The logging industry in Wisconsin lasted nearly 62 years after it had exhausted nearly all of the White and Norwegian Pines trees of northern half of Wisconsin. The industry left behind a legacy of abundant prosperity and ecological devastation. This once important industry propelled the state of Wisconsin forward as serious economic lumber hub in the Midwest.
In the 1840s, loggers and other businessmen recognized the possibilities and profit there was to be made in logging the vast pineries of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula. These men, usually from the New England area, made their way out to Wisconsin and established some of the first logging camps and mills. These early camps and mills were often very small and had low output. In the early years of the industry, the importance of a good river was to serve as a highway to get the logs from camp to mill and to power the lumber mills using a water wheel to run equipment.
The post Civil War years brought great changes to the logging industry. Technology was transforming the way pine was extracted changed rapidly. The once small mills driven by waterwheel adopted the steam engine that was for more powerful and increased productivity. The demand for finished products was rising as settlers moved out to the treeless plains. Wisconsin lumber made its way to these settlers to build homes, barns and other buildings and provide other consumer goods. Railroads were being laid at an incredible rate, and lumber for railroad ties was a key component to its expansion.
Wisconsin was divided up into 7 logging districts. These districts utilized a major river that served as the log highway for transporting logs to mills. These 7 districts were: The Wolf River, Menominee River, Black River, Wisconsin River, Chippewa River, St Croix River, and Lake Superior Districts. The Wolf River District was one of the first in the state and had a historical impact on the city I currently call home.
I attend college in Oshkosh, which was a major lumber city in its day in the Wolf River District. Remnants of the prominent Paine Lumber Company still exist today along the Fox River near the university. Logs were floated down the Wolf River and then made their way into the Fox River before reaching the lumber mills in Oshkosh. The logs would be processed at some 47 mills in the city and made into everything from doors and sashes to shingles and lumber.
As technology improved and railroads crisscrossed the country, the logging industry found a niche in Wisconsin life. It was a very profitable venture that brought wealth into the state. Logging would be Wisconsin’s largest employer for a number of years until industrialization in Milwaukee took off. By the turn of the century the pineries were becoming exhausted and logging was shifting to the Pacific Northwest.
Working in the logging camps was done during the winter months. The frozen ground was easier for moving the heavy payload without getting stuck. The logs would be piled by the river banks until spring when they would be pushed in the river and transported to the mills. The men that worked in the camps consisted mostly of farmers who sought out extra money during the lull of winter. It was good seasonal work for these men that put extra money in their family’s pocket.
The men who worked in the logging camps faced danger every day. There was danger from the cutting of the trees to transporting them. An Axe man could be killed if a tree kicked back or fell in the wrong direction. Teamsters hauling the logs out of the woods to the rivers or railroads could be crushed to death if chains broke that held the logs together during transport. Drivers or River Rats, the men who saw the logs down the rivers to the mills, were in charge of breaking up jams on the rivers and keeping the logs moving, one slip and they would be trapped or crushed under the logs and drown.
Working in the camps was not an easy job and was not always the best paying job for the work these men did. However, they were the men that were a key component that made this industry prosperous in Wisconsin. They created the camp life, song, and jargon that we associated with the lumberjack today.
Some positions in a logging camp
Axe men: Felled Trees
Markers: Mark the trees for felling
Trimmers: Trimmed branches and other undesirable debris
Sawyers: Cut the large trunks into logs
Teamsters: Hauled logs to river banks or railcar
Drivers (River Rats): Guided logs down the river
By the 1880s the industry began its decline. The pineries of Wisconsin, once thought unlimited, began to disappear because of rapid logging. An area known as the cut over district began to emerge. It was a land littered with dead tree debris and stumps of the once thick pine forests. Alarmed by the rapid logging rate Wisconsin lawmakers established a Forrest Commission in 1903 to oversee conservation and reforestation measures. By 1910, the chapter of the Wisconsin logging industry was closed.
After many years of cutting trees, the devastation became apparent. It’s estimated that around 130 billion board feet of trees were harvested, but only half ever made it to mills and made into finished products. There was an attempt to turn the cut over district into farmland, but the soil and economic factors worked against the farmers. Instead there were projects to replant and reforest the cut over district. Once again the northern part of Wisconsin is returned back, although not as it was before, to forest land.
The great Wisconsin pineries left behind a legacy of barren land and ecological devastation that only recently has been restored. However, it also created jobs, built up an industry, and created a cultural image of the lumberjacks of the North Woods. It really has had a significant historical impact on the state of Wisconsin.