History’s Gem of the Month: Michigan Log Marks

 September 2011

The historical information included in this web page update has been taken from two sources. The subject involves the log marks used by lumber companies during the logging boom. The Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) published a pamphlet in January 1942 entitled Michigan Log Marks. (Memoir Bulletin No. 4, edited by Harold Titus, East Lansing). Additional information about lumbering was supplied by an article written by Maria Quninlan, originally published as a Great Lakes Informant (Series 3, Number 2). Additional information was also taken from the web page http://agilewriter.com/History/Mi_lumber.htm.

Michigan’s Logging History – A Summary

During the 19th century, Michigan’s forests yielded more money and created more millionaires than did all the gold mined during California’s Gold Rush. In turn, this wealth fueled the great financial and industrial rise of the state at the beginning of the 20th century. White pine, the most common tree, was preferred because it was easy to work and grew straight and tall. The largest specimens were 300 years old, 200 feet tall and up to 8 feet in diameter. Other abundant species were maple, elm, basswood and yellow pine.

Geographic factors played an important part in the development of Michigan’s lumber industry. White pine, the wood most in demand for construction in the nineteenth century, grew in abundance in northern Michigan forests. The state was also crisscrossed by a network of rivers which provided convenient transportation for logs to the sawmills and lake ports.

By 1840 it was apparent that the traditional sources of white pine in Maine and New York could not supply the growing demand for lumber. Michigan, the next state west in the northern pine belt, was the logical place to turn for more lumber.

The production of Michigan lumber increased dramatically during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The Saginaw Valley was the leading lumbering area between 1840 and 1860, when the number of mills in operation throughout the state doubled, and the value of their products increased from $1 million to $6 million annually. Rapid growth continued, and by 1869 the Saginaw Valley alone was earning $7 million yearly.

As the potential of the lumber business became apparent, companies were organized to begin commercial logging in other areas of the state. Many rivers that could carry logs quickly were transformed into a valuable means of transportation. By 1869 Michigan was producing more lumber than any other state, a distinction it continued to hold for thirty years. In 1889, the year of greatest lumber production, Michigan produced approximately 5.5 billion board feet. (1 foot long, 1 foot wide and 1 inch thick).

The increased lumber production during the final decades of the nineteenth century was due in part to changes in machinery and techniques which brought greater efficiency to the industry. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century lumbering had been a weather dependent and seasonally limited enterprise. Cutting was done during the winter when timber could be pulled on large sleds, if there were snow, from where the tree had been felled to banking grounds along a river.

The river drive was also dependent on a good winter snowfall for it was the spring run-off which enabled the rivers to carry the huge pine logs to the sawmills. Log drivers were usually men who had spent the winter in the woods cutting timber. It was their job to control the flow of the river by building and breaking dams and to break up log jams they could not prevent.

Sawmills were most often located at the mouths of the driving rivers. Associations were formed to cooperate in the sorting of logs into a pond or bay where floating “booms” of logs separated the property of one company from that of another. From the booms logs were floated to the mills to be sawed.

The logs were identified and sorted by the marks that were applied to the logs. Log marks were to Michigan what cattle brands are to the grazing states. The billions of board feet cut by thousands of operators would have been chaotic without log marks. These identifying symbols were recognized by law. Lumbermen identified ownership of logs by hacking or stamping symbols on them. Initially, the marks were cut into the bark by ax, so the designs were limited to straight lines, simple initials, triangles, squares, and combinations of these. At first, some business men tried to control the rights of using rivers to transport logs, but in 1853 a court decision was made declaring that all persons using rivers had equal rights. To the lumbermen, it meant that they could continue to float logs without interference from land owners. In 1855, the state legislature passed an act to provide for the formation of companies to run, drive, boom and raft logs.

As the logging business grew, those marking and sorting the logs ran into issues. Although there was an attempt to mark the light side of the logs so that the marks would float upward, or to mark two sides of the log – it was still difficult to efficiently see all of the marks. Besides being limited in design and varying somewhat according to individual wielders of axes who cut the marks, this process of cutting the log marks slowed down the operation. Thus, in 1859 a law was enacted to require owners of logs floated in the Muskegon river, or its tributaries, to mark the ends of their logs (rather than the sides) in a distinctive manner and to register the marks in the local county. The law was revised in 1864 that gave boom companies full power of contract to enforce log mark registration requirements. Provisions were also enacted to make it illegal to remove or change a log mark, which unscrupulous men were doing to steal logs from other companies. In fact it was because of log stealing that the main logging companies in Seney relocated to Grand Marais. They discovered that people were stealing their logs being floated down the Manistique River.

Most trees were felled by axes until the 1870s, when crosscut saws were improved so that they could be used to cut down standing timber. Two Michigan-initiated innovations of the 1870s were responsible for the largest increases in logging production. The Big Wheels invented by Silas Overpack of Manistee enabled cutting to continue in the snowless seasons by providing an alternative to sled transportation. As its name implies, this device consisted of a set of enormous wheels drawn by a team of horses. Logs were chained beneath the axle, and once the inertia of the load had been overcome, it was relatively easy to keep the wheels moving.

Like the logging wheels, the narrow gauge railroad helped to make lumbermen independent of the weather. Trains could be used in place of sleds year round for the relatively short run to the riverside banking grounds, or the river drive itself could be ended by carrying the logs to a mainline railroad depot. In addition, the logging railroad was sufficiently economical to allow cutting in areas that had been considered too far from the nearest driving stream to make sledding practical.

In their haste to move on to new cutting sites, loggers usually gave little thought to the lands they were leaving. By the 1870s stumps and branches already littered much of northern Michigan. There was no longer any barrier to erosion on cutover land, and the dried debris created an enormous fire hazard. At the end of the dry summer months fires frequently broke out, sometimes moving into still uncut timberlands or settled areas, as in 1871 and 1881, when fires broke out across the state. These dangerous conditions in the former logging districts inspired, in large part, the first attempts to conserve Michigan’s natural resources.

The primary effect of the lumber industry upon the State of Michigan was economic. The timber boom in the latter half of the nineteenth century brought millions of dollars into the state, both to lumbermen and those who supplied them. Thousands of men and some women found employment in some aspect of the business. The decline of lumbering also had its effects; both individuals and entire villages and cities, formerly thriving, lost their most important source of income. In Grand Marais, the logging era ended in 1910 when the lumber company took its railroad and tracks to Minnesota. The town’s population dropped from a couple of thousand permanent residents (plus a couple of thousand transient workers) to only a few hundred by 1914. Those who stayed in Grand Marais were a hardy bunch since the road was not put in until 1919. In the winter, it was difficult if not impossible for people or supplies to get into or leave Grand Marais.

The lumbering era also saw vast changes in the natural environment of northern Michigan. The conservation programs in effect today on state lands grew out of concern over the conditions the loggers had left behind them. Another legacy evident today is the body of songs and stories about lumbering, an important part of the folklore tradition of Michigan, and indeed, of the entire nation.

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