Hauling Logs in the Early Days of Logging

With only horses, human muscle, and a bit of mechanical ingenuity, early loggers devised clever methods of hauling logs.
By Sam Moore
March 2005
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Big wheels in action! This artist's representation shows of a team might have gone about hauling logs from pine woods with a stiff-tongue bummer cart.
Illustration: Frick Company Catalog/Sam Moore
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The Western expansion and Industrial Revolution that occurred in the United States during the 19th century required billions of board feet of lumber. Trees were thick in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, around the Great Lakes, in New England, and in the pine woods of the South. The problem was transportation; hauling logs from the wooded hillside to the sawmills.

Early logging operations were limited to the banks along rivers and large streams. Lumberjacks felled trees, trimmed off branches, and cut them into sawn logs, all by hand. Oxen dragged these logs to the river's edge where, during the winter, large piles, or "cold decks," of logs were assembled to await the spring floods. When the floods arrived, the logs started on a wild ride downstream to the mill. Brave men called "river drivers" rode these heaving, twisting logs to keep them moving and to try to prevent jams. In the Northwest, close to the Pacific, the logs were assembled into huge, ocean-going rafts, lashed together with chains and towed to coastal sawmills by tugs. In time, the loggers ran out of trees handy to rivers, and an easy way of moving logs from inland had to be found.

In the Northern woods, with their cold winters, logs were moved along iced roads on horse-drawn sleds. The route for an iced road was carefully selected: It had to be level or descend slightly all the way from the woods to the yard where the cold decks were built. Preparing the road began in the fall before the first snow. The route was smoothed and packed with a heavy log drag. A special plow, called a rutter, was then pulled along the road to make the two ruts in which the sled runners traveled. After the temperatures dropped, a sled hauling a wooden tank, warmed by a stove to prevent freezing, was used to sprinkle water in the ruts. This sprinkling was done at night in zero-degree temperatures; repeated applications resulted in a thick layer of ice in each rut.

The ice reduced friction to the extent that huge sled-loads of logs could be moved easily with a minimum of horsepower. Of course, not all the downgrades were slight and the steeper hills created problems for the teams. Hay or straw was spread on the ice in those places, but hundreds of horses were killed or injured by runaway sleds every winter. The team could gallop only so fast in trying to stay ahead of the heavy load and, while the teamster could jump, the unfortunate horses had nowhere to go.

In the forests of the Northwest and South, where it didn't get cold enough for iced roads, horse-drawn log movers with wheels were developed.

Logging wagons were used in some areas. These vehicles were similar to farm wagons, but were heavier and longer. Built in four-, six- and eight-wheeled models, the Western versions usually had heavy, solid (rather than spoked) wheels. Wagons were difficult to load. Logs had to be cross-hauled onto the wagon or lifted on by a horse- or steam-powered crane (or "jammer").

Widely-used two-wheeled carts were easier to load. They were known by different names, depending on how the logs were carried. If the load was carried on top of the cart axle, the device was called a "bummer." Carts that carried their loads suspended beneath the axle were known as "high wheels" or "big wheels."

Bummers usually had low wheels and carried the weight of only one end of a log while the other end dragged behind. Some models were self-loading, using the tongue as a lever to lift the log end onto the axle.

The high wheel and big wheel carts had giant, spoked wheels of 10 to 12 feet in diameter, allowing the cart to straddle large logs. Two different types were used: stiff-tongue and slip-tongue, both using leverage to lift the load.

To load a stiff-tongue, the wheels were backed so as to straddle the load of logs. The team was unhitched and the tongue was pulled up to a vertical position, rotating the square axle rearward. Chains were passed under the load and hooked to cast iron "gypsy" blocks on top of the axle. A chain was left attached to the tongue, which the team then used to pull the tongue down to a horizontal position. As the axle rotated forward, the load chains moved around the eccentric gypsy blocks and lifted the load off the ground. The tongue was then chained down, the team was hitched and away they went.

The slip-tongue version had a long, hardwood tongue that could slide horizontally in a socket on the cart axle. A long, vertical lever operated a rotating drum at its bottom end, while its top end was connected to a point forward on the tongue by a chain or cable. As the cart was backed over a load, the tongue slid to the rear, allowing the lever to rotate the drum rearward. Load chains were passed under the load and looped over the drum. As the team was driven forward, the tongue slid forward and pulled the lever upright. This turned the drum, tightened the load chains and lifted the logs.

Slip-tongue big wheels could haul heavier loads due to their enhanced lifting power, and they could negotiate steeper downgrades. Stiff-tongue carts had no brakes, and teams often had to gallop to keep ahead of the load. Out-of-control big wheels sometimes crashed, killing or maiming horses and drivers. Slip-tongue carts, on the other hand, had a built-in braking system. As the load overtook the team on a downgrade, the tongue slipped rearward, lowering the lever and letting the log drag on the ground, slowing the rig.

Even these innovative methods of moving logs proved too labor-intensive as the 20th century dawned, and soon the new internal combustion engine took over. FC


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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