How were trees transported to sawmills years ago?

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The western expansion and industrial revolution that occurred in the U.S. during the 19th century required billions of board feet of lumber. Trees were thick in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, around the Great Lakes, in New England, and in the pine woods of the South, but how to get the heavy logs from the wooded hillsides to the sawmills?

In the early days, logging was limited to the banks along rivers and large streams. Trees were felled, trimmed of branches and cut into saw logs, all by hand. Oxen dragged these logs to the river edge where, during the winter, large piles, or “cold decks,” of logs were assembled to await the spring floods

With these floods, the logs were started on a wild ride downstream to the mill. Men rode these heaving, twisting logs to keep them moving and to try to prevent jams.

In the Northwest, close to the Pacific, the logs were assembled into huge ocean-going rafts, held together by chains, and towed to coastal sawmills by tugs.

Further from water

In time, the loggers ran out of trees handy to rivers. Also, not all logs could be floated to the mills. Poplar quickly became waterlogged and sank, while most hardwoods wouldn’t float at all

In the northern woods, with their cold winters, logs were moved along iced roads on horse drawn sleds. The route for an iced road was carefully selected so it was level or slightly downhill all the way from the woods to the yard where the cold decks were built.

Preparing the road usually began in the fall before the first snow. The route was smoothed and packed with a heavy log drag. A special plow, called a rutter, was then pulled along the road to make the two ruts in which the sled runners traveled.

A sled hauling a wooden tank, warmed by a stove to prevent freezing, was used to sprinkle water in these ruts. This sprinkling was usually done at night in zero weather, and repeated applications resulted in a thick layer of ice in each rut.

The ice, as well as the grade of the road, reduced friction to the extent that huge sled-loads of logs could be moved easily with a minimum of horsepower.

Steeper hills

Of course, not all the downgrades were slight and the steeper hills created problems for the teams. Hay or straw was spread on the ice in these places but still, every year, hundreds of horses were killed or injured by runaway sleds. The team could gallop only so fast in trying to stay ahead of the heavy load and, while the teamster could jump, the horses had nowhere to go

In the forests of the Northwest and South, where it didn’t get cold enough for iced roads, horse drawn log movers with wheels were developed. Logging wagons were used in some areas.

Similar to farm wagons, these vehicles were heavier and had longer reaches. Built in four-, six- and eight- wheeled models, the Western versions usually had heavy solid, rather than spoke, wheels.

Wagons were difficult to load, requiring either the logs be cross-hauled up onto the wagon, or else lifted on by a steam or horse-powered crane, or “jammer.”

Carts

Widely used two-wheeled carts were easier to load and were known by different names, depending on how the logs were carried.

If the load was carried on top of the cart axle, the device was called a “bummer.” Carts that carried their loads suspended beneath the axle, were known as “high” or “big” wheels.

Bummers usually had low spoke wheels and carried the weight of only one end of a load while the other end dragged behind.

Some models were self-loading, using the tongue as a lever to lift the log end onto the axle. The high and big wheels had giant spoke wheels of 10- to 12-feet in diameter, allowing the cart to straddle large logs.

Loading

Two different types were used, stiff tongue and slip tongue, both of which used leverage to lift the load. To load a stiff tongue, the wheels were backed so as to straddle the load of logs. The team was unhitched and the tongue was pulled up to a vertical position, rotating the square axle rearward.

Chains were passed under the load and hooked to cast iron “gypsy” blocks on top of the axle. A chain had been left attached to the tongue which the team used to pull the tongue down to horizontal.

As the axle rotated forward, the load chains moved around the eccentric gypsy blocks and lifted the load off the ground. The tongue was held down while the team was hitched up and away they went.

Slip tongue

The slip tongue version had a long hardwood tongue that could slide horizontally in a socket on the cart axle. A long vertical lever operated a rotating drum at its bottom end while its top end was connected to a point on the forward end of the tongue by a chain or cable.

As the cart was backed over a load, the tongue slid to the rear, allowing the lever to rotate the drum rearward. Load chains were passed under the load and looped over the drum. As the team was driven forward, the tongue also slid forward and pulled the lever upright.

This turned the drum, tightened the load chains and lifted the load.

Slip-tongue big wheels could haul heavier loads due to their enhanced lifting power, as well as negotiate steeper downgrades. Stiff tongue carts had no brakes and teams often had to gallop to keep ahead of the load.

Out of control big wheels sometimes crashed killing or maiming horses and drivers. Slip tongue carts on the other hand, had a built-in braking system. As the load overtook the team on a downgrade, the tongue slipped rearward, lowering the lever and letting the logs drag on the ground, slowing the rig.

Even these innovative methods of moving logs proved too labor intensive as the 20th century dawned. The stage was set for someone to successfully mechanize the operation.

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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