From Encyclopedia of Wisconsin Environmental History
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In the nineteenth-century, logging provided an important resource to the American people. Wood was used to build everything from homes to roads. Of the many tree types, pine was especially useful; it was a strong and durable wood that was also soft enough to float in water. At the beginning of logging it was done in New England and New York, until the corporations saw the dense pine woods and access to water in the Great Lake states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. With logging being moved to the Great Lake states Wisconsin became recognized.[1]

History of Logging

Logging can be traced back to the early 1600's when the British settlers first arrived on the shores of Jamestown. Lumber was an essential commodity to the North American economy. Lumber was used from building houses and roads, to building ships for trade and travel. Lumber was a big part of Maine and other northeast states in the 1800's, as settlers started to move west the look for more natural resources and land another forest was found to supply the "Green Gold", the Great Lake States of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan became the logging center of the early United States.[2]

The Birth of Logging in Wisconsin

The fur trade pushed many Americans west to fill fur needs and find new exotic furs never seen, while doing this many people took note on how much trees were in the Wisconsin area. With furs in decline, logging became the next boom economy in Wisconsin. The need and demand for lumber could be filled in much of Wisconsin. The only problem was much of the land was occupied by Native Americans. Lumber groups pushed the US government to acquire Native lands through treaties. [3] Thought to be unlimited trees but logging only last from 1840-1910. In this time, Wisconsin was almost treeless, and farming started to take over as the economy.

Logging History in Wisconsin

Despite having the lumber to start lumber industries in the states the early white settlers would bring their own wood with them from the east no matter the expense. Through most of the 1830's logging was done on small amount throughout Wisconsin. The population of the United States was growing rapidly between the 1870's and 1900's and there was a demand for lumber to help expand settlers west and to build more cities and towns. Lumber companies moved into the Great Lake states and began to log. The forests that were around the Wisconsin river were the first to be logged, because of the accessibility to the river. The rivers in Wisconsin provided a excellent way to transport the pine logs to the logging mills. Logging mills in different areas of Wisconsin grew into little towns such as Stevens Point and Wausau. Businesses started to be built around these mills like general stores, grocery stores, and banks. These milling towns began to grow due to the growth in population of the loggers and their families started to move into this region.[4]

As the forests around the rivers started to run low the industries had to find new ways to get deeper into the forests and return the lumber to the mills. In 1877 the Wisconsin Central Railway was completed to make it easier for lumber to get from deep in the forests to the mills. The railway was from Milwaukee to Ashland, this railway brought in the supplies and workers needed to cut down the forest and clear ways for new tracks to be put down. For the next fifteen years more lines were laid in almost all parts of Wisconsin. This state became the leading lumber production in the nation in the years since 1873, cutting about 60 billion board feet of lumber.[5] Logging continued to be a big part of Wisconsin economy and so the industries continued to cut more trees without planting new one in the place of the old. After a while the pine supply was low so the companies started looking south for more forest like this one and left Wisconsin. The industries sold the land for cheap to potential farmers and left. The farmers started to burn the leftover debris so that they could get to the land beneath it. But this way of removing the debris left over from the loggers some fires would get out of hand and towns would be destroyed by these fires.

Lumber Camps

Logging has been a big part of Wisconsin's culture before Wisconsin even became a state. The life of the lumberjack is still a vital part of Wisconsin folklore today.

Most of the logging companies would log in the winter to take advantage of the frozen earth for better maneuverability and to be able to transfer the lumber by slay instead of wheeled wagons. Since they mostly worked in the winter they had to make camps for the workers to sleep, eat, and keep warm in the harsh climate. To establish a winter lumber camp called for a lot of preparation. Corporations had to acquire timber rights, timber cruisers, plow animals, tools, supplies, and food just to get started. Once this was done they had to prepare the land around them for the logging operations, damning rivers, creating railways, and creating trails for the plow animals. With the land ready to log all that was left was a place for the workers to live, thus bunkhouses, mead halls, and other buildings were erected.[6] Logging camps ran from mid-November to the beginning of April, since it was easier to move heavy logs on snow. The workers worked six days a week from 5:00 AM to dusk and they were given Sunday off. [7] Often on Saturday nights a fiddler would play, and the men would dance. On their day off they would do their dirty laundry or bath or just simply relax

Tools of the Lumberjack

Lumberjacks used an assortment of tools to cut, load, and move lumber that have gone under a lot of upgrading since logging started in Wisconsin. After every tool failed, innovation would make a better tool to be stronger and easier for the Lumberjack.

Cutting Trees

A lumberjack’s go to tool for cutting trees was the axe and crosscut saw. The axe would be used to notch trees. Where ever a notch was was the direction the tree should fall when cut down by the sawyers. Sawyers or “buckers” were a two-man cutting team that used the crosscut saw to cut the tree down. [8]

Loading Trees

Steam-powered machinery was not introduced until the late 1800s, so in order to move the logs onto a sled required ingenuity. Before steam became available jammers were made to load logs onto the sled. A-frame jammers were the easiest to make, since it only required three poles. Two poles would be connected at the top and a third pole became a swing boom, with a cable connected to a team of horses to pull the log up. [9]

Moving Trees

Moving logs is a simple concept of loading logs onto a sled and having horses or oxen pull the logs where they need to go. The hardest part is making and upkeep of the ice roads. Ice roads were famous before the TV show Ice Road Truckers. Ice made it easy to move huge loads of lumber across long distances. Road monkeys were used to clear future ice roads, they had to make sure the road would be wide enough for the sleighs full of lumber. After the road monkeys widened and cleared the road a sprinkler would sprinkle water down and a rutter would come behind after the water froze and make the road smooth. [10] Trees were moved to a river to be floated down to the sawmill.


Peshtigo, Wisconsin, a town built around lumber and saw mills owned by William Ogden. Peshtigo was home to one of the biggest wood factories in the United States at the time. In the summer of 1871 there was a time of dryness across the northern Midwest but the settlers in the area still let fires to create new farm land, not knowing that they would potentially cause one of the biggest fires of their time.

The Fire

Around this time Peshtigo was very vulnerable to fire. Every building in the town was made out of wood and the roads were covered in sawdust. On September 23, 1871, the town gathered a substantial amount of water to prepare for a fire, but they were not prepared enough for what was to come. The fire began on October 7th outside of the town in a small village called Sugar Bush; every resident was killed in the blaze. The winds were high on the day of the fire making the flames grow to around 200 feet and the temperature was around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit racing for Peshtigo. The fire destroyed everything in its path, trees, animals, and humans. October 8th the fire reached Peshtigo killing 200 people in one of the towns bars. The settlers that escaped fled to the river to get away from this fire. Many of the settler that escaped to the fire died from drowning in the river. Around 1,200 people lost their lives in this fire and around 2 billion trees were destroyed by the blaze. Even though this fire was the worst fire at the time it was covered up in the papers by the Chicago Fire that happened the same day. More people died in the Peshtigo fire than in Chicago.[11]

Old Growth and New Growth

Much of the woods we see now a days is all second growth. It is very rare to see old growth or virgin forest. Before logging began in Wisconsin, 80% of the state was covered in old growth trees. [12]. Today only 1% of the state is covered in old growth [13]. Old growth trees could stand as tall as 200 feet and be over 300 years old. Old growth has a unique ecosystem that is no longer present in second growth forest. The reason for this is it took hundreds of years for life to find a perfect fit in the downed trees, mossy ground and other elements.

Second growth forest is primarily what we see when we look at forest now a days. Much of these forests are barely over 100 years old. A lot of old forest land has been turned into fields for farming or housing developments.


  1. Lewis, Chelsey. "Logging History Runs Deep in Wisconsin's Northwoods." Logging History Runs Deep in Wisconsin's Northwoods. Journal Interactive, 2015,http://www.wisconsintrails.com/.
  2. "History of Logging." HISTORY. AETN UK, 08 Jan. 2014, http://www.history.co.uk/
  3. [Diana L. Peterson and Carrie M. Ronnander, Logging in Wisconsin: Images of America (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2017), 9.
  4. "Logging and Forest Products." |Turning Points in Wisconsin History. Wisconsin Historical Society, 2015. Web. 08 Dec. 2015,http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-027/?action=more_essay
  5. Gough, Robert. "Defining a Region." Voyageur 2007: 42-52. Print.
  6. "Lumber Camp Life." Recollection Wisconsin. Recollection Wisconsin, 02 Jan. 2014, Web. 09 Dec. 2015,http://recollectionwisconsin.org/lumber-camp-life
  7. [Diana L. Peterson and Carrie M. Ronnander, Logging in Wisconsin: Images of America (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2017),53.
  8. [Diana L. Peterson and Carrie M. Ronnander, Logging in Wisconsin: Images of America (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2017), 78.
  9. [Diana L. Peterson and Carrie M. Ronnander, Logging in Wisconsin: Images of America (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2017), 84.]
  10. [Diana L. Peterson and Carrie M. Ronnander, Logging in Wisconsin: Images of America (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2017), 83.]
  11. "Massive Fire Burns in Wisconsin." History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2015, Web. 09 Dec. 2015,http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/massive-fire-burns-in-wisconsin#
  12. [Diana L. Peterson and Carrie M. Ronnander, Logging in Wisconsin: Images of America (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2017), 9.]
  13. [Martin, Carl, Natasha Kassulke, and Tony Rinaldi. "Old Growth -- Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine, October 2004." Controlling Invasive Species - Wisconsin DNR. October 2004. Accessed November 30, 2018. https://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/supps/2004/oct04/intro.htm..]

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