History

From the middle of the 19th century through the earliest years of the 20th century, Wisconsin was a leading timber producer in the United States. As timber supplies in the Northeast dwindled, there was increasing demand for replacement stock—and the grand pine-hardwood forests of the Upper Midwest were the next hotspot.

Lumbering in the state (as well as in Michigan and Minnesota) began in earnest in the 1830s, particularly after the Menominee people relinquished most of their traditional territory in central and northern Wisconsin to the federal government (1). The forests along the Wisconsin River—including in the Wisconsin Dells region—were among the very earliest to be harvested on a large scale, given their close proximity to the great drainage. Ahead of the railroads, after all, the primary mode of transporting felled logs and processed lumber was by river.logging

The preeminent tree in the eyes of Wisconsin’s early lumberjacks was the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), one of eastern America’s mightiest trees. The second- and third-growth white pines peppering the woods in the Dells area are impressive-enough sights, but it’s worth seeking out one of the small remnants of old-growth pine groves (some of which exist in the region, as at Roche-A-Cri) to fully appreciate this tree’s inherent grandeur. The very biggest approach 200 feet in height with trunks five feet across. Given their noble stature and broad-sweeping boughs of rich green needles, these conifers make for truly monumental woodlands.

It was into such woodlands that loggers in the mid-1800s forayed in search of big pines. White-pine lumber was prized for its workability, buoyancy (for down-river floating), and overall strength and durability (5). Boards were used for ships, homes, furniture, and all manner of other important industries.

Mixed-pine forests prospered on the sandy soils of central Wisconsin, while white pine-hardwood stands attracted loggers in the other two major early centers of lumbering in the Badger State: the Wolf River country of the northeast and the Black and Chippewa drainages of the northwest (1).

logging

In the early days, the primary felling season was the wintertime. Logging camps set up operation in productive woods that had been scouted out by timber cruisers. Some men actively toppled the massive trees; others trimmed and sawed the trunks. Teams of oxen or draft-horses lugged the logs—in the case of white pines, often 16 feet long—to the banks of the nearest suitable creek or river, which was sometimes dammed to create a holding pool for the lumber (2,4).

When the spring thaw came, the logs were rafted downriver—steered by courageous and hard-working crews of “river pigs” to the sawmills (3). The lumber turned out by the mills was fashioned into rafts and similarly steered down the Wisconsin River. These drives were incredibly risky, given the tall order of maneuvering the raw logs or lumber rafts in snowmelt-swollen, ice-choked currents and breaking up the inevitable logjams.

The Dells of the Wisconsin River presented a notorious hazard to such operations due to the rugged sandstone formations and the power of the channel through the gorge. Simon Augustus Sherman, who worked as a lumberjack in the 19th century, recalled the perils of Lone Rock at the mouth of the Dells, noting it was “much dreaded by raftsmen, since the current sets strongly against it, and rafts were frequently driven to destruction there” (4).

Wisconsin was turning out 3.4 billion board feet of pinewood a year by the end of the 19th century (2). The building of railroads allowed logging camps to penetrate year-round into forests farther and farther from riverways. As white pines were gradually removed from pure groves and mixed-hardwood stands alike, lumberjacks began cutting native hardwoods. Cutover lands in some cases were further denuded by large fires—some of them deliberately set to clear slash for agriculture.

The lumber boom in Wisconsin came to a close in the first half of the 20th century, with prime timber logged out and the vast conifer forests of the Northwest attracting attention. historyBy that point, river towns such as Wisconsin Dells—originally Kilbourn City—had burgeoned around sawmills, although others took a heavy hit after the state’s logging industry faded.

Logging played a major role in the Euro-American settlement of the central Wisconsin sand plains and the Northwoods (with timber harvest still a significant economic force on recovered forestlands across the state). The next time you’re admiring a vintage home built with pine timbers in the late 1800s or early 1900s, or wandering some of the beautiful woods around Wisconsin Dells, spare a moment to consider the magnitude of that history.

References:

(1) Wisconsin Historical Society: Logging and Forest Products [http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-027/?action=more_essay]

(2) Daniel, Glenda and Jerry Sullivan. A Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide to the North Woods. San

Francisco: Sierra Club Books. 1981.

(3) Minnesota Historical Society: Log Drives (and River Pigs) [htt://www.mnhs.org/places/sites/fhc/logdrives.html]

(4) Sherman, Simon Augustus. “Lumber Rafting on the Wisconsin River.” Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1910. [http://bit.ly/12iIlYP]

(5) Minnesota Historical Society: Logging (and Lumberjacks) [http://www.mnhs.org/places/sites/fhc/logging.html]