Bibliographic Information

  • Title
    • Deep Woods Frontier: A History of Logging in Northern Michigan
  • Author
    • Theodore J. Karamanski
  • Publisher
    • Wayne State University Press
    • Detroit, 1989
  • ISBN
    • 0-8143-2048-1

About the Author

Part One: Pine Era

Chapter One: The Passing of the Fur Frontier

  • The first business men of the Upper Peninsula were fur traders. The Environment on the Frontier was harsh and the business environment was just as harsh. Fur traders were plagued with poor capital, poor transportation, vicious competition and dirty business tactics. Even though fur traders were not flourishing economically, they laid the infrastructure for the lumber industry by establishing the settlements that turned into lumber towns and they were among the first business men to start lumber ventures in the Upper Peninsula.

The first sawmill in the Upper Peninsula was built by the United States Army in 1822. The mill was built in Sault Saint Marie in order to supply lumber for the construction of Fort Brady. After the Army base was completed the mill was leased out to businessmen for 4 years at a time. The American Fur Company under management of Ramsay Crooks ran the mill from 1835 to 1842, when the American Fur Company was into bankruptcy.

The transition from fur trade to a lumber industry was turbulent. The Upper Peninsula was undeveloped frontier country with limited sawmills and sporadic demand for lumber. What accelerated the lumber industry was the discovery of copper deposits in the Keweenaw Peninsula and iron ore in present day Marquette, Michigan. A former American Fur Company agent, Pierre B. Barbeau, owned a general store at the Sault. Barbeau profited from selling supplies to prospectors that were hunting for metals. However he was not able to supply lumber that was shipped from Detroit due to the high cost of transportation, unreliability, and theft concerns. In response Barbeau assisted his son-in-law, James P. Pendill, in constructing a mill 25 miles outside of Sault Saint Marie on Whitefish Bay sometime between 1846 and 1849. This lasted until 1855 when Pendill and Barbeau both declined to market Michigan pine to Detroit and Chicago.

The Menominee River would become an important, if not the most important, waterway of the Upper Peninsula. However during the pre-civil war years 1830-1860 lumbermen and logging businesses struggled to survive, and when the Panic of 1857 and the paved road to secession hit America only few lumbermen survived.

Chapter Two: Migration of the Lumbermen

  • Even though Lumbermen struggled through the war, something interesting happened during the war. An influx of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and the East Coast of the United States swarmed Chicago. This nearly tripled the population of the Windy City. The population growth nearly quadrupled the price of lumber; from $6.75 per 1000 ft. in 1861 to $23 per 1000 ft. in 1864. It was the post-Civil War period that accelerated the lumber industry of the Great Lakes Region.

This sort of “boom” in the lumber industry was something that was already experienced by lumbermen in the Eastern United States and encouraged by the Michigan legislature in 1864. So the adaptation came naturally to the migrant lumbermen of the East that were seeking fortunes on the frontier. In order to relieve the stress of operational expansion, the lumbermen held a meeting that included many of the pioneers of the Upper Peninsula and founded the Menominee River Boom Company in 1867. This “boom” company was formed would take responsibility in the matters of log driving down the river, dam building, flood relief, and the assurance that logs will be delivered to the correct mill. This allowed lumbermen to focus their efforts on marketing, transportation, land management, milling, and logging


Previous to the Civil War the Soo Locks were constructed by the Saint Mary’s Falls Ship Canal Company in 1855 and previous to that in, 1854 the United States and the British North American provinces agreed to the Reciprocity Treaty. These two events opened were intended to benefit the capitalists involved in mining for copper and iron however the lumber industry around Lake Superior took advantage of these commodities. Lumbermen in the Sault and on the Eastern portion of the Upper Peninsula could now trade through waterways that linked Maine with New Brunswick, New York with Ontario, and the Upper Peninsula with Georgian Bay and western Ontario, not to mention virtually any location on any of the Great Lakes.

Chapter Three: The Iron Road to the Interior

  • During the late 1880s and the 1890s railroads interwoven into the Upper Peninsula gave the lumber industry a boost. Railroads came at a critical time in the lumber industry in the Upper Peninsula. The easily accessible trees that were close to waterways had been exhausted therefore lumbermen were forced further into the interior to find pine forests. The railroads that were encouraged by state land grants and the expanding mineral industry had a secondary effect on the lumber industry. Lumber men acquired land, at the cheap price of $1.75 per acre, from Railroad companies that were in debt from construction. One example is that of Robert Dollar he and 3 partners acquired 60,000 acres of untainted forests from railroad companies that were given 1,300,000 acres from the State of Michigan to build the Detroit, Mackinac, and Marquette Railroad. Railroads made it possible for Lumbermen to expand further into the interior by providing transportation and affordable land. Here is a cool link, it’s an interactive map that allows you to see the progression of railroads in the Upper Peninsula year by year.

Chapter Four: the Process and Pattern of Pine Logging

  • The operations of a lumber company are divided into 3 phases: forest operations, transportation to the mill, and sawing logs into board. Each phase has its own purpose and implements its own technologies.

The forest operation consists of falling trees, cutting the limbs off the trees to produce logs, and moving logs to a location where they can shipped; during this time period typically a waterway or sometimes a railroad.

The primary step of logging was cutting the trees down. This was done by “choppers” who were skilled axe men. During the 1840s choppers used axes to chop at the base of the tree to accurately fell the tree into a position where it could be worked. Later in the 1880s the axe was replaced with a crosscut saw, which was a 6’ to 7’ long saw that was wielded by 2 men to make a cut through the base of a tree. The crosscut saw was much faster than the axe.

Once the tree was down men called “swampers” would trim the limbs from the tree and cut bark away from one side. One side of bark was removed so that one side was smooth and could easily slide through snowy and icy terrain. This process was done using a broad axe to hew one side of the log.

A group of men called “teamsters” would then load the log onto a travois or “go-devil” and move the logs along a logging road. A travois or “go-devil” was a simple wooden frame with skis that lifted one end of the log off the ground. The log would be secured on the travois and the travois would be harnessed to a team of draft animals; either oxen or horses. Then the log would be dragged to a riverfront or lakeshore to await transport.

A key to the logging operation was the creation of logging roads and the ingenuity of a logging team. Logging teams were tasked with making their own roads or paths for the travois. This meant they had to clear trees, stumps, and boulders in the rugged terrain and in isolated locations, with no more than a team of men and some draft animals. Due to the isolated circumstances of loggers they had to be good with their hands to maintain equipment and tools, they would often have to carve handles out of wood on the fly.

The pine era relied heavily on waterways as a source of transportation. One of the reasons pine was sought after was its buoyancy in water, which made it possible to take advantage of low resistance transportation. Many of the technological aspects of the pine era directly involved water transport. To improve the log drives down river in the spring time, dams were built and used in synchronicity in order to keep logs flowing. Log rafting was also a technique used to transport logs over long distances. Log rafting was the technique of tying several logs in a bundle and towing them to their destination. Lumber schooners were also utilized for long distance transport. Lumber schooners were sail powered ships common to those times. Once the trees close to waterways were harvested it became necessary to move logs over land and different types of technology were utilized. Winches were used in hilly terrain. Commonly referred to as a “steam donkey” the steam powered winch would pull timber up steep inclines. Log chutes were also used in hilly terrain but used in the opposite direction. A log chutes was a ditch or wood track that was laid down a hillside. The lumbermen would then send logs through the chutes to get to the bottom of the hill. Sleds, sleds, travois, and logging wheels (big wheels) were used to move logs over land. These would be towed by animals or towed by tractor to their destination. Later on in the pine era railroads would be used in the transport over land.

Steam Donkey

The whole point of logging and transport was to get the logs to the saw mill where the lumber would be turn into useful building materials like boards and shingles. The early saw mills used water powered turbines to drive the saws. Later in the pine era, during the 1850s, saw mills used steam power to power saws. Either the water turbine or the steam turbine powered saws to cut the logs. Among the saws during this time we sash saws, gang saws, muley saws, circular saws, and/or band saws. The sash saw is a horizontal saw blade that was worked back and forth to make cuts. The gang saw is a team of sash saws on a wooden frame that made multiple cuts simultaneously. The muley saw is a vertical gang saw mounted on a metal frame. Sash saws, gang saws, and muley saws, although slower than circular saws and band saws were the preferred tool for saw mills. A circular saw is exactly what its name describes. The circular saw was fast, however early technology did not allow for “tight” or small tolerances so the circular saw was famed for vibrating issues which led to poor cutting quality. A band saw is a saw blade that is also a band that rotated around two wheels to make cuts. The band saw was very effective and later became the primary system for saw mills, however lumbermen of the day were reluctant to change from the sash saw systems.

Sash Saw

Circular Saw

Band Saw

Chapter Five: The Social Environment of Pine Logging

  • The lumber pioneers of the pine era in the Upper Peninsula frontier can be modeled as gamblers. Gamblers, in the sense that every business decision of the harsh times was a gamble and reward was never guaranteed. However the uncertain nature of lumbering had only one promise of fortune, going all in and working hard. This type of risk taking behavior molded the social environment of the early history of logging in the Upper Peninsula. The business model of the pine era had unforeseen consequences of conduct both in business and in society.

Barbaric business tactics were implemented frequently. Power struggles, theft, and conflict were very common among lumbermen. The river drives were exploited in order to steel from competitors. Companies would seize control of dams illegally in order to manipulate the log drives and gave rise to conflict. Barbaric business tactics did not stop with river drives. Lumbermen often cut trees from privately owned lands without permission. Due to limited law enforcement on the frontier trespassing went unchecked and often created conflict and vigilante justice.

Sabotage became a common form of justice. The sabotage was not always between lumbermen; homesteaders, miners, and residents would partake in the action. This created chaos for the region. There is also speculation that sabotage may have become a business tactic; employees could cause forest fires in order to accelerate logging and control the cost of lumber.

New companies would be welcomed in the business in order to drive wages down, increase the value of land, and keep lumber cost low so that lumbermen could readily sell their supply. The government can be held responsible for the aggressive business of lumbering. The federal land policy made land cheap in order to encourage agricultural settlements. However this was exploited by capitalists. The government furthered the issue by implementing railroads in the Upper Peninsula, making cheap land ever more accessible. As a result business was conducted violently, causing the pine forests of the Upper Peninsula to be ravaged. By the end of the 19th century the pine forests of the Upper Peninsula were gone.

In many ways the Lumberjack life has been turned into a legend with only some factual evidence. The legend exploits the Spartan-esque living conditions, brute strength, drunkenness, and sexual deviance of the lumberjack. These legends are based on some of the more extreme stories of the lumbermen but were embellished and were less common than the hard working, mild mannered and even tempered country men of the day.

Many lumbermen were country farmers that found work as a lumberjack in the winter. The farming season ended in sync with logging season starting. Most of the lumberjacks were farm hands looking for work in the winter.

During the years after the Civil War, Irish and German immigrants infiltrated the lumberjack trade, along with some Scots and Swedes and eventually Finns and other Scandinavians came into the picture. Couple these immigrants with French-Canadian loggers from the north and American loggers from the East Coast and you have yourself a diverse workforce littered with cultural differences. Many disputes had to be settled with a heavy fist from the people in charge. There was even a universal logging camp rule against talking at the dinner table.

The popular scenario of the Lumberjack is that of alcohol induced rage and fighting. This couldn’t further from the norm. Actually the isolated logging camps on the frontier were ill fated with acquiring liquor. Not only was alcohol hard to come by but lumbermen would be fired on site if liquor was found in camp.

This type of frontier lifestyle could be characterized as Spartan-esque that much is true. The living conditions of lumberjacks were tough. Lumberjacks had to endure harsh winters meanwhile working in the elements. The diet of a lumberjack was limited due to the locations of camps; salt pork, pork fat, beans, and molasses were commonplace. Though a limited diet, lumberjacks usually had plenty to eat but try eating salted pork every day for 6 months straight.

Logging Camp

Interesting Fact

  • Russell Alexander Alger was an important lumberman of the Pine era in Michigan. He was partner in one of the biggest lumber companies in Michigan. During the Civil War Alger  was appointed captain in the Michigan volunteers and established an impressive service record, fighting in some the war’s mot notable engagements, like Gettysburg. He established political ties by way of friendship with Generals George Armstrong Custer and Philip Sheridan, he also was an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln. After having success in Michigan logging he became more prominent in national politics. Alger served as governor  of Michigan from 1884 to 1887, and in 1888 Alger was a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Alger served as William McKinley’s secretary of war during the Spanish-American War.
  • Here is the stunning fact; Among the disgruntled employees of Russell Alger was Leon Czolgosz, the gunman who assassinated McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, and the 3rd president to be assassinated.


  • This article describes the importance of natural processes. An example of this is the manipulation of the forest floor when a tree falls. when a tree falls from natural causes, it usually is uprooted, meaning the roots or root ball is upended and creates a mound and ditch in the forest floor. This process is important for plant life to establish itself. The Mound creates a microclimate, exposes fresh soil, and clears a small portion of the forest canopy for sunlight to get through. Simply leaving a fallen tree allows the forest to flourish.
  • This article is a testament to the importance of the absence of humans in the forests. The forest thrives without human interaction. As innocent as it may seem; clearing a forest floor from fallen trees and flattening the mounds of roots that have been uprooted may have adverse effects on the environment. Simply letting a forest heal itself is the fastest way for it to replenish.
  • It has not been that long since the great pine forests of Michigan were ravaged by pioneer lumbermen and the forests are making a comeback. However let us not forget the greed, violence, and devastation that came with a booming lumber industry and aggressive capitalists. May we have the common sense and responsibility to cultivate our forests for the benefit of humans and plants alike, in order to maintain a sustainable lifestyle on this fragile planet, for there are many generations to come.