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January 25, 2018



WORKING MEN

BY MONA LEESON VANEK

From Behind These Mountains, Volume 1

The majority of men found woods work profitable. All along the banks of the Clark’s Fork River and the larger side streams feeding into it the lumberjacks swung heavy axes, pulled wide-toothed saws that chewed sawdust in steady rhythm. Strong, resourceful men who lived in tents or small cabins that contained no more than a bunk bed made of rough lumber upon which a bed roll could be placed; a rough plank table constructed of whatever materials were at hand; an enameled basin for washing up with water bucketed from a nearby stream. A coffee pot, cast iron griddle and skillets, pots, pans and a minimum of utensils; warm flannel and woolen clothing; sturdy leather boots caulked with steel pegs in their soles; kerosene lamps; only functional necessities rewarded their labors.

Most of them were men unencumbered by family ties. ‘Jacks’ were transient men working for whichever company owned the timber lands. They were a breed of men who moved on whenever brighter prospects beckoned or restlessness urged them.

Cedar poles, cedar shakes and shingle blocks, white pine logs and railroad ties were the most desired. Tie hackers hewed the trees on the ground to proper dimensions by standing alongside and slicing with a broad axe, using either a right hand or left hand axe, depending on how they swung. The entire length of the tree was hewed to dimension before it was cut into tie lengths. Any man who could slice with precision found ready work.

Each winter earthen dams were rebuilt on the Bull River to catch the melting snow water in the spring and raise the water level high enough to float shake blocks to the shingle mill at Smead’s spur on the Clark’s Fork River. All winter men spent backbreaking months in the occupation of felling enormous prime logs with crosscut saws; cutting them to log lengths, limbing, skidding them with teams of massive horses and sleighs with steel clad runners to big skidways on the river banks. Here they were branded on the end with each logger’s stamp, (a metal hammer with a brand raised on its surface).

Log chutes were used to utilize the pull of gravity to cut the log moving costs in getting them from the high mountains to the riverbanks and was constructed of native western larch, one of the most durable and tougher species available. Logs were often skidded onto rollways located near the top of the handmade log chute. If the logs didn’t move fast enough the camp cook sent out a bucket of bacon grease to speed things up a bit by painting the chute liberally with it.

Spring brought high water of melting snows and thawed the forest floor to morasses of mud that ended all felling and skidding for as long as three months. The log decks amassed on the river’s banks were rolled into the water. The dams were dynamited. Herds of logs sped down the miles of rushing waters until their momentum was spent. With three dams, located to float the timber by stages down the narrow Bull River canyon, millions of feet of cedar and white pine raced to meet the Clark’s Fork. The mouth of the Bull River became gorged with them solid enough to easily walk across the river on them.

There a log boom waited to check their wild ride, corralling them into the miles long drives which were then herded downstream, over the rapids, through the gorge and onto the sparkling waters of Lake Pend Oreille to the Hope Lumber Company, or to the Humbird Lumber Company, or to other mills in Idaho.

Brawny log drivers, dressed in caulked logger’s boots, pet-legged wool pants held up by wide elastic suspenders, a plaid wool shirt and a battered felt hat, were known as ‘river pigs’ or ‘hogs.’

As soon as the ice left the river each spring they arrived to take up the challenge of floating the logs to the sawmills downstream.

‘Pigs’ along the shoreline, with long pike poles kept the drive moving out into the current where more ‘pigs’ yelling and whooping would drive their cant hooks into the logs directing the bobbing sticks, many of which were at least three feet in diameter, away from rocks, jams, and calamities; all the while doing a daring dance across the heaving logs.

Boats (or bateaus) floated down stern first, with four oarsmen rowing against the current as hard as they could

Tremendous log jams formed. To release ‘wing’ and center jams, the ‘pigs’ roped down the boat to ride behind the plunging drive to see that every possible log got through.

The drives plunged headlong on high spring waters towards the Heron Rapids and the Cabinet Gorge. Many were splintered beyond use in dynamited jams necessary to get the remainder through to the waiting waters of Lake Pend Oreille. Sunken logs are visible below Cabinet Gorge yet when the river level drops low.

They’d ‘break’ the skidways along the Clark’s Fork, as well, in the spring, sending the winters accumulation of timber down river to the ‘sortin gap.’ That was where the logs were separated into individual booms after being deposited by the Clark’s Fork into Pend Oreille Lake. Here they were caught up by booms secured to deep sunk pilings near the mouth of the river. Each owner of logs in the drive had to pay per thousand board feet to take his logs through it before they could be taken in tow by tugboat to the sawmills in Idaho.

 

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