Magazine article American Forests

When the Bullwhacker Reigned Supreme

Magazine article American Forests

When the Bullwhacker Reigned Supreme

Article excerpt

If you were to mention "old-growth"to a Pacific Northwest logger around the turn of the century, he might have assumed you were referring to the luxuriant mustache that was a hallmark of his trade-along with "tin pants" held up by galluses (suspenders to city folk), and calk (spiked) boots. As for spotted owls, they were just a part of the regional fauna--along with bears, elk, deer, cougars, and bobcats--that far outnumbered the human population in those endless, towering forests.

That forest, which ranges for a thousand miles in a narrow band of 50 to 150 miles between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains, was then and still is the richest timber zone in the world. The trees are huge, and they grow very fast. Fifty years ago, the Washington State Guide estimated the timber resources of that one state at 578 billion board-feet, about 19 percent of the nation's total softwood supply.

But the loggers who came west around the turn of the century didn't bother their heads with such figures. All they saw were trees so tall they claimed it took two men and a boy to see the tops, with underbrush so thick you had to swamp out a path to the tree before you could swing an ax.

The first outfit to start logging these virgin stands was the ubiquitous Hudson's Bay Company at its Fort Vancouver trading post on the Columbia River. There in 1820 the post's factor, Dr. John McLoughlin, established a little sawmill operated by two white men and 25 Sandwich Islanders.

It was this same company that discovered the most prized tree of the Northwest forests. This came about in 1825 when the Royal Horticultural Society of London sent a young Scottish botanist named David Douglas out to this remote wilderness outpost (see "The Biggest Sugar Pine" on page 32). Traveling alone through Indian country with a backpack, a gun on his shoulder, and a terrier at his heels, he is credited with giving the Cascade Mountains their name; but more importantly for our story, when he returned to London he took along a sprig from one of these great trees he had discovered. So his name is immortalized by the Douglas-fir-not a true fir but a "false" hemlock.

When the first emigrants lurched over the Oregon Trail and finally settled in the lush Willamette Valley, they regarded the great conifers as just nuisances that had to be cleared off to make farmland. Logging as an industry got its kick-start in the Northwest from the California gold rush, which generated a new market for timber. According to author Stewart Holbrook, Douglas-fir logging began with one Clement Adams Bradbury, a native of Saco, Maine, who on January 15, 1847, spat on his hands, grabbed his double-bitted ax, and took his first whack at the biggest tree he had ever seen, a fir eight feet in diameter near Astoria, Oregon.

But it remained for other capitalists, the "timber barons" from the East Coast and later the upper Midwest, to envision the enormous potential of these fantastic timber stands. Two of these men, Andrew J. Pope and William Talbot from East Machias, Maine, began the great logging migration in 1853 when they sailed into Puget Sound aboard the schooner julius Pringle. They selected a deep-water site near the mouth of Hood Canal, bordered by an endless forest of huge trees, and set up a sawmill that a year later shipped off a cargo of lumber to Australia. That was the first lumber exported from what is now the state's oldest continuously operated sawmill, still run by Pope & Talbot. And the picture-postcard village of Port Gamble is today a delightful replica of its Maine heritage.

In 1880 Thomas Merrill Jr., whose father had let daylight into the Maine and Michigan woods, came west to scout out the best timber in the Puget Sound area, bringing to the Northwest a logging firm that still operates on the Olympic Peninsula, Merrill & Ring. From Quebec came another timber baron, Sol Simpson, whose Simpson Logging Company at Shelton expanded into California's redwood forests. …

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