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Western logging in the early days,
from 1876 onwards

By William Entwistle
"I logged from age 12 in 1876"
(Slash burning a log pile)
In the early days when cedar and some other timber glutted the market, loggers disposed of the trees — that were in their way, with a "slashburn" pile
      Stories of the early days of logging in Maine have been told and re-told, but comparatively little has been written of early logging in our Pacific Northwest. Since 1876, when at the manly age of twelve I was greaser boy on a skid road, I have been closely associated with logging in northwestern Washington. I have seen many changes and know many tales of the old rough and ready days when this country was logger's paradise, un-recognized and unappreciated until it was too late.

Journal ed. note: This article was preserved by the late Harry Osborne, the famous forestry man who has a park named for him in Sedro-Woolley and Redmond. This essay on the very earliest logging days in Washington from the 1870s on was supplied by Harry's daughter, Betty Osborne Hittson, and her late husband Cecil Hittson, who swung an axe or two himself. We have found several mining claims by Mr. Entwistle and his family but very little else. We know that he became one of the key figures in early forest-fire prevention. Can you help us describe the man or comment on his essay? Please email if you can.

      All along the edges of the rivers, the lakes and the Sound stood trees such as one seldom sees today, waiting to be felled directly into the water. The Skagit Valley was a vast flat plain covered with heavy timber — an ideal spot for logging with bull teams. But as is usually the case in this world, plenty made for cheapness, and timber had very little value. Usually it sold at ten cents a thousand. Twenty-rive cents a thousand was a big price, and 160 acres of standard growth never would sell at over $4000. Compare this with around $25,000 for 160 acres of timber situated high in the hills, a not unusual price today, and the tremendous change becomes apparent.
      During the twenty years from 1860 to 1880, most of the logging here was done either with teams of cattle, or by hand. Bull teams were usually made up of five to seven yoke of cattle. I once saw a team of sixteen yoke that took two bull punchers to handle it. The loads of logs — they were called "turns" — consisted of five or six logs, depending on their size. The logs were double-dogged, two chains for each coupling. On the front of the turn was a crotch chain, with a dog on each side of the log, and a tongue or pole dogged to the end of the logs. This was hooked in the ring of the hind yoke of cattle, which held back the logs when they slid too fast and threatened to run down the bulls in front.

(A bucker of big logs)
      A big-log bucker in the very early days, with his tools of the trade, a "misery whip" saw and a very sharp ax.

(Stumps after floods)
Stumps were left in place in the early days, creating what settlers called "stump ranches." Usually, a crew would return to yank them out, first with horse and back-power, then with capstans and stump pullers, and occasionally with the aid of dynamite. This stack was left after the very nasty flood of 1909.
      The first loggers to use cattle tried to haul the turns on the ground, but finding this would not work, put in skids. Skids were made or twelve to sixteen-foot logs averaging about eighteen inches in diameter and laid about nine feet apart. The greaser boy's job was to keep the skids well greased so that the loads would move along easily. Greasing was done with pure dogfish oil, loud smelling but effective. On the hills, the greaser boy stood always ready with sand and shovel, and at a shout from the bull puncher would sand the skids to keep the logs from running away and killing the cattle.
      Once a turn, was made up, it was no easy job to set it in motion. Usually a stanchion or stick about 3 1/2 feet long and five inches in diameter was set under one side of the crotch line and acted as a roller to help start the turn. The turns were hauled in side by side onto the landings, which were long and wide enough to hold a whole day's logging. After supper it was the men's job to roll the landing.
      Logging with cattle, of course, took a crew of men, but one man alone could hand log. A hand logger went along the water's edge, felling trees directly into the rivers or the sound. Sometimes he would steal logs from other loggers, saw the branded ends off and substitute his own brand. This was called log pirating.

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      The men to be remembered, however, were not the log pirates, but the tough, hard men who were the crews in the early logging camps. Most of the bull punchers came from Maine where they had had good training. Other loggers came from Maine, Canada, Wisconsin and other eastern lumbering countries. After 1875 our western boys grew up into as fine a crop of loggers as could be found in the whole country. The logging camp was usually a log building with a smokestack in the center. Every man would carry in a piece of bark for the fire. Pay was board and forty to sixty dollars a month for long hours and no overtime. But logging was their line and they did not measure their work in hours.
      The tools the men used seem unbelievably crude now, but even when I was a boy the old ways were rapidly changing. For instance, the first double-bitted axe I ever saw was in 1876. They were considered dangerous and every one was afraid of them. A chopper usually used two single-bitted axes, one for bark and one nor the rest on the tree. Choppers went from two to three boards up on a tree to get above the swell. Trees were chopped down until about 1882. The first man sawing a tree that I remember seeing had a spring pole on the other end on his saw instead of another man. When it got too slack he would wind a string around the pole to take up the slack.

(Loggers stood on springboards to saw trees)
Springboards were wedged into cuts in the bark above where the gummy resin or pitch thwarted axe and saw cuts Photo by Darius Kinsey

      Buckers used old pole axes for wedges, driving them with a wooden maul. Finally some one thought on using steel wedges, but the first ones were so thick the wooden maul bounced on them. Then some one thought of using a sledgehammer he nearly caused a fight for being so radical, but the sledges worked, and by about 1881 the steel wedges and sledges had come to stay. Then sledges were used to drive the dog hooks into the logs. Hook tenders' equipment consisted of a 2-inch rope — there was no wire line — on two wooden, ironbound blocks. On each end of the rope was a steel hook that hooked into the dogs. The dogs were connected by heavy chains about six feet long. In those days there were no jackscrews and no peaveys, but only huge cant hooks that took two men to lift.
      Booming was as difficult and uncertain as were the other processes of logging. Logs were put in a round boom with six sixty-four foot sticks. The booms would be run down the rivers and sawed at tide water. Sometimes the boom would break and the logs scatter all over the Sound. I saw logs at Priest Point sell for $4.00 per thousand. Timber seemed to be everywhere. The rivers were covered with shingle makers. Split and shaved timber didn't cost anything, and all shingles were shaved in the early days. Along the banks were piled stacks of four-foot cords of wood for the steamboats to burn.
      After about 1895 things changed rapidly. Railroads came, and horses took the place of the slower cattle. Then came the little donkey engines, probably the real beginnings of modern logging. The first donkey I ever saw was one with a 3/4-inch line used to pull logs up a hill on a skid road. From the early donkeys to modern logging is a process covering little over fifty years, but the changes are those of from one era to another.

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Story posted on Story posted on Oct. 28, 2001, Last updated Dec. 15, 2008; moved to this domain April 16, 2011
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This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine, updated in Issue 45

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