Skip to main content

Chapter 3 - Evolution of the Lumber Industry

The facts given in this chapter were obtained from an article entitled "A History of the Logging Industry in the state of New York," by Wm. F. Fox, Superintendent of Forests in that state, and a collaborator of the Bureau of Forestry. This article was published in 1902 as Bulletin 34 by the US Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Forestry.


Up to the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, science and invention had made slow progress in the lumber industry. The methods and tools employed had changed but little from those used for centuries in Europe. The same was true of all other industries. About this time occurred one of the most important events in human history; an event of tremendous and far-reaching consequences, which has revolutionized industry in all countries: The invention of the steam engine.

In 1782 James Watt patented the double-acting steam engine in England.

In 1804, in Wales, the first locomotive ever run on rails was built by Richard Trevithich.

The same year Col. John Stevens constructed a boat on the Hudson, driven by a Watt engine and having a tubular boiler of his own invention and a twin screw propeller.

The same year Oliver Evans used a steam paddle-wheel boat on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers.

In 1807 Robert Fulton built the "Clermont" and permanently established steam navigation on the Hudson River between New York and Albany.

In 1811 the "Orleans," of one hundred tons, the first steamboat on the Mississippi, was built at Pittsburgh by Fulton and Livingston. She had a stern wheel and went from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in fourteen days.

By 1830 there were eighty-six steamers on the Hudson River and Long Island Sound, in addition to a large number on the Great Lakes and in the Western waters.

The first steamboat to cross the Atlantic was the American steamer "Savannah," three hundred and eighty tons, in 1819.

In 1826 the first railroad in the United States was built near Quincy, Mass.

It was inevitable that all these events should have a tremendous influence on the lumber industry. By aiding in the development of the country they caused an increased demand for lumber. By demonstrating the practicability of steam as a motive power they hastened its application in the lumber industry.

Soon after the invention of the steam engine, steam began to come into general use as a motive power. In the sawmills it gradually displaced wind power and, to a great extent, water power. But it was not until long afterwards that it came into use in logging or even, to any great extent, in transporting logs from forest to mill. In the Eastern States, at that time the principal field of logging operations, most of the forests were within reasonable distance of creeks and rivers. The cold winters and heavy snow-fall furnished good sleigh roads over which the logs were hauled to the streams, to be driven to the mills during the spring freshets. In the early days of logging in the Lake States, methods were practically the same. Creeks and rivers carried the logs from forest to mill. But with the logging off of the timber nearest the streams the lengthening of the sleigh haul, and the increasing demand for lumber caused by the rapid development of the country, other and more efficient means of transportation became necessary. The building of the railroads supplied this need.

The Pacific Railway, the first of the half dozen transcontinental railroads, was completed in 1869, and by that time the Eastern States were fairly well grid-ironed with railroads.

The successful use of steel-rail logging roads began in 1876, when Scott Gerrish, a logger in Southern Michigan, built a railroad for transporting logs from Lake George to the Muskegon River, down which they were driven to the mill. The number of logging roads increased rapidly, and in 1881 there were seventy-one in operation in Michigan, and five in Wisconsin. In 1910 there were approximately two thousand logging railroads with about 30,000 miles of track in operation in the United States.

The logging railroad was a great advance over previous methods. Although transporting logs by rail cost more than by water, it was far more reliable. It was not dependent on weather conditions, and it enabled many mills to run all the year around, instead of being shut down half the year for want of logs. Much timber that could not be profitably logged by the old methods, being too far from a drivable stream, was now made easily accessible.

Further application of steam power to logging soon followed the logging railroad. One of the most successful power loaders was put on the market in 1885, and since that time many forms have been brought out which differ in the manner of locomotion, character of booms and other details, to meet special requirements.

Steam skidding was introduced about the same time as steam loading. The first patent on power skidding machinery in the United States was granted on November 13, 1883, to Horace Butters of Ludington, Michigan, and covered an overhead cableway designed to get logs out of "pot-holes" and swampy places in the white pine forests. Perceiving the possibility of using a machine of this type in the cypress forests of North Carolina, the inventor built some machines which were mounted on scows and floated in the bayous and sloughs. They did not completely solve the loggers' problem, as they were limited in range from seven hundred to eight hundred feet, and consequently could reach only a small part of the timber. In 1889 William Baptist put a ground system in operation in a Louisiana swamp. It consisted of two large drums and an engine and boiler mounted on a scow from which an endless cable passed out into the forest for a distance of one-half mile. This later developed into the modern "slack rope" system now used on pull boats.

A third method, called the "snaking system," was a later development in the pine forests of the South.

Since that time many improvements have been made and many new devices adopted in power skidding.

In the Eastern States most of the timber is now cut out, and four-fifths of the timber of the Lake States is gone. In these regions practically all the skidding is done by horse power, and for obvious reasons, it is not likely that steam skidding will ever be introduced to any great extent. The great bulk of the logging in this country is now carried on in the South, the Rocky Mountain and the Pacific Coast States.

In the South the logging railroad is in general use, the rivers in that part of the country not being suitable for log-driving. In some places the skidding is done by horses, mules or oxen, in others by steam. Most of the loading is done by steam.

In the Rocky Mountain Region and in the Cascades there are still a few river drives, but by far the greater part of the logging is done by railroad. Skidding is done both by horse and steam power. Practically all loading is done by steam.

In some places, principally in the South, specially constructed wagons are used for hauling logs. The pole road and the stringer road are still in use in a few localities, but they are not common, for they cannot compete with the steam logging road in efficiency. In mountainous sections the log-chute is in common use. In some parts of the West logs are transported by flume. In some parts of the Louisiana swamps logs are made into rafts and floated out during the wet season. For falling trees and cutting logs the axe is no longer used except for undercutting. This work is now done with cross-cut saws.

In the Pacific Coast States, where the timber grows to a great size, power logging has reached its highest development and, in large operations, is used exclusively. It has entirely replaced the picturesque, many-yoked ox-teams of earlier days. The size and power of the donkey-engines used in moving the logs are being gradually increased. The latest improvements on a large scale are the overhead cableway and high lead. Many different systems and devices are used for skidding and loading. Among the most efficient of these is the Duplex loading donkey. Big timber logging is highly specialized throughout. The principal species in Oregon and Washington is the Douglas fir, and in California the redwood, some specimens of which are the largest trees in the world. About one-half of the entire remaining timber of the country is in these three States. On account of the size of the timber and the outlook for the future, the new science of logging engineering is being more rapidly developed on the Pacific Coast than in any other section of the United States. In this section the logs are cut the full length of a flatcar, on account of which it is known as the long log country.

The Sawmill

In the sawmill even greater changes have taken place than in logging. The saw has been the great pioneer in wood-working machinery. It is said this tool was first invented by an ancient Greek. Having found the jaw-bone of a snake, he employed it to cut through a small piece of wood. By this means he was Induced to form a like instrument of iron, that is, to make a saw. The circular saw was the type most commonly used in the Nineteenth Century. It was invented by an Englishman named Miller in 1777. It was not until the Nineteenth Century, however, that it was generally applied, and its great work belongs to that period. The first insertable teeth for this saw were invented by W. Kendal, an American, in 1826.

The first type of saw to which mechanical power was applied was the old-fashioned "gate saw", also known as the frame or sash saw. The first improvement on this was known as the "muley" saw. To increase the efficiency of these saws they were arranged in gangs so as to make a number of cuts at one pass of the log. This style was especially used in Europe, but on the up stroke there was no work done, and hence half the time was lost. This and other difficulties led finally to the adoption of the circular type whose continuous cut and high speed saved much time and greatly increased the output.

Mounted on a portable frame this machine was put to its great work upon the logs of the American forests, and for many years this type of sawmill held sway. An enormous amount of work was done through its agency. Among its useful accessories were the set works for adjusting the log-holding knees to the position for a new cut; log turners for rotating the log to change the plane of the cut; and the rack and pinion feed by which the saw carriage was run back and forth. Next came the rope feed, by means of which the carriage was drawn back and forth by a rope wrapped around a drum.

The greatest advance in sawmills in recent years has been the steam feed, in which a very long steam cylinder was provided with a piston whose long rod was directly attached to the saw carriage, and the latter moved back and forth with the stroke of the piston. This was also known as the shotgun feed, from the resemblance of the long cylinder to a gun barrel. It was invented by De Witt C. Prescott in 1887. The value of the steam feed was to increase the speed and efficiency of the saw by expediting the movement of its carriage, as many as six boards per minute being cut by its aid from a log of average length. With the modern development of the art, the ease and rapidity of steam action have recommended it for use in most all of the work of the sawmill. The direct application of steam pistons working in cylinder has been utilized for canting, kicking, flipping and rolling the logs, lifting the stack, taking away the boards, etc.

The bandsaw is an endless belt of steel, having teeth formed along one edge and traveling continuously around an upper and lower pulley, with its toothed edge presented to the timber to be cut. A form of bandsaw is found as early as 1808, in a British patent. In 1834 a French patent for a bandsaw was granted to a man named Etiennot. The first United States patent for a bandsaw was granted to B. Barker in 1836. But the bandsaw did not attain its prominence in wood-working machinery until the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century. That it did not find general application at an earlier period was due to the difficulty of securely and accurately joining the ends of the band. For many years the only moderately successful bandsaws were made in France, but expert mechanical skill has so mastered the problem that in recent years the bandsaw has gone to the very front in woodworking machinery. Today it is in service in sizes from a delicate filament used for scroll sawing, to an enormous steel belt fifty feet long, and twelve inches wide, traveling over pulleys eight feet in diameter, making five hundred revolutions per minute and tearing its way through logs much too large for any circular saw, at the rate of nearly two miles a minute. A modern form of bandsaw with teeth on both its edges cuts in both directions, thus requiring no off-setting mechanism.

Other improvements in sawmill machinery are the endless chain for bringing the logs into the mill, and mechanical carriers for lumber and refuse. In addition to these there are the shingle, lath, and slab saws which, using up inferior material, reduce the amount of waste.

Sawmill plants vary greatly in size and output, from the portable plants with a capacity of from five thousand to ten thousand feet B. M. per day, to the immense stationary plants, characteristic of the Lake States, the Southern Pine Region, and the Pacific Northwest, with a capacity of 150,000 to 500,000 per single shift. Portable mills and many of the small stationary mills are still equipped with circular saws.

Planing Machines

While the saw plays the initial part in shaping the logs into lumber, it is to the planing machine that the refinement of woodworking is due. Its rapidly revolving cutter-head reduces the uneven thickness of the lumber to an exact gauge, and simultaneously imparts the fine smooth surface. The planing machine is organized in different shapes for different uses. When the cutters are straight and arranged horizontally, it is a simple planer. When the cutters are short and arranged to work on the edge of the board, they are known as edgers; when the edges are cut into tongues and grooves, it is called a matching machine; and when the cutters have a curved ornamental contour the planer is known as a moulding machine, and is used for cutting the ornamental contour for house trimmings and various ornamental uses.

The planing machine was one of the many wood-working devices invented by General Bentham. His first machine, patented in England in 1791, was a reciprocating machine, that is, it worked back and forth on the boards to be planed. But in 1793 he patented the rotary form, along with a great variety of other wood-working machinery.

Bramah's planer, patented in England in 1802, was about the first planing machine of the Nineteenth Century. It is known as a transverse planer, the cutters being on the lower surface of a horizontal disc, which is fixed to a vertical revolving shaft, and overhangs the board passing beneath it, the cutters revolving in a plane parallel with the upper surface of the board. The planing machine of Muis, of Glasgow, patented in 1827, was designed for making boards for flooring, and presented a considerable advance in the art.

With the greater wooded areas of America, the rapid growth of the young republic, and the resourceful spirit of its new civilization, the leading activities in wood-working machinery in the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century were transferred to the United States. A phenomenal growth in this art ensued, many new inventions and improvements being made.

In modern planing machinery the climax of utility is reached in the so-called universal wood-worker. This is the versatile Jack-of-all-work in the planing-mill. It planes flat, moulded, rabbeted, or beaded surface; it saws with both the rip and crosscut action; it cuts tongues and grooves; makes miters, chamfers, wedges, mortises and tenons, and is the general utility machine of the shop.