The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 2, Numbers 2-3, Pages 43-52
By Shanna Stevenson
At the turn of the century in the dense timber of Western Washington, numerous small logging operations and sawmills flourished. The histories of these early logging sites have tended to vanish with their proprietors. It is our good fortune then that Walter C. Stevenson, who came to Washington in 1897, left a brief history of his logging operation located in Crocker, Washington, a once-thriving town now marked only by a railroad siding 17 miles southeast of Tacoma. Through his account the loggers and sawmill come back to life, and we catch a glimpse of the heyday of the small logger.
Walter C. Stevenson was born in 1879 in Poplar Ridge, Jefferson County, Indiana, the youngest of 13 children. Several of his older brothers left for the west, many going to Washington State before him. In the fall of 1896 he left Indiana for Washington spending a winter on the way with a brother in Kansas. In March of 1897 Walter left Kansas to join four other brothers in Puyallup, Washington, a town east of Tacoma named for its Indian inhabitants. He made the trip to Puyallup by train and like many other young men of that day, he was initiated into a logging camp the day after his arrival. His brothers ran one of the small logging businesses in the town.
Like any other business, the Stevenson Logging Company had problems of production, transportation, and sales. However, their Puyallup operation provided some novel solutions as W.C. Stevenson relates: ...Jim (a brother) would be downtown acting as sales manager and made his headquarters at Spencer's Cigar and Card Room, so anybody (who) wanted lumber would find Jim playing...there. If he sold a wagon load then we would cut it out and deliver it, and some time in the summer or fall the old guy that bought it would come in and pay up...There wasn't much competition at that time only [another small logger] that had moved his little sawmill down from Sumner, and was doing his own sawing and running the planer, and had to have his logs hauled tn so he had to charge a little more, and four bits a thousand difference would throw most all the business to Jim. Out at the mill we had a 24-inch planer and could run lumber, so that helped. There was no dry kiln this side of Tacoma and it took a day to make the trip, so they [the customers] would buy green vertical grain flooring and finish and air it a bit before using it.(1) The mill would furnish ship lap and 2 x 4 for $7.00 a thousand feet and the flooring and finish for $14.00 delivered,(2) and lots of time we would take a few potatoes or a load of hay as part payment, and that suited the farmers as money was hard to get hold of
In the fall of 1897 two of Stevenson's brothers decided to move the mill and bought, for $300.00, two square blocks in the town of Puyallup adjacent to the electric car line that ran from Puyallup to Tacoma. This move facilitated the always-present problem of a power source for a sawmill. Most logging concerns used steam power for their mills. But the Stevenson’s had another source...The old electric car line to Tacoma ran along 5th Avenue just to the south of the mill and it was driven by electricity furnished from the plant at Fern Hill.(3) After the boiler and the saws were started and before the line shafting was ready for the planer, [we] rented a motor from the Car Co. and hooked up the planer, along side of the car line. We used a wooden barrel filled with water for a transformer and as the cars ran only every 2 hours, the company rigged us up a wire tied onto a pole with a hook on one end, to hook over the trolley wire and the other end was tied to a pipe with a wooden handle for sticking the thing in the barrel and in that way we could stop and start the motor. When we saw a car coming we would take down the pole and let the car go by and we lived right through the whole arrangement. It's a wonder that we did without getting some of the juice up our arm.
The Logging Company
After some months of working with his brothers, W.C. had accumulated enough cash to follow the entrepreneurial urge of so many other young men and start up his own business. It is remarkable that after only one short year he believed he had enough money and expertise to start a new business, but in the fall of 1898 W.C. and one of his brothers formed their own logging enterprise. Each man had about $400.00 to invest and they decided upon a quarter of a section of land near a small settlement called Crocker, Washington. This was a logical choice since the Northern Pacific Railroad ran all their trains through Crocker and Orting.(4) Being so close it was easy to persuade the railroad to build a spur to provide transportation for the logs. They bought the land for $1,500.00 to be paid as they cut and sold the timber. Their own money was invested in the sawmill equipment.
This section was the only one available to the Stevenson Mill in the area. This was a period of unchecked and often unethical expansion by the Weyerhauser Company and other speculative timber buyers. Economic pressure was used by big mills to limit competition from the small ones. Stevenson relates: In that day and age the money men were coming into this state and were using the strategy of buying all the tracts of timber that would have been available for cutting by the small mills.
Weyerhauser bought Section 35 and took it off the market and that left only the timber on Section 34 that was available for our mill at Crocker, Washington. Many mills were put out of business by the timber sharks at that time.
By February of 1899 Jim and W.C. were ready to start up their mill. They used the typical methods of logging and milling of the time. At first they had no machinery for use in the woods and their logging was done with horses or oxen in combination with the forces of gravity. Their fallers used spring board saws so "the stump would be high to get away from pitch, as it was almost impossible to cut the tree where the pitch would run onto the falling saw while cutting."
After the logs were felled, they were "dogged" together using a short metal stake, sharp on one end with an eye on the other with which the logs were tied together with ropes. The whole process of bringing the logs to the mill came to be called "yarding" since it involved transporting the logs to the landing or dump called a yard. Groups of logs dogged together were called "turns" and were pulled down the skid road or log thoroughfare to the mill or landing. Stevenson tells of two different methods of yarding the logs...I bought eight horses to log with, using one team to yard the logs out to the skid road where the six horses could hook onto them after the logs were dogged together and ready to be pulled over the cross skid road to the mill.
Before the logs were rolled onto the main road in the woods, they had to be barked on the side that would ride the skids to make them slip easily. When the turn was pulled away to the mill, a man would walk ahead and dab some oil on the skids. This man was called the grease monkey.
A second method incorporated the idea of the skid road but used instead a chute made of lumber and a "snubbing post," which was a sturdy tree or stump to which ropes could be attached to secure a turn of logs to keep them from going downhill too fast...Some would pull the logs to the edge of some hill and by using a snubbing post cut the log or the turns of logs loose from the teams of horses or oxen, driving the teams so that the snubbing post would pull the lead dog from the log and at the proper time let the turn go over into the shute and down the hill.
After the logs were yarded and brought to the mill, the sawyers took over. Their machinery was powered by steam at the Crocker mill. Sawing involved a carriage on which the log was place, mechanisms by which the logs were turned and of course the large circular saws as well as smaller saws used to cut the large slabs into dimensions required for various orders. Technology rapidly advanced the precision and practicality of the machinery, but the picturesque language typical of early day logging remained to describe every advance.
Stevenson tells of the "Shot Gun Feed" which was a long steam-powered cylinder with a carriage equipped with "Boss Dogs" used to turn over a log as it was being sawed. Another mechanism used to turn over the log from underneath was called a "Hill Steam Nigger" and was manipulated with a lever. This was used primarily in the smaller mills while the larger mills used a "Siminson Turner" which turned the logs by an overhead chain and was much less damaging to the logs. The sawyer had to be very adept to control these operations properly.
The first sawmills built on the coast, according to Stevenson, used large circular saws for head saws or first saws to cut the log. They were "swedge-toothed," which means that the individual teeth had to be bent and fitted in line with the others, a time-consuming activity. A later innovation was the "inserted tooth" saw which had a special tool for inserting new teeth without refitting all of the others.
Mr. Stevenson gives an idea of the typical output of a small mill such as his. Their first order was for 10,000 ties at $5.46 per thousand feet loaded on railroad cars. They had to put up a bond with the Northern Pacific for these. The usual day's work was four hundred 7" x 9" x 8' ties; after the sawing was finished, they also had to load them on cars.
Another order at the Crocker mill was for lumber to build a sidewalk to the Old Soldier's Home.(5) This required stringers and 2 x 6 and 2 x 8 boards for the covering at $6.00 per thousand.(6)
Through this period logging was intense and wasteful. Without regulation clear cutting was the rule for small as well as large operations. Defective trees and logs were left in the woods to burn or rot. Small mills sprung up all over; each one would undercut the others by fifty cents or so on the thousand to keep in business. There was no market for the slabs left over from sawing except from the railroad which only paid fifty cents per cord loaded on railroad cars. When lumber was so cheap it was not profitable to cut defective trees showing pitch or knots or limbs, so they would be left standing to be burned or blown down to rot. Mr. Stevenson describes the conditions of the time: Slab fires could be seen burning at every little mill to get rid of their waste sawdust and edgings and slabs. The edgings off of the one and two inch side lumber was burned up, as the one by four or two by four that could have been made from them had no value.
While I was operating my mill at Crocker at the first of the century and when the wind storms came up, I could hear those large defective trees which were left standing on the logged off land go boom, boom, boom like large cannons as the wind blew them down...Another source of waste came during the sawing of the logs. The saws were thick and made a lot of sawdust when sawing the cants or sawed logs and each subsequent trimming made more of the same. In W.C. Stevenson's words: The head saws were used to cut the logs into cants and also to re-saw the cants into boards and dimension which meant that every board re-sawed by the head saw was cutting away almost a half-inch each cut and throwing it down into the sawdust pit.
One of the greatest advances in logging came to the Northwest in about 1899 when a Steam Donkey Engine was built in Seattle. This consisted of drums around which cable was wound powered by an attached steam engine under a small roof. It was a vast improvement over the horses and oxen previously used to yard the logs to the main skid road. It enabled logging farther from the skid road since less brush and debris had to be cleared to drag the log with a cable than a horse team. In the beginning the single drum or one-way engine required a horse to pull the cable back into the woods. The "donkey" still needed a helper.
Soon after a double drum machine was developed which would pull the yarder line back into the woods. One engine was used at the mill or landing to pull the turn of logs over the skid road and the other engine was used in the woods as a haul back cable to pull the main road line back to the woods. Stevenson describes another facet of this haul back operation: The dogs that were used to fasten the logs together in turns in the woods had to be taken back to the woods by the haul back cable on the road engine so a small short log was prepared by chopping out a place in the center large enough to put the cables and dogs in and they were hauled back in it. The loggers named it "the pig"...
With the coming of the Donkey Engine the skid road was modified to more of a trough to better contain the cable driven logs. A man called the "whistle punk" stood at a strategic spot to direct the Donkey Engine operator as to how the turn of logs was progressing. The Donkey Engines also allowed logging in rougher terrain and over canyons by the use of high lead trees and "sky line" which was cable used to carry logs across deep canyons.
By 1901 Stevenson and his brother had bought and paid for a single drum Donkey Engine and purchased the east half of Section 34 for $2,000.00 As was the custom, different kinds of timber were logged separately. Stevensons' first logging was of the Douglas fir. They now turned to the stand of cedar, about 60 acres that fortunately was near a spring that came out of a hill. Not only was the water needed for the steam sawmill equipment but also for the kilns and pipe used to dry the shingles made from the cedar.
By 1902 they were ready to start their shingle manufacturing. Their mill had two machines for making shingles and a large drag saw (vertical saw) to cut the timber to the right length. The blocks of cedar were split and then put through the shingle machines. Their steam engine had enough power to cut a hundred thousand shingles per day. There were three drying rooms called kilns equipped with 5,000 feet of inch diameter pipe. By drying the shingles thoroughly they could add 20 to 25 cents onto their selling price per thousand.
Lacking expertise in shingle making, the Stevenson’s decided to contract the operation to an experienced shingle maker. They stipulated that he deliver the shingles cut and dried into Northern Pacific cars for 80 cents per thousand. They sold them for $1.75 per thousand.(7) The guaranteed weight was 160 pounds per thousand and by drying the shingles they gained the extra price.
The mill started cutting in 1902 and ran steadily until they had cleared the cedar stand and marketed 20,000,000 shingles. At the end of the cutting they had cleared over $20,000.00 and had paid for all of the machinery.
In addition, the brothers added a sawmill onto the shingle operation, and they cut out 3 million feet of fir from above the cedar stand after the cedar was harvested. Instead of a skid road, the used a tramcar to transport the logs down the hill. It was controlled by a Donkey Engine cable attached to the cars going either way.
After all of the usable timber had been logged off, the mills were dismantled and sold to another logging enterprise and the half section of land was sold to a cattle company for $2,500.00 cash. Thus the land went from timber to farmland in a short period of three years.
Life in Crocker, Washington in 1900
What was it like in Crocker and nearby Puyallup, Washington at the time of W.C. Stevenson's logging operation? Well according to Stevenson it was a rather carefree and spontaneous society. This came naturally to men who daily fought the forces of nature and nature's giants - the tall timber. Their relaxations were centered around community meeting places. In W.C. Stevenson's case, his fiddling talent made him and his brothers very popular and sometimes this love of music dominated the lumbering business: Several times while I was working for my brothers, George who was the head sawyer and also the head fiddler would think of a new tune while he was sawing and reach up and pull the whistle string and the mill would shut down. The couple of hired men would pile lumber or clean up while us boys would go over to the shack and help George play his new tune. Sometimes it would take a couple of hours to get the fiddling out of George's system and then we would go back to the mill and with a toot-toot, the sawdust would fly.
The Stevenson brothers played for most of the dances. These were held in the hop kilns, whose vertical grain fir flooring made a good dancing surface. They did not charge anything for their services, but since the hop farmers needed lumber, the Stevenson brothers were really fiddling the orders away from the other miller in town.
Theirs was a fairly busy community since about 18 trains a day ran through Crocker on the Northern Pacific line. There was also the electric car line that connected Puyallup with Tacoma. The cars ran every two hours to Tacoma with a roundtrip fare of 40 cents.
There were various kinds of entertainments to appeal to the loggers. Some of which were designed to relieve them of their money. Others were harmless, such as the merry-go-round in town. It was located on the main street of Puyallup and the Stevensons rode it after work...After the thing went around a few times, (the owner) would let down from above a ring that contained two rings and we would watch and between the two of us we could take them out the first shot. These rings counted as a vote for the best looking girl in town. The girl that got the most votes would win a gold watch. At the end of the contest our gal got the watch.
Among the other attractions in Puyallup around the turn of the century was a baboon owned by one of the numerous saloon proprietors. The baboon according to Stevenson "was the talk of the town and did many funny things like combing its hair and swinging from the joists by its tail in the saloon."
The loggers and other residents enjoyed another novelty of the time which Stevenson describes: Along in 1899 bicycles were as thick as hair on a tomcat's back on the streets in Puyallup and it was a common thing to see a boy and a girl on a tandem bicycle riding out towards the end of some brushy street and back ... At the intersection of Pioneer and Meridian,(8) the bicycles sometimes would be so thick and they would stir up so much dust that the Cop would be kept busy trying to slow them down so the dust would settle enough that you could see across the street. Stevenson had a tandem but most of the time he walked so he could carry his fiddle along with him.
There was a certain amount of civic pride in the community, and Mr. Stevenson as a business proprietor participated in various activities. The town of Puyallup had not reached a metropolitan status by 1897, however. The lumber sidewalks were a hazard, being nailed down with various sizes of spikes. Sometimes according to Stevenson they protruded so high in the business section of Puyallup that they tore the breeches of short men.
Stevenson belonged to the volunteer fire department which had a home-made hose cart pulled by the volunteers. The operation must not have been very successful since "in most cases the owner didn't have much trouble cleaning up the mess as usually there wasn't anything left but ashes, and all he had to do was scrape up the ashes and go downtown and buy some $7.00 lumber and in two or three days ... he was back under his own roof again. "Most of these fires were caused, according to Stevenson, by getting the Air Tight Stove then in use too hot and the handle through which the smoke escaped would set wall paper afire.(9)
Stevenson was also a charter subscriber to the Puyallup Valley Fair Association begun in 1900, which continues today as the Western Washington State Fair. He provided lumber and labor in building the first structures to house it.
At about this time Puyallup added its first electric street lights. The power came from a center crank steam engine and the wiring ran on small poles along Meridian Street. The light globes were of the old style Edison type, and Stevenson said ''if there was not too much dust or fog you could tell that they were up there when night came along. In the business houses they added a kinda lonesome look to the place."
There is little left to remind one of the thriving timber business of W.C. Stevenson and his brother in Crocker today. There is a fine stand of second growth timber on the upper ground; but the cedar that Stevenson wrote about is gone. In its place are grassy meadows where livestock graze. New roads have been built for residential home sites amid the timber. One can still see the siding off the main line of the railroad that reads "Crocker," but it is hard to believe 18 trains a day ran on those tracks in 1900.
W.C. Stevenson was one of the many opportunistic small loggers common at the turn of the century in the Northwest. Not unlike many other optimists of his day, he saw the forests as provender for a growing society and saw the promise of the region in its woods.
(1) This was used for hop kilns, a major industry of the area.
(2) Dimensional lumber of this kind is priced at about $200.00 on today's market.
(3) A generating plant located in Tacoma.
(4) Orting is located about 10 miles southwest of Puyallup.
(5) Located outside Orting.
(6) Lumber of this kind is priced at about $200.00 per thousand feet on today's market.
(7) A square of shingles (1,000) is priced at $40.00 on today's market.
(8) The main intersection in Puyallup.
(9) The Air Tight Stove was a sheet metal affair with only an opening for a damper and the handle chimney.