Jams, Dams, Pines and Pigs: Reflections on the St. Croix Logging Era

The lumber years were full of characters and stories – and changed the region forever.

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8 minute read

Dave Thorson is owner of Down to Earth Tours, which provides tours of historic and natural sites in northern Wisconsin.

Boom Site

From Askov to Amery, from Hinckley to Hayward, from Marine to Minong, and from Seeley to Stillwater, a little known, yet significant historic occasion, connecting these communities, reaches its 100-year anniversary on Thursday June 12, at precisely 2:30 p.m. The occasion is being celebrated and remembered at an event at the Boomsite Wayside just north of Stillwater.

On that afternoon of June 12, in 1914, a group of St. Croix Boom Company officials, old loggers, lumbermen, rivermen, timber executives, steamboat captains, employees, and residents from Stillwater and around the watershed, met at the Gap. They were there to watch the very last log float to, and through, the St. Croix Boom Company’s sorting works on the river.

An industry begins

The logging era of the St. Croix got rolling soon after the Territory of Wisconsin was established in 1836. The next year, 1837, the Treaty with the Chippewa was signed between the Chippewa Tribe and the United States at St. Peters, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.

The treaty opened the vast pine lands of Wisconsin and Minnesota to the business of logging. The treaty, not surprisingly, became known as the PIne Tree Treaty. The timber interests were watching the proceedings with a keen eye as the agreement set the logging and lumbering activities in motion.

Native people were also watching, as their lives were about to change. One observer of that time foretold that what was to become “the white man’s treasures was also to be the red man’s despairs.” Gain to some, loss to others.

First board sawn

Two years later, in 1839, the first commercial sawmill, the Marine Lumber Company, sawed its first board from a pine log coming downriver from the watershed. That log was run through their brand new saw on August 24,1839, the very start of an epic effort to log the watershed.

Soon, more timber men began moving upriver in search of the mighty white pine – the best wood one could dream of for building just about anything a farm or home builder would need. It was strong, light, and straight-grained – less likely to twist, or warp.

A white pine board could be used for rafters and joists, framing, siding, windows, flooring,and even shingles. The wood was near perfect. A sawmill operator loved to cut white pine saying that “a white pine log would go through the saw like a hot knife through butter.” It was simply the best. And, of course, pine floated, so it could be transported by water. An oak log would immediately sink to the bottom.

Shortly, more mills were built at Stillwater, St. Croix Falls, Hudson, and other points downriver on the Big Mississippi at Dubuque, Burlington and St. Louis, to name some.

The loggers got the easiest and best pine first, from lower in the watershed, like the Apple, the Sunrise, or along the main stem. They gradually moved up into the upper tributary streams like the Snake, or the Kettle in Minnesota, or the Upper St. Croix, Clam, Totogatic, and Namekagon in Wisconsin.

Logging dam and sluiceway on the Clam River in Burnett County, (Thomas St. Angelo Library - Cumberland, Conners Collection)
Logging dam and sluiceway on the Clam River in Burnett County, (Thomas St. Angelo Library – Cumberland, Conners Collection)

Before a single pine was cut, dams, necessary to hold the water for the spring logging drives, were constructed, eventually on nearly every stream and creek in the watershed.

After the dams were constructed logging operations could move forward. Radiating outward from the bigger to the smaller streams, the business of logging expanded, reaching its peak in 1890, when 452 million board feet of logs passed through the Gap (about 2.8 million 16-foot logs of 16 inch diameter.)

What belonged to who

Keeping track of what log belonged to what company was paramount to the success of the industry. To do that, each log was marked or branded, similar to the Texas cattle drives. Every log had an ‘end mark’ stamped by an iron stamping hammer with the particular mar of the owner.

A second ‘bark mark’ was axed onto the side of the log, near its end. This mark, a series of letters or symbols, would identify the individual logging operation that cut, skidded, and drove the logs to the mill. This log would then be credited to the proper account when it reached the mill and was scaled or measured for its volume.

Just as in cattle drives, there would be some ‘rustling’ going on. An unscrupulous thief would cut off the end of a log and put his own marks on the log – apparently easier than doing the logging in the first place. Many got caught, so it wasn’t as lucrative as one might think.

The spring drive

Just after the ice melted in the lakes and rivers, thousands upon thousands of logs, from maybe 100 or more different owners, would hit the rivers, all within a short period of time. Here the river pigs guided these immense numbers of logs down river.

Along the main river and the tributary streams, there were shallows, or tight bends, or possibly a rapids or a huge rock where logs were caught in a log jam. There were years when low water exposed sand bars or years when the stored water just wasn’t enough. The role of the river pigs was to keep those logs moving.

River Pigs pose for a photo  on the Clam River in Burnett County, (Thomas St. Angelo Library - Cumberland, Conners Collection)
River Pigs pose for a photo on the Clam River in Burnett County, (Thomas St. Angelo Library – Cumberland, Conners Collection)

There was danger every day and along every bend of the river. Death by drowning was not uncommon. Yet it was an exhilarating experience, both to the men doing the work, and to the people in the little towns and villages along the river. School would be called off when the drive went through town. It wasn’t every day such an exciting event would come to town. The kids, and everyone, absolutely loved it.

At Gordon, Wisconsin, at the confluence of the St. Croix and Eau Claire “ … there was a certain thrill to sight. The men leaping to and fro across the logs and along the banks always yelling and the logs bumping into each other and banging into the sides of the river banks – all the children were down there watching, fascinated by the spectacle.”

A news story from the Balsam Lake Ledger in 1916 tells a story of old men reminiscing about their childhood days on the St. Croix (called by many the ‘Friendly River’ – when things were going smoothly). One man recalled a special early summer day riding a log for miles and that ‘the best logs to ride were those that had the V Diamond Rabbit Tracks mark.”

V Diamond Rabbit Track bark mark shown on a log retrieved from Sweet Lake at the head of the Eau Claire Lakes Chain in Bayfield County. (Dave Thorson photo)
V Diamond Rabbit Track bark mark shown on a log retrieved from Sweet Lake at the head of the Eau Claire Lakes Chain in Bayfield County. (Dave Thorson photo)

Jams were not good for business

This postcard photo  shows the Jam of ’84 at the Dalles with all the ‘dandies’ posing for the photographer. (Thomas St. Angelo Library - Cumberland, Conners Collection)
This postcard photo shows the Jam of ’84 at the Dalles with all the ‘dandies’ posing for the photographer. (Thomas St. Angelo Library – Cumberland, Conners Collection)

In 1886, a log jam reported to be “the jammedest jam of them all” in the Stillwater Gazette plugged the river. At Angle Rock, in the gorge of the Dalles, a log got hung up. Another grabbed hold, and another, and another, and in very short order 150 million board feet of pine were stuck tight, backed up to the Falls of the St. Croix.

The problem was not just the inconvenience of jammed logs, but was a matter of possible bankruptcy for the mills and all the related businesses in Stillwater – essentially the entire town.

With no logs coming to town, the mills were shut down. No one working, meant no pay checks, and everyone in Stillwater, and down river, suffered. The jam lasted 57 days and nearly ruined many businesses in Stillwater and elsewhere. The only ones working were the steam boat operators, the passenger trains, and the guides who brought the ‘curious’ from St. Paul to witness this incredible scene.

Although log jams were re-occurring nuisances, this near economic disaster led Stillwater lumbermen to end this situation. The answer turned out to be the Nevers Dam, built about 11 miles north of St, Croix Falls in 1889-90. Log jams in the Dalles were finally ended as both water and logs could be controlled to keep things in check.

Lammers Camp drive

In 1893, a logging camp at the extreme edge of the watershed, near the Eau Claire Lakes of southern Bayfield County, sent logs down the Eau Claire River to the St. Croix, and then on to Stillwater.

The men of that camp, known as the Lammers Brothers Camp, a Stillwater firm, (reported to be the largest logging camp in Wisconsin) moved huge white pine logs 161 miles, from the stump, to the mills in Stillwater, an elevation drop of 725 feet. This example illustrates the degree to which loggers would go to get that beautiful pine.

Winding down

Around the turn of the century, it became clear that the once-thought inexhaustible pine timber of the St Croix was nearing its end. No, it didn’t last forever.

During the winter of 1912-13, the last timber cutting to use the river for the drive to Stillwater, was finished. The next spring (1914) those logs left on the banks, or in the shallows, or the side channels of the river bottoms, was salvaged as the river pigs with peavey and pike pole moved the last logs to the main current.

For 75 years, logging was the industry of the valley. Every storekeeper, every farmer, every railroad man, everyone was connected in some way to logging.

It was the logging barons of the day that made this happen. Yes, we hear of the environmental harm that, in hindsight, brought havoc to the watershed. But at the same time it was these men that put people to work, that hired our ancestors for some part of the logging and lumbering business. They built the mills that became the little communities throughout the watershed. Hayward, Hinckley, Pine River and every town and village was there because of logging, or because of railroads, there because of logging.

John Brennan, Boom Superintendent, with pike pole in hand, rides the last log to, and through the Gap of the St. Croix Boomsite at Stillwater. Famed photographer John Runk captured this moment in history on June 12, 1914 at precisely 2:30 that afternoon, one hundred years ago.
John Brennan, Boom Superintendent, with pike pole in hand, rides the last log to, and through the Gap of the St. Croix Boomsite at Stillwater. Famed photographer John Runk captured this moment in history on June 12, 1914 at precisely 2:30 that afternoon, one hundred years ago.

On Friday, June 12, 1914, officials and employees of the St. Croix Boom Company, and many other dignitaries and guests met at the Gap to watch the passing of an era.

There James Brennan, a near legendary veteran of the logging, driving, and lumbering business, rode the last log through the Gap. Carrying a pike pole and looking as balanced as he might have decades before, Brennan smiled at the camera at exactly 2:30, while famed Stillwater photographer John Runk took his photograph, capturing this instant in history.

Epilogue

A pioneer farmer from Barronett, Wisconsin, Matt Arnes, when interviewed years ago about those early days of logging, shared his thoughts. Mr. Arnes said that in those early days, there were men with ‘wish bones,’ and there are men with ‘back bones.’ Dreamers and doers. The logging and lumbering story of the St. Croix was surely written by men with back bones.

That event, occurring exactly one century ago, was most likely a melancholy day for those present. Those activities, and that era, good or bad, shaped what we have in the St. Croix watershed today. They helped build our nation.

Today, one hundred years later, we should celebrate that time, and tip our hats to all of those that were a part of it, and to what they did. A centennial is a time to celebrate, commemorate, and remember.


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One response to “Jams, Dams, Pines and Pigs: Reflections on the St. Croix Logging Era”

  1. […] them 161 miles “from the stump to the mills” in Stillwater, an elevation drop of 725 feet, writes local historian and tour guide Dave Thorson. Thanks to the clear water, I saw many logs on the bottom and theorized many were logging leftovers. […]

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Jams, Dams, Pines and Pigs: Reflections on the St. Croix Logging Era