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.

| March 2005

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").