High Wheels: Preserving Logging Equipment History

Century-old high wheels restored at by Doug Hansen and crew at South Dakota shop.

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High wheels were built up to 10 feet tall. Some carried up to 4,000 feet of logs in one load.

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A nearly forgotten mode of shipping came back to life recently at a South Dakota wheelwright's shop, when Doug Hansen and his crew restored a set of Michigan logging wheels, also known as high wheels.

The story begins with the gift of a pair of wagon wheels dating to the late 1800s. Rogan Coombs, owner of Coombs Tree Farms in Fortuna, Calif., was given a pair of wagon wheels discovered by a friend in a forest near Fortuna. Rogan recognized the wheels as high wheels from the early days of the American logging industry.

High wheels won quick acceptance as an efficient manner of transporting logs, and were an important innovation. Prior to their invention, when logs were transported they were simply dragged over land, either by hand or using animal power. Later, wagons pulled by oxen or horses were used. If rivers were nearby, logs were floated to a railroad. Sleds worked well in the winter but not in the summer.

Recognizing what he'd been given, Rogan knew the high wheels were a good fit for a museum he and friends are planning. The group has collected more than 70 pieces of antique logging equipment (and three working locomotives) and is in the process of having the collection restored to working condition. "It has to be a working museum. We would like to be able to show people how everything works," Rogan says. "We would really like to use (the wheels) in a parade with a pair of draft horses."

Rogan started asking fellow loggers about the restoration project. "I ran across the Hansen name in several places," he says. "They are pretty well-known. At that point, Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop in Letcher, S.D., got his hands on a once-in-a-lifetime project.

In business since 1978, Doug is known worldwide as an expert in construction, restoration and repair of horse-drawn vehicles. Based on that experience, Doug told Rogan the project would take up to a year. Rogan loaded the pieces onto a specially modified wagon and hauled them to Doug's South Dakota shop.

When the pieces arrived, the Hansen crew started working on the actual layout of the wagon itself. "It was like an archaeological dig, in a way," Doug says. "We laid it out on the ground like a dinosaur skeleton." The wood was rotten but the iron pieces were mostly intact, making restoration possible.

At the same time, Doug began conducting research, hunting for period newspaper and magazine articles and historic photos. He also contacted the Montana State Historical Society. The search failed to turn up shop plans or drawings, so Doug and his crew relied on photos to identify what pieces were missing, and created those accordingly.

Custom fir pieces for the project (including a 30-foot tongue) came from a Montana sawmill. The ash wood for the wheels was hauled to South Dakota from eastern Iowa. The wood had to be cured to avoid future shrinkage and ensure a successful restoration.

Once the primary components were in place, Doug's team once again relied on old photos to determine which parts were missing. The rusted iron pieces were restored but the missing parts had to be hand-forged. Part of the restoration required building a large ring of fire to heat the metal bands. The bands were then placed on the large wheels and rapidly cooled with water to hold the shape of the wheels.

Invention of the high wheel came in response to a very real need. In the 1800s, loggers moved westward with the growth of the nation. The distance to shipyards, homesteads and sawmills also grew, as did the demand for logs. These changes necessitated a more efficient means of getting logs to the railroad. A Michigan man seized the moment.

In 1875, wheelwright Silas Overpack, Manistee, Mich., began manufacturing high wheels (which he referred to as Michigan Logging Wheels) for the purpose of skidding (or transporting) logs from the woods to a railroad landing. In addition to the wheels, the transporting vehicle also included an axle, cart pole, chains, winch and metal fasteners.

Silas' vehicle was satisfactory when used on relatively level ground. But in the hilly and mountainous western states, the lack of a brake to slow or stop a vehicle on a downhill grade proved dangerous and often fatal. This shortfall was eliminated by a design of the Redding Iron Works of California called the slip tongue. On downhill grades the wheels and axle would slide forward on the tongue. That movement (the opposite of raising logs off the ground) rotated the chain cams backward, lowering the logs to the ground and braking the vehicle. The tongue was locked in place on the return trip to the woods, preventing it from sliding.

High wheels were sent overseas for military use during World War I. They were also shipped to loggers throughout North America, Central America and India. But as mechanized vehicles came more common, Overpack ended production in 1920 and high wheels passed into obscurity. FC 

For more information: Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop, 40979 425th St., Letcher, SD 57359; (605) 996-8754; email: dwhansen@hansenwheel.com
Online at www.hansenwheel.com
 

Shelli Massek is a writer in Sioux Falls, S.D. Grateful acknowledgement is given to Robert Paullin, Ph.D., Letcher, S.D., who conducted research for this article.