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A photograph of logs piled up in a forest

History of Logging

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Logging has been linked with the folksy figure of Paul Bunyan, the mythical woodsman who carried an axe and was accompanied by his blue ox Babe. In reality, logging is a big, complex industry. The World Bank estimates that forest products are a $270-billion-a-year business and the worldwide appetite for everything from paper to building materials shows no sign of abating. Global wood consumption is expected to rise by at least 20 per cent by 2010 and by over 50 per cent in 2050, according to the Resource Conservation Alliance.

Logging's roots in America stretch back to the early 1600s. From the arrival of settlers in Jamestown in 1607, lumber was essential to the North American economy. Shipbuilding fueled the need for lumber and the demand increased exponentially with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. By the early 1830s, Bangor, Maine, was the world's biggest shipping port for lumber, with over 8.7 trillion board feet moved out of the area between 1832 and 1888, according to the Patten Lumberman's Museum. In the mid-1800s, the process of making paper from wood pulp was established. William Rittenhouse founded America's first paper mill in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1690, but until the middle of the 19th century, paper was produced from rags and other materials.

Throughout the 19th century, Americans headed west in search of new land and natural resources. The passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 tempted settlers into making the long and arduous journey west by the promise of 160 acres per family on which they could work and live. These plots were often heavily wooded, requiring homesteaders to clear the land before it could be used. Around the same time, the timber supply in the Midwest was dwindling, forcing loggers to seek new sources of "green gold."

By the start of the 20th century, the Pacific Northwest was well on its way to becoming the place for quality timber. The region had its first sawmill in the late 1820s and by 1890, logging companies in Washington harvested over 1 billion board feet of timber annually, according to the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest (CSPN) at the University of Washington. CSPN reports that in 1905, Washington became the top lumber-producing state in America and in 1926, the state's lumber harvest hit an all-time high of 7.6 billion board feet (by comparison, 4.1 billion feet of timber were harvested in 2000).

Early loggers and settlers cut timber near water and moved further away as the wood supply on that land was depleted. The water made it easy to move timber to mills and overseas, but as loggers were forced more inland, they needed to develop new methods of transporting their product. One popular technique for hauling lumber was to use horses and oxen to drag logs over skid roads and rough tracks through the woods. Log flumes, now known because of theme park rides, got their start as a way to move logs via manmade troughs. If loggers were working near a stream, log drivers could be used to guide logs to more substantial waterways, where they were tied together in rafts. (The sport of logrolling, in which people compete to see who can remain standing the longest on a rolling log in the water, grew out of the loggers' actions.)

Another method for moving lumber to market was via crude railroads constructed from the very lumber they were designed to transport. Once the logs reached a main waterway, they were sent to sorting yards and then either to a mill, where they were transformed into a usable product or exported to places as far away as Australia and China.

Loggers worked in all-male crews and had their own vocabulary. A "bucker" was someone who cut trees into manageable pieces after they'd been chopped down by the "faller," while the "whistle punk" relayed information between the worksite and the area where logs were dragged for loading, according to CSPN. Loggers relied on axes, handsaws and draft animals before the advent of steam engines and gas-powered vehicles, along with chainsaws and harvesting machines such as the feller-buncher. Throughout the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, loggers lived in remote camps near their worksites. The hours were lengthy, the work difficult and migratory and the accommodations rough. Camps were often infested with lice and other diseases and it wasn't uncommon for loggers to wear the same clothes for months on end. These tough conditions inspired an image of loggers as men of immense strength and might. Over time, labour unions demanded better conditions for loggers and as things improved, wives and families moved to the camps, establishing schools and other community features.