Forests, Fields, and the Falls: Lumbering

Current page Lumbering Sawmilling Farming Flourmilling Map of Minnesota with the lumbering area highlighted, covering mainly the north east part of Minnesota. A small star is on Aitkin area. Glossary About this project Primary Sources Activity Ideas Tips
Current page Lumbering
As his memories begin, we see Joseph boarding a train, the hulking buildings of Minneapolis immediately behind him.
It was on November 28, 1899, at the age of 21, that I left Minneapolis by train for Aitkin to spend the first of three winters in the woods.
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The train leaves Minneapolis and arrives at Aitkin.
We see the snowy route from Aitkin, through the woods, to the camp. Men walk together, over a bridge, through the trees, until they reach the camp in evening...
In those days, hundreds of lumberjacks came into Aitkin in the spring and fall on their way to and from the logging camps.
On December 4th I started to walk to the Moose River Camp 28 miles north of Aitkin.
We crossed the Mississippi on the old bridge and walked up the "river road."
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We see a view of the camp from above with the men walking in.
Our camp was located about 3 miles from Moose Lake where the logs were dumped to be driven down the Moose River into the Mississippi in the spring.
The camp was constructed of Norway pine logs and consisted of the sleeping camp, the cooking camp, a small office and the stables.
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The men walk past the cook shack. One woman is seen emptying a bucket another woman stands in a doorway. More info
The timber around the Camp was about 80% white pine.
It's now daytime and Joseph is in the woods.
The largest tree I saw cut in my three winters in the woods was a white pine over 5 feet in diameter. I often went to look at this tree before it was cut. It was just like an old friend.
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timber (noun): Trees in a forest regarded as a source of wood.

It took dozens of men working together to log the forest.
...A group of three men approaches us. They carry an ax and a long saw. More info
The men set to work on the trees.
The men who chopped the falling cut in the trees were called the undercutters. They were skilled in the use of the double bitted axe.
The undercutters knew just where to "notch" the tree to make it fall in the right direction.

double bitted axe (noun): An axe that had two sharp edges for chopping.

A sawyer calls out as a tree falls.
Then the "sawyers" completed the job of cutting the tree down with a 2 man cross cut saw.
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After the tree was down, the undercutters marked the 12-14-16 and 18-foot lengths on the fallen trunk, so that the sawyers could cut the tree up into logs.
The sawyers cut the tree into lengths. More info
Now the tree has become a log and the job passes to another group of men.
Then a man and a pair of horses, together with a cant hook man, skidded the logs to the rollways that were located parallel to the logging road.
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cant hook (noun): Tool used to grip and roll logs.

rollways (noun): A path where logs were rolled into the river.

We see this single log being dragged by two horses and a teamster through the woods to a pile of logs along a main road.
The roads were a remarkable feat of rough engineering. They were laid out to tap each bunch of timber and still maintain level or slightly downhill grades from the timber to the landing.
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A giant sled pulls up to these logs. It is pulled by four horses and is already loaded with a dozen or so logs.

feat (noun): A relatively rare or difficult accomplishment.

tap (verb): To deplete.

landing (noun): A place on a shoreline where a boat lands.

The logs were very heavy and getting them onto the sleds was one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs. The horses pulled while the canthook men pried and rolled the logs up a ramp.
We see a silhouette of the sled being loaded. On the left side of the sled, a horse pulls on a rope that runs up over the existing logs and down a ramp to the log that's being loaded. At the log a pair of men use long poles with hooks to lever and roll the log up the ramp and to the top of the pile.
This hard work made the men hungry. Although the noon meal was served in the woods, we ate breakfast and supper in camp.
The cook bangs the triangle and we see a close-up view of a pot of steaming pork and beans being served.
The cook announced meals by ringing the familiar triangle although it wasn't really necessary because everyone was waiting to eat.
"Pork and Beans" was the staple item in the lumberjack's diet. Sometimes it was served three times a day.
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Nobody ever went away hungry.
Dozens of men sit at long tables eating hungrily. More info

staple (noun): A basic or essential supply.

After supper, I sold supplies like shirts, boots and tobacco to the men.
We look down from up high on Joseph handing a man a can of snuff from the store shelves. A ledger book is on the counter between them. More info
Everyone was usually in bed by 8:00 or 8:30 P.M. except on Saturday night when the men stayed up until 9:00 or 9:30 singing, telling stories and playing games.
Now we're inside the sleeping camp. We see bunks, two high, each bed holding two men. In the middle section of the long room we see a group of lumberjacks talking while others get ready for bed around them. A large barrel stove heats the room from the center. More info
Before winter was over, we had 40,000 to 50,000 logs piled high on the frozen Moose Lake.
Now we're outside looking at a frozen lake. It is covered with logs. In the next panel, the same lake appears, but it's now spring. The lake has thawed and the logs are floating in a tangled mass. More info
In spring, it was time for the log drive down the Mississippi.
Now we're outside looking at a frozen lake. It is covered with logs. In the next panel, the same lake appears, but it's now spring. The lake has thawed and the logs are floating in a tangled mass.
At the outlet, where the dam was located, men guided the logs, a few at a time, into the sluiceways; and the drive was on.
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The drive took place during the long days of May and June...
and the men worked from dawn until dark.
An overhead view of the route from Moose Lake to the Mississippi and beyond.

outlet (noun): A river that runs out of a lake.

sluiceways (noun): A man-made channel designed to redirect excess water.

drive (noun): An act of moving logs forward to be captured.

A view of the logs on the river, rivermen riding them, with a floating house called a "wanigan" near the shore.
The drive to the Mississippi took a month. The distance in a straight line was about 14 miles, but it was two or three times that much by stream.
When the logs finally arrived at the Mississippi...
They began their long journey to Minneapolis...
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The logs have reached Minneapolis. We see a water's-eye view of a set of logs as they approach a ramp leading into a sawmill. One log is already being pulled up...
Until they arrived at the sawmill ramps along the banks of St. Anthony Falls.
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The end.