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
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
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
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
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
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.