Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 5 miles – Time out: 6 hours
Degree of Difficulty: 1 – Highest Elevation: 800 ft.
Pet Friendly: Yes
November 5th 2014
A century ago, the Snow Creek Logging Company had a large camp in the hills of Miller Peninsula southeast of Blyn, WA. The company, one of many on the Olympic Peninsula, cut millions of board feet of logs from 1917 to the 1930’s. One day in November, I decided to go and search for clues to the camp on the old dirt roads and paths between Sequim Bay and Discovery Bay. The drive between the head of the two bays, along the curve of SR-101 is ten miles, but hiking through the forest, straight across the neck of Miller Peninsula, the distance was half that. If the logging roads on my map actually existed, I hoped I could find the site of the camp and make it out of the woods before the early winter darkness.
I began my walk at 10:30am at the misty shore of Sequim Bay. There were few opportunities to earn quick and easy cash in the pioneer economy of the Pacific Northwest in the 1850’s; a farm took years to clear, and trapping, fishing or prospecting were specialized trades. But then there was logging. Logs paid cash, and on the Olympic Peninsula there were huge stands of timber right on the shoreline. The big trees only had to be cut, tumbled into the water and the cash-money pocketed. The logs were rafted to sawmills while the lumber hungry cities of the West cried for more.
I walked south up into the hills above Blyn along Woods Road. This land, logged long ago, had grown back into a forest. Wisps of fog hung between the dark green firs. As I climbed, each turn took me onto smaller and less traveled dirt roads. There were no birds singing, only my boots crunching on the dirt road and a creek’s soft babble broke the silence. I enjoy long walks in the woods. “He is the richest man who pays the largest debt to his shoemaker,” said the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Back in the early 1850’s, while Emerson was experiencing the spirituality of walking in the New England woods, Olympic Peninsula pioneers could barely move through their tangled forests. Like settlers of every era who have stood in front of vast timberlands, those early Olympic Peninsula settlers thought of trees as weeds that were blocking the path of civilization and a resource that must be exploited. It was no wonder that soon after the first load of Puget Sound timber sailed to San Francisco in 1850, the trees along the water’s edge had all been felled and rafted to primitive Olympic Peninsula sawmills.
Once the easy timber was felled along the shoreline, a new skill was needed to extract the logs from deeper in the forest – enter the Teamsters. These tough men drove yokes of eight or more bull oxen that skidded the logs along a road of wooden ties, resembling a railroad without the metal rails. The skids or crosspieces were foot and a half diameter logs, peeled for less resistance, notched in the center to guide the logs and then half-sunk across the trail. Each haul was called a “turn.” Because the century-old trees were so colossal, many a Teamster’s turn was just a single log, and because of the uneven geography of the hills, the farthest a Teamster could reach was a mile or so from shoreline. For now the immense stands of big trees further inland stood unmolested.
To easily drag the massive logs along the skid road, a young boy ran in front of the yoke of oxen and greased the crossties. According to Brandon Satterlee, there was a young Indian boy named Glease who sang a four-word chanty while he worked. In his left hand he carried a bucket of skid grease, in his right, a swab made of a piece of sacking on a broomstick. With the word, “chickamin,” he plunged the swab into the bucket and took the first hop, the second hop at the world, “luckutchee,” the third at the word “klootchman,” and at the fourth he was at the next skid, and as he said “lum,” he brought down the swab down on the skid and started the chant again. In the Chinook language the words meant money, clams, women, whisky.
Now it was the sawmill owner’s turn to ramp up their technology. Early sawmills were primitive affairs usually relying on a tumbling stream for water power. That would all change in the spring of 1853 when Captain Fredric Talbot, an experienced sawmill owner from the State of Maine, sailed up the Strait of Juan de Fuca, past land so densely wooded that a passenger exclaimed, “Timber! Timber – till you can’t sleep!” Talbot dropped anchor in a sheltered bay complete with a level sandy spit about five miles from the entrance of Hood Canal. The Native Americans called the place “Teekalet” which means, “Brightness of the noonday sun.” Talbot off-loaded his equipment there, and by September, an advertisement appeared claiming the Puget Mill Company already had lumber and dry goods at their store to sell. By the first full year, the mill had sawed over three and a half million board feet. It wasn’t until the mid-1860’s that Talbot and his partner Andrew Jackson Pope, both Yankees from the State of Maine, changed the name of the town to Port Gamble, and it became the pretty New England-style company town that we all love today.
How did the Puget Mill Company at Port Gamble become the most successful business on Puget Sound so quickly? According to Edwin T. Coman and Helen Gibbs, the owners were experienced sailors and they knew how to sell lumber products all over the word. By 1854, the first year of the Puget Mill Company’s operation, 40% of their sawed lumber was exported. From the wharves at Port Gamble and from the other mills on Puget Sound that the company eventually acquired, Pope & Talbot shipped lumber products to customers in Japan, Hawaii, Australia, South America, China, Korea, India, and South Africa, loaded onto a company fleet that at one time totaled fourteen ships.
Shipbuilders improved the designs of their ships to accommodate the huge loads of Pacific Northwest lumber. A model of the commercial sailing schooner, Wawona, sits on my fireplace mantle. The Wawona was the largest three-masted schooner ever built on the West Coast for the lumber trade. The Wawona was 165 feet long and her masts were 110 feet tall. From 1897 to 1913 the Wawona carried lumber from Washington ports to California. At one time there was a fleet of 300 schooners like the Wawona, sailing up and down the West Coast, ready for their holds to be loaded with lumber the moment they docked at a sawmill.
At the lumber mills like Port Gamble, the loading wasn’t trusted to machines or dockside laborers. The loading was done carefully, by hand, and by the ships own crew, so that they knew that the stacked lumber wouldn’t shift on the rolling sea.
…her bow-ports knocked out; a stage is rigged; the men are divided into gangs; the Mates take their stations in the hold – the Chief on the port, and the second on the starboard-side – when the work of loading commences. The men on the wharf run the lumber down the stage into the ports, stick by stick, each time singing out “starboard” or “port” according to the side that at the moment is receiving it. The Mate stows the cargo on one side and the Second Mate on the other. After the hold is full, the deck-load is put on…their deck-loads piled so high when fully laden, that, instead of showing their symmetrical hulls, little else is seen but the huge piles of lumber and the vessel’s spars peering above them. – From Lumbering in Washington Territory by Charles M. Scammon, Overland Monthly, July 1870.
By 1870 the big sawmills on and around the Olympic Peninsula had all expanded. Now their massive circular saws could handle nine-foot thick logs and turn out planks 60 feet in length. There was the sawmill at Port Madison which could saw 80,000 board feet daily; Port Ludlow had increased to 60,000 feet a day; Seabeck around 50,000 feet and Port Blakely, 30,000 feet a day. When Pope & Talbot expanded at Port Gamble they now had the capacity of 160,000 board feet of lumber each day. A board foot is the volume of a one-foot length of a board, one foot wide and one inch thick. It takes around 20,000 board feet of lumber to build a five-room framed house. So the big mills now had the capacity to saw enough timber to build 19 big houses each day. Could the loggers fill the sawmill’s increased capacity with axes, hand saws and oxen? No. Logging operations in the forests would need to expand and become mechanized. Now it was the logger’s turn to ramp up their technology. They formed corporations and battled to see who could log-off the most virgin timber on the Olympic Peninsula. Their new weapons? The steam engine and the logging camp.
To take advantage of the capacity of the new and upgraded sawmills, Michael Earles decided to log the Olympic Peninsula forests on a large scale. After logging Whatcom County at the turn of the last century, Earls purchased large blocks of timber west of Port Angeles. Earles switched from horses to steam engines that used winding cables to drag the felled trees out of the forest. Earles built two big sawmills in Bellingham, so when he logged the forests around the shores of Crescent Bay, he simply pulled his rafts of logs across Puget Sound with a steam powered tugboat. Soon out-of-state corporations followed Earls’s lead. Companies like the Snow Creek Logging Company brought in steam locomotives and built their own railroads deep into the interior of the Olympic Peninsula.
Michael Earles’s logging operation was so extensive that he built a railroad to link the western forests of the Olympic Peninsula around Joyce to Port Angeles and then in 1914 eastward to Port Townsend. This railroad survived until bankruptcy in the 1980’s. Today, thanks to a heroic volunteer effort, a majority of the original railroad bed has been converted into the multi-use, Olympic Discovery Trail.
Just as the steam engine supplied never-ending power to move logs to the mills, the company logging camp supplied an always-available, labor pool. One of these logging camps was operated by the Snow Creek Logging Co, which was cutting timber south of Blyn and east of Jimmy’ Come-Lately Creek. I was searching for the evidence of this logging camp hidden in second growth forest along the neck of Miller Peninsula.
The dirt road kept climbing through the mist in the hills above Blyn, and I kept searching for clues from the long ago Snow Creek Logging Company. In the summer of 1920, the US Forest Service awarded the Snow Creek Lumber Company a contract to harvest 30,000,000 feet of timber right here in this forest, enough wood to build 1,500 houses. For over a decade, these woods would echo the sounds of engines and falling timber by day and the snores of the tired “Timber Beasts” sleeping in their logging camps at night.
The life of a Timber Beast working for a big timber corporation and living at their company logging camp wasn’t easy. The breakfast whistle at the Snow Creek Logging Camp would have blasted early in the morning. The crew would have sat down to standard logging faire; boiled corned-beef, potatoes, baked beans, “hash,” hot griddle-cakes, biscuits, butter, and coffee. There weren’t many fruits and vegetables. The dinner menu was much the same too. At the table, the men in the logging camps didn’t say a word and ate quickly so they could consume their fair share of the food. They devoured anything edible and clomped away from the table as soon as there was nothing left.
Not all loggers were bachelors. Contrast how it was for a married man to eat a meal in a logging camp in the Pacific Northwest. At the end of their shift, while single men returned to a communal dining hall and dirty bunkhouse, married men returned to a home. According to Olive Barber, a logging camp wife:
“…to watch Curly’s face light up as he entered the door and saw me freshly aproned with as far as he knew, supper waiting, always did things to me. That I had the power to bring such complete contentment to him was a humbling experience. What small return, I thought, men asked of life. They worked day after day in wet and cold and mud and felt fully repaid if, at night, they returned to a lighted home and found it fragrant with food and their woman waiting.”
While I was having a challenging time finding evidence of the Snow Creek Logging Company camp in the forested hills above Sequim Bay, the evidence of their logging dump on the shore of Sequim Bay used to be difficult to ignore. The Snow Creek Logging Company brought their logs out of the forest and dumped them into the Sequim Bay at Blyn where they were rafted to mills. The log dump was used up until 1990 when it was abandoned. Shortly after, the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe partnered with government and non-profit agencies and removed the log yard road, pilings, pier, and contaminated fill. They realigned the creek and moved the highway away from the estuary. Today, this shoreline that had been brutalized for over a century by the Blyn log dump has been returned to its natural beauty which you can see for yourself if you walk along the Olympic Discovery trail to the Sequim Bay Estuary.
At about noon I crossed the headwaters of the creek and began to walk downhill along the watershed that emptied into Discovery Bay. As I kept searching for evidence of the Snow Creek Logging Company, the Forest Service road became narrower, and somewhere along the Clallam-Jefferson County line, it devolved into a muddy trail. I didn’t want to have to turn and head back to Blyn, but it was late and I risked spending a miserable night in the dark, wet woods. Life in many logging camps in the Pacific Northwest in the early decades of the last century were miserable too. While a few spouses, like Mrs. Olive Barber, could help to make a camp shack seem like home, that was the exception. Most men were bachelors and their living conditions were dismal. Men complained of poor heating, lice and bedbugs, no place to dry wet clothes, unsanitary privies and inedible food. The animalistic conditions in some camps gave new meaning to the nickname Timber Beast. Why were camps like this? In a vicious circle, the timber company owners looked down upon the lumberjack as temporary labor, so they did not spend money on comforts that would incentivize the men to stay. Besides, reasoned the logging company owners, the lumberjack couldn’t be depended on because when he was needed most he had already quit and headed into town.
Not only were many northwest logging camps dirty and uncomfortable, but they were dangerous places to work too. While a single blast of the steam-whistle signaled the start and end of the men’s shift, six shrieks screamed that a man was badly injured. According to Mrs. Olive Barber, back at the logging camp the woman poured into the open with blanched faces, either frozen in terror or openly crying. All prayed to God that it wasn’t their husband who was maimed or killed. As soon as the name of the man on the stretcher was known, Mrs. Olive Barber remembered:
One woman said, ‘Thank God!’ then looked strickenly at us, asking our understanding for such a lack of feeling. And we did understand, for all of us had experienced that same upsurge of relief. Though grieving for both the victim and his loved ones, yet he was not our man. Again we had been spared.”
The Snow Creek Lumber Company continued to fill Sequim Bay with rafts of logs headed for the mills, but by the 1920’s the logging camp operators and mill owners could no longer devalue their employees with low pay and unsafe working conditions. First unions and then the more radical International Workers of the World Organization led industry strikes and work slowdowns. Men died in violent marches and demonstrations. While the army was helping to log spruce in the Pacific Northwest during World War I, logging camp owners agreed to eight-hour days and bunkhouse sheets changed once a week.
Unrest even reached the Snow Creek Logging Company where, in 1921, a hundred men walked off the job over low wages. Finally, government organizations were formed to oversee worker safety. Gone were the early days of employer indifference. According to Archie Binns, operators like Cyrus Walker could no longer avoid assisting an employee’s widow by claiming, like Walker did in 1890, that he’d like to help but, “it would set an unfortunate precedent and give the impression that an employer has responsibilities to his employees.”
It was the labor unrest the brought about improvements to unsafe and inhospitable living conditions at the logging camps. Fewer strikes and work stoppages led to increased productivity and more trees being cut. Advances in the lumberman’s arsenal of tools made denuding entire forests much easier. Gone were the days when horses or oxen and drivers took only the big timber and left the rest to grow. With the steam engines and cables dangling from the tops solitary spar poles, logs that were yanked along the ground became battering rams, gouging deep trenches into the earth. Meanwhile, the efficiency of mechanized saws allowed a single man to clear anything else left standing. Finally, the new generation of railroad engineers and bridge builders laid tracks for the iron horse, with its power to haul an unlimited number of colossal logs, deep into the interior of the Olympic Peninsula. Where once there were beautiful forests, now there were miles and miles of ugly stumps and dead limbs just waiting to spark into an inferno.
I walked past an ancient stump with notches cut into it. I didn’t stop to ponder if the Snow Creek Logging Company had cut this tree because the woods were getting darker and I needed to speed up my pace if I was going to make it out while there was still daylight. A century ago, the pace of clearcutting had increased on the Olympic Peninsula too, not just because of technology, but also because of economics. It was called “Highballing.” First of all the price of forest land had risen dramatically. Heavy equipment was more expensive, and now there were taxes to pay. Competition was fierce. Logging outfits decided the only way to make their operations pay was to cut as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
Finally, I reached the end of my journey when the woods ended at open farmland and I could see the head of Discovery Bay. By the 1930’s, the sawmill and the timber companies were reaching the end of a journey too. It was a journey that had begun in 1850 when the first colossal Douglas Firs from the endless Olympic Peninsula forests were felled, sawn into planks, and shipped to San Francisco. Now timber interests could see that the infinite stands of gigantic trees were not so infinite after all. With another big technological leap, some mills converted from sawing massive Douglas Fir logs to processing Hemlock for wood pulp products and other chemicals. A few of these pulp mills still operate today on the Olympic Peninsula. But for the rest of the timber interests that relied on big trees to keep their logging crews clearcutting and their sawmill blades spinning, their fight against logging restrictions was a desperate one. Conservationists demanded protection for the last stands of primeval forests. Why cut down everything in sight and delay the inevitable for only a few years, they argued. The battle raged until Olympic National Park was created in 1939 and the last great stands of forests, like in the Hoh River Valley, were finally protected.
Though there were clues in the forested hills between Sequim Bay and Discovery Bay, like old logging roads, huge rotted stumps, and a gate made from a bit of old railroad rail, I never did find the location of the Snow Creek Logging Company camp. Snow Creek ceased operations in the mid 1930’s. The timber outfits that were left on the Olympic Peninsula began hiring loggers that would commute to work, and so the logging camp culture vanished. One by one across the Olympic Peninsula, the big sawmills disappeared too, the last being Port Gamble which held on until the 1980’s.
I ended my journey across the neck of Miller Peninsula with a cold beer and a plate of delicious fish and chips at the Snug Harbor Café. Across the highway was Discovery Bay where the remains of a sawmill and railroad trestle had been removed, contaminated soils scraped away, and the shoreline restored.
There have been big changes in the logging industry on the Olympic Peninsula. Today, conservation rules and trees are replanted. The Merrill & Ring Corporation is currently harvesting its third generation of trees. Captain Talbot would be amazed at what the timber export market, that he started over 150 years ago, looks like today. Here in Port Angeles, huge ships loaded with seven-million board feet of softwood logs, regularly sail to Chinese ports. Last year the Port of Port Angeles shipped out 108 million board feet. The timber companies have adapted into a sustainable business at which the original Olympic Peninsula loggers would marvel.
Though the railroads, the logging camps and the big saw mills have vanished, logging on the Olympic Peninsula continues, the difference being that today it’s not planks and beams, but uncut logs that are shipped overseas, and the only mills that are left are pulp mills like the Nippon Paper Industries USA facility in Port Angeles.
Not only are there fewer mills but there are fewer loggers on the Olympic Peninsula today. It’s a challenge to attract young people into what is still a tough and dangerous career. According to the Department of Agriculture, mechanization has made up the difference. Instead of felling a tree with a saw, today a logger can sit inside a self-leveling harvester with a directional felling head and a grapple. The enclosed machine is safe, and it replaces from three to five men with chainsaws.
While economics have changed the look of logging on the Olympic Peninsula, one thing that hasn’t changed much in the last three quarters of a century is the battle between logging and conservation. Reminiscent of the fierce national park debate in the 1930s, today the hot topic is protection of Olympic Peninsula watersheds and the wildlife they support, like this owl in the photo below, hidden in the forest canopy along the Dungeness River trail. Rivers that begin in the pristine mountains of Olympic National Park run through unprotected areas in the Olympic National Forest before they reach the sea. The Wild Olympics Campaign seeks to prevent logging along 19 Olympic Peninsula rivers with federal Wild and Scenic protection. Meanwhile logging supporters like The North Olympic Timber Action Committee are fighting these restrictions.
The history of logging on the Olympic Peninsula has come a long way since that first load of lumber left Puget Sound and Timber Beasts lived in logging camps, but in the end, why does that matter to us today? Logging was one of the few cash crops available to early pioneers and this incentive helped fuel Anglo-settlements all along the Olympic Peninsula. Puget Sound’s mighty economy began with logging. The owners of the very first sawmill at Port Gamble realized exports would fuel the growth of their business, lessons that Bill Boeing and Bill Gates have successfully followed. Logging played a role in technological development too; when the pulpwood industry began harvesting not just trees, but their individual properties, entire chemical industries were created. The logging industry has made us safer. It was the horrible working and living conditions in early logging camps that led to strikes, unionization and finally government regulations and laws that have improved job safety for all laborers. Finally, the decimation of Peninsula forests spawned the conservation movement, the designation of Olympic National Park and the tourism industry on the Olympic Peninsula. Perhaps that’s the logging industry’s biggest legacy of all.
I would like to credit these sources for my story. To get the big picture of early logging on the Olympic Peninsula I used Untamed Olympics by Ruby El Hult and The Last Wilderness by Murray Morgan. The specific history of the sawmill at Port Gamble was from Time Tide and Timber, A Century of Pope & Talbot by Edwin T. Coman Jr. and Helen M. Gibbs. Colorful quotations that helped illustrate the early logging history were from The Dub of South Burlap by Brandon Satterlee, “Lumbering in Washington Territory” from the July 1870 issue of Overland Monthly by Charles M. Scammon and Sea in the Forest by Archie Binns. I loved the woman’s perspective of logging camp life that I pulled from The Lady and the Lumberjack by Olive Barber. The modern logging perspective was from a publication, “Logging Demonstration for Forest Leadership; working together to better achieve common goals” by the USDA and the North Olympic Timber Action Committee website. All of these books cited here are well written and worth reading if you are interested in more detail on Olympic Peninsula logging history. – The Incidental Explorer.
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