March 21st, 2010

Logging the Farm

Like most of lowland Whatcom County, the farm was logged late in the nineteenth century. Those early loggers only cut the best timber, using axes and two man crosscut saws to fall the trees and ox teams to pull the logs over skid roads to the Nooksack River.

Fir stump supporting birch trees a century after logging.

Skid Roads

A skid road to the river at Ferndale ran along the south boundary of the farm, parallel to and a quarter mile north of the Smith Road. I don’t think there are any signs of the skid road left now. Skid roads were routes through the woods for hauling logs. Skids were laid across the road a couple feet apart and greased to make the logs slide easier. Ox teams dragged the logs over the skids. The oxen were slow, but they could pull harder and longer than horses and were less prone to injury.

Dad said they were still occasionally hauled logs on the skid road when he was small, which must have been around 1920 or a little earlier, since Dad was born in 1913. He said that his parents kept him away from the skid road because they did not want him to hear the teamsters swearing.

When I was a kid, Dad pointed out a few cedar logs, about four feet long and a foot in diameter that he said were skids on the old skid road. I looked for those old skids the other day, but they must have rotted away to oblivion.

My guess is that the skid road ended just down stream from the log jam that blocked the Nooksack at Ferndale until 1877. A skid road built after 1877 would have no particular reason to end below the jam, but I suspect that the skid road might have been that old, because logging of the lowlands east of Ferndale must have begun well before then. I have not yet found a map showing the skid roads, but I am still looking.

Logging Equipment

The productivity of the old logging shows must have been low compared to today’s chainsaws, bulldozers, and logging trucks. When the old time loggers cut down a tree, they had to choose the trees carefully. They would not touch the lowly vine maple.  The largest cedars and Douglas Firs were too large to handle, so they left them behind. They also passed by trees with too many limbs. They cut the trees ten or twelve feet above the ground to avoid sawing by hand through the thick part of the trunk.

Springboards

The old time loggers used what they called ‘springboards’. These were wooden boards reinforced with iron straps.

Remains of springboard notch in old fir stump. Fifty years ago, the notch was much more distinct.

The logger chopped a horizontal niche into the tree and stuck the end of the springboard into the niche, then stood on the spring board. If they were not past the swell of the trunk, they would chop another niche while balancing on the first spring-board. Using that technique, they could walk up a tree as high as they needed.

Falling Axes

When they had established their perch on the side of the tree, they chopped out the undercut. This was a notch, cut in about a quarter of the diameter of the tree, that would control the direction of the fall. Their tools were a cross cut saw, a double-bit falling ax, and aching muscles.

Falling axes were kept razor sharp. Chopping an undercut could take all day with a sharp ax and there was no time or strength to waste on a dull ax. John Schaefer, who worked in the logging camps, told me that he once saw a faller threaten to punch a swamper in the face when he started to sharpen the faller’s ax with a file. The faller maintained that his ax had to be sharpened on a stone and would be ruined by a file.

Triumph of the Logger

Falling a big fir could take days of chopping and sawing balanced on narrow spring-boards. When a tree finally fell, it must have been gratifying, a triumph of human will and patience over the massive passivity of nature.

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