen in Cadillac, Michigan. Shay's model, as explained by the National Railway Historical Society, "was a flatcar with a boiler mounted on it. Smaller wheels and flexible railway trucks beneath the body allowed this locomotive to maneuver better on the tracks. But the biggest change away from the standard locomotive was rather than two horizontal cylinders up front, Shay used two or three vertical cylinders located just ahead of the cab. To make room for these cylinders, the boiler was moved from the center of the body to about 15 inches left of center. Crank shafts connected these cylinders to a flexible drive shaft. These improvements created a locomotive that delivered equal torque directly to wheels on both sides of the engines at the same time. This allowed a more stable environment in which trucks could move independently and therefore had very little difficulty following poorly constructed roadbeds."
(Ephraim Shay)
Ephraim Shay, 1880

      In 1879, Shay contacted Lima Machine Works in Lima, Ohio, and delivered a locomotive that had a rear truck was powered through a series of gears. Machinist John Carnes designed a marketable version and in 1881, Shay patented a steam locomotive for metal rails that was driven by gears. That "Carnes design" locomotive soon found a home on steep, winding grades in forests, immediately recognizable because of the gear-housing on the right side. Lima produced 2,770 of the Shay models, but not directly for Shay. He bought 64 shares of stock and received royalties on at least the first 400 sales, and stock dividends, for 16 years. He was also affiliated with Michigan Iron Works, of Cadillac, Michigan, which manufactured a different design that would become known as the "Henderson Shay". That design actually proved to be more powerful than the Lima Shay and set a record of hauling 47 fully loaded log cars with 393 logs to a Michigan sawmill. As with Lima, Shay advertised and promoted Shay Patent Locomotives for both companies, but Michigan Iron Works went bankrupt in 1883 and Henderson transferred over to Lima. Shay sold all his Lima stock in 1901 and severed all links with the company.
      The Shay was most important because it could easily run on crude, rough track, negotiate sharp curves and climb steep grades. The Shay locomotives remained in use even after the diesel version replaced steam locomotives. Old timers recall the chatter sound of the engine and noted that, while it sounded like it was going very fast, it actually moved at little more than a walking speed. This was due to the unique gear reduction principle they employed, with the gearing ratio being 4:1 to 6:1.
      Shay's maple-rail trains had been used by William Gage in the Mount Vernon-Riverside area and Millett and McKay in Burlington on the Gardner road. Note that Shay voluntarily gave up the profits on his invention after the initial $10,000 royalties and Dolbeer became a wealthy man. Our logging section website is very popular, with a number of stories, and we especially suggest that you read about William Entwistle, who began logging at age 12 in 1876.
            Some rail observers have pointed out that the Shay was the most common geared locomotive, it had flaw that Lima never corrected. Since the drive shaft was positioned outside the trucks — as opposed to in the center — when the truck rotated while following curved tracks, that motion caused drive line-length change. Both the Heisler Climax locomotives had central drive shafts and therefore avoided that problem. When looking at photos of train wrecks showing Shay locomotives before or after uphill curves, modern rail historians have noted that the official diagnosis was that the Shays ran off the track for no apparent reason, when the drive-shaft position often provides the reason.
            A researcher who compiled statistics for Wikipedia noted that 2768 Shay locomotives were built by Lima in four classes, from 6 to 160 tons, between 1878 and 1945. Four Shays were built left handed, all special ordered for the Sr. Octaviano B. Cabrera Co., San Luis de la Paz, Mexico. Only 115 Shays survived through 2007, including some that combined of parts of two Shays. The oldest surviving Shay, Number 122, built in 1884, is currently displayed at the Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. The last Shay, Number 3354, built in 1945, still operates on the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in West Virginia.

Click on these thumbnails for full-sized photos
(Portland Shay)
(Shay one)
(Skagit River donkey engine)
Far left: Just as with ships, locomotives are named for women and this survivor is named Peggy. Peggy was built at Lima in 1909 she hauled an estimated billion feet of logs in her lifetime. She was shipped around Cape Horn to Seattle, and employed in the forests of Washington, originally by Hofius Steel & Equipment Co., and then in Oregon. Last owned by Stimson Lumber Co., she survived the Tillamook Burn and was retired from logging in 1950. The City of Portland then put it in storage and it was moved to the nearby World Forestry Center in 1972. Read all about her and more history of Shays here..
Center: This is another of Henderson's survivors, Lima 911, now at the Northwest Railway Museum, Snoqualmie, and the original owner was S. A. Agnew Lumber Co., of Centralia.
Right: This version of the Dolbeer-style donkey was photographed at a landing on the Skagit River in 1899 by famed Sedro-Woolley photographer Darius Kinsey. It is courtesy of Dave Bohn and Rodolfo Petschek's fine book, Kinsey Photographer, published in 1982 and widely available in fine used-bookstores.

(Thompson book)
Thompson book

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Story posted on Jan. 1, 2003, last updated on April 23, 2006, and May 23, 2008
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This article originally appeared in Issue 18 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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