Historic Redwood Logging

Redwood Logging Operation, 1870s - 1930s

This page is an off-shoot of > Largest Coast Redwoods

This page is one of a 6 page set on historical redwood logging. See:

Historic Coast Redwood Logging Equipment and Machinery






The Season

Logging in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties usually began for the season in the '80s and '90s soon after the Christmas and New Year's holidays, providing the season had not been unusually wet. A crew of a dozen men or more was sent to each logging camp. This crew usually consisted of a cook, several choppers, a few sawyers, and others to peel and ring the trees after they were felled.


The employment of 1st class choppers was vital, because an error in felling a single tree, whereby it was smashed, "takes away the profit of the lumberman to the amount of the chopper's wages for a month." Great skill in felling redwoods was mandatory, where the trees would more than cover the ground solidly, if it were attempted to make a clean cutting. In heavily timbered districts, an attempt to remove all the standing redwood, at the same cutting, would result in a loss of "timber to owners that would appear ridiculously great to lumbermen of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Canada." Where the redwood grew the thickest, three cuttings over the same ground was the practice.

Most of the timber was felled with saws, but an undercut (kerf) first had to be made with the axe, and the choppers had to be skilled with both axe and saw. The favored saw was a 12-foot saw, worked by two men. It had ears at each end, secured by bolts, which could be removed at the operator's pleasure.

The head chopper first determined which way the redwood was to fall, marking out a path where it would least injure itself and other timber. On steep hills it was usually made to fall uphill, but if the countryside was broken or eroded, the chopper had to be extremely careful, as the tremendous weight of the tree made it subject to injury in falling. An unskilled hand could shatter several thousand feet of lumber. He also had to look out for the safety of the score or more trees that might be in reach of the first to be felled, as all of them would have to be felled before any were removed. After the bed had been selected, a staging would be erected to bring "the choppers on a common level and elevate them sufficiently to cut the bole of the tree above the irregularities produced" by the huge roots. The tree was usually cut six to ten feet above the ground.

When the staging had been completed, an undercut (kerf) was made on the side of the tree toward which it was to fall. In making this cut both the head chopper and his assistant worked together, one being a right-handed chopper and the other left-handed. Double-biting axes, weighing from three to four pounds, were favored. The helves, strong and flexible, were fashioned of the best second-growth hickory. These helves were mostly manufactured in Pennsylvania, cost from 75˘ to $1 each, and were from 38 to 42 inches in length.

A man who swung over three pounds of steel all day at the end of a 42-inch handle developed powerful arm and shoulder muscles. Eastern lumberjacks frequently questioned the use of such long helves. The reason, they were told, was that the woodman must be able to reach the center of the tree from his position on the platform, and in many of the redwoods that center was four to six feet from the outer edge. Before going into the woods in the morning, the double-headed axes were ground to a razor's edge. The chopper was thus certain of a keen edge throughout the day, without returning to camp to use the grindstone, should his edge be blunted by accident.

In making the undercut, care was exercised to insure that the kerf extended on either side an equal distance from the point toward which the tree was to fall. For this purpose a "gun" or "pointer" was used to indicate the distance the forest giant was to fall. The undercut finished, the choppers were about ready to take up the felling saw. To facilitate starting the saw properly, two holes were bored horizontally into the tree, about two inches in depth. Wooden pins were then driven into these holes, on which the saw rested until the kerf was deep enough to steady it. Steel wedges were driven into the cut opened by the saw. As it bit deeper into the tree more wedges were added, "until the tree is forced bodily over by the mechanical power of the driven wedges."

Choppers in the 1880s were paid up to $125 per month, many less, depending on their experience and ability to save timber from breakage, when it was felled.

The Peelers

Before the tree was cut into logs, it was studied by the sawyer "to determine how it will cut to the best advantage." The logs were cut in lengths of even feet from 12 up to 20. Where a cut was to be made, a "ring" was cut into the bark. Next, the "peelers" were turned to. With an axe they cut through the thick bark at the points indicated by the sawyer. Then with long steel bars, flattened at one end, they jointly drove them through the bark, and alternately pried the bark from the redwood, preparing the way for the men with the cross-cut saws. At certain seasons of the year, the bark came off easily. Peelers in the last quarter of the 19th century were paid from $50 to $60 per month and provided their board.

Sawyers and Road Building

In cutting the tree into logs, an eight-foot saw was favored. It could be handled by one man. Since 1880 in camps where a number of sawyers were employed, a man was hired to file the saws and keep them in cutting trim. With the approach of spring and with the days getting longer, the crew was beefed up from 40 to 60 men, and several million feet of logs were soon ready for hauling. The most difficult and expensive part of the work connected with logging in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties now began. This was the construction of roads. Road building in this rugged region was expensive. Sometimes several thousand dollars had to be spent on a road before a single log was reached.

In reference to road building, many buyers of redwood land, unfamiliar with logging the giants, were known to make serious mistakes in their estimates. On a tract of 160 acres there might be 6,000,000 feet of standing timber, while the same amount of timber may be found on another tract of half that acreage. The uninformed would suppose that the 160-acre tract was the more valuable, because it contained more acreage. If he did the logging himself, and spent $5,000 or more in cutting roads over the 160 acres to get out six million feet of timber, while on the 80-acre tract he could harvest the same quantity of timber by an expenditure of $2,500 for roads, he would be poorer but wiser.

The Swampers

Early in the spring, a crew of "swampers" began opening logging roads. The underbrush was cut away, and along with the bark stripped off by the peelers, was stacked and burned. They had to be careful to see that if a wind came up, the fire did not spread and destroy a valuable log. In case of emergency, the swampers could call on the water packer for assistance.

Skid Roads

Skid roads were built. These roads were built of compactly laid, small round timber, 12 feet in length. The skids were cut from young timber, one third to one-half greater in diameter, and placed six feet apart. The skids were barked smooth, as were the logs, thus the drag was comparatively light.

The Ox Team and Teamster

When the number of choppers was increased, the teamsters and teams, and "chain tenders" reported for duty. The camp might now number anywhere from 30 to 100 men, according to the quantity of timber to be got out. The team was usually eight to 12 powerful oxen, or in some cases six, eight, or ten heavy draft horses. The team, whether composed of oxen or horses, was driven by one man, who next to the cook was the most important individual in camp, and received by far the highest wages.

The teamster (bull-puncher) was paid from $150 to $200 per month and bunking accommodations thrown in. His calling was quite as professional as that of the engineer, head sawyer, accountant, or lawyer. If he had a family, he was permitted to live apart from the crew, drawing rations from the storehouse, while his wife did the cooking. A good bull-puncher was born—not made. He knew his beasts, their strengths and weaknesses, by heart. For the "well-disposed, obedient animal," he had a pet name.

For the savage-eyed, with unruly predilections, he had his "christening of a sterner sort." He saw that they were fed morning, noon, and night, and groomed with curry comb and brush. His working day was accordingly longer, and he had little time to chat with the choppers and chain tenders, who gathered after supper to smoke their pipes. In the long run, the production of the camp was dependent on the teamster. With poor help, the best teamster was handicapped, but experienced men were generally hired for all key positions. In driving oxen, the teamster used words of command, supplemented by a "goad stick." This was a piece of hardwood, about four-foot long, with a brad in the end.

On occasions the brad was driven into the thick hide of a lagging ox. His main reliance, however, was on a powerful set of lungs. The ease with which an ox team worked, depended on the leaders. "With a pair of leaders that will supplement the driver's lungs everything is possible." Oxen could be driven from any point, and the driver might be found on the "off" side as often as on the "nigh."

The Water Packer

When the team started with a load for the landing, the work of the teams and "water packer" began. The water packer for a brief period became the "arbiter of the life and fortunes of the team, teamster, and load." It was his duty to accompany the team and keep the "road generously sprinkled with water in front of the load." If he were careless, the load could be precipitated down a steep grade onto the team, or he could "hang the load up" in the most difficult place. Water barrels were positioned along the logging roadway at key points, and five-gallon coal oil cans provided with stout wooden hand-pieces scattered along the way. These were filled with water on the way up the grade, for on the trip down "everything is done with a rush and there is no time to dabble in water."

The water packer stayed with the team to supply sufficient water to make the "logs glide smoothly with the least strain on the team. Woe to the 'water packer' who stumbles, or inadvertently spills a can of water at time brink of a steep grade." If this occurred, the logs would shoot forward and overwhelm the team before the teamster could bellow a command. He would likewise be in trouble if the water gave out on a hard pull and the load hung up. Then men with jackscrews would have to be called in to get the logs moving again. A false step could throw the water packer in front of the logs, and by poor judgment he could drive the logs down onto the team and pull-puncher.

The water packer and head "chain-tender" worked closely with the teamster, as it was necessary that the latter have full control as to the weight of the load.

Other Members of the Logging Crew

To round out the logging crew, there was an engineer at the donkey, the block-shifters, gypsy-tender, the chain-tenders, and hand-skidders. The engineer also doubled as stoker. The chain-tender or hook-tender had to be an alert individual. The dogs, or hooks, made of steel one and one-half or two inches square, pointed at one end, with an eye and ring at the other to which chains could be attached, were driven into the log at points required for utilizing power to the maximum.

The chain-tender would then signal the engineer. When the donkey-winch started, something had to give. If the chain broke, under the strain, the tender could be injured or killed by the whiplash. The slipping of a dog was equally dangerous. The hand-skidder with his iron-handled maul drove the dogs into the logs and pried them loose at the landing with the iron handle, tossing the chains over the yokes of oxen for the return trip. The block-shifter also had to be careful. The block, or pulley which he was responsible for was in almost continual use. For example, the log might have to be started at right angles from the direct line between it and the donkey, or a giant stump might necessitate a movement of the log to the left or right.

A block would be used by the tender to secure the desired angle of stress. If the heavy rope that worked upon the gypsy of the donkey, and was attached to the log chain, moving through his block, separated, he must be in position to escape the rebound. Block tenders and chainmen were paid from $30 to $50 per month and their board in the 1880s and 1890s. The gypsy-tender took in and paid out rope. As he was posted at the donkey, he helped the engineer gather fuel for the steam engine.

The Introduction of the Steam Donkey

One day early in the 1880s an unusually high tide floated logs from the William Carson mill pond into Humboldt Bay. H. N. Mercer at this time was operating a piledriver near the edge of the mill pond. Carson suggested that Mercer hitch a line from his steam donkey to the logs and pull them back into the pond. Seeing how well this operated, Carson began speculating as to how this system of employing donkey engines might be used on land. The Dolbeer Logging Engine resulted, built by Carson's partner, John Dolbeer. It consisted of an upright boiler and engine and was used to snake logs to the roads and for coupling them together in preparation for the ox teams. The Dolbeer Donkey was introduced at Salmon Creek in 1882.

While useful, the first donkeys were unable to pull logs along the skid roads. Within the year, Dolbeer's geared donkey, which besides pulling a train of logs could be used for loading, made its appearance. One set of driving wheels was in front, turned by a cogged driving gear meshed with the inner rim of the wheels. At the engine's tip in front, and several feet from the driving wheels, was an axle turned by a small cog, also meshed with the driving gear. At each end of the axle were spools on which cable could be wound. By detaching the driving wheels and meshing in the winch, the cable could be used to haul logs a short distance from the woods and onto cars.

By 1888 over 100 of Dolbeer's improved donkeys were in use in Humboldt County and they had been introduced into Del Norte. Fixed on a heavy bed or sled, the engine by use of tackle and blocks attached to stumps and trees could pull itself up steep grades, and it was taken into all the back country logging camps and roads. The engine was used to clear the way of old stumps and logs, but its principal use was to snake logs into the road for the ox team. By the time the spring rains were over and the roads ready for hauling, a large number of logs were ready. In "swamping out" these logs and attaching them with "dogs" and chains, they were "sniped," i.e., the sharp corner or right angle of the forward end was rounded off, so that in hauling it would not dig into the ground, or catch on any obstructions.


Logs in excess of ten-foot in diameter were usually split, while logs of 16- to 20-foot diameter were quartered by blasting. To accomplish this, a long auger was employed. A hole was bored past the center, a cartridge inserted, and the log split into sections that could be easily handled.

The Landing

The landing onto which the logs were hauled by the teams was built of "skids" or poles of fir or pine, laid in the same fashion as a corduroy road, except the poles were much larger, being ten to 20 inches or more in diameter, and capable of supporting the heaviest redwood. Usually there was enough room on the landing to hold several loads, or 20 to 30 logs. The landing was built in the form of a buttress, facing the tramway, railroad, or waterway. Trees, in the rough, 50 to 60 feet long, were hauled to the site, either by donkey or ox-team, and framed in abutment form. The upper, or surface, timbers were hewn and leveled to correspond with the car-bunks, upon which the logs were rolled or slid by the donkey, or the gypsy.

Marking the Logs

At the landing the logs were marked. Among the reasons advanced for marking were: (a) frequently there were several camps putting logs into the same stream or onto the same rail road—although the men in the different camps were working for the same company, it was wise to keep tab on the production of each; (b) the logs were frequently taken from different claims owned by different people, to whom the lumber company paid stumpage. Logs therefore needed two marks—one to designate the land from which they came and another to identify the logging camp. In addition, some logs were "sinkers," and would get lost in the pond, and might be several seasons in reaching the mill. This necessitated a third mark to indicate the year they were put in the pond.

Transporting the Logs to the Mill Ponds

It was inevitable, as the logging sites moved farther away from the mill, that railroads should enter the picture. In Del Norte County two railroads were built by Hobbs, Wall & Co. These railroads were of standard gauge and were engineered to carry the heavy weights imposed in transporting the giant logs. A logging train generally had a four-man crew, excluding the engineer and fireman, who served as brakemen and general utility men under the supervision of the "boss logger." They were able to load from 50,000 to 60,000 feet of logs in an hour.

To load the cars, they were spotted alongside the landing, and the men posted there, aided by the brakemen and general utility men, rolled the logs onto the car with a jackscrew operated by a crank. First, however, "chocks" were placed on the bunks on the opposite side of the car to prevent the log rolling too far. As soon as the log was secured, the engineer eased the train forward and a second car was spotted in front of the landing, while the manipulator of the jackscrew got another log ready to load. As soon as all the cars had been loaded, the locomotive chuffed away from the landing, en route to the mill. A train carrying logs traveled at a speed of about 15 miles per hour.

Mill Ponds

A deep tidewater slough, the arm of a bay or a lake, was the usual railroad terminus. Here a landing was built of heavy logs, with an incline toward the water, the inner line of the landing close to the track. Over this landing, with the aid of jack-screws, the logs were rolled into the water, where they were made up into rafts, and towed to the mills, where they were stored behind booms. From these ponds, the logs were snaked up an incline into the mill by a huge chain attached to a low iron car. This car had first been lowered into the water, the log floated onto it, and made fast. The sawyer being ready for the log, he lifted or rolled it into place upon the carriage by means of a derrick. The log was secured, the lever thrown over, and the log moved up against the double, or triple, circular saws, which cut their way through the wood.

Technological Advances

In 1892 David Evans built the first bull donkey, designed to haul large numbers of logs along the skid roads. It was very successful, and a number were soon introduced into Del Norte County. By the 1920s, the bull donkeys had replaced the teams of oxen. With the bull donkey, logs were pulled from all over the logged area by means of cables into a string or train ready for the trip down a skid road to the landing. A bull donkey engine was able to pull a train of ten logs down the hill. Crude oil was splashed on the skids to reduce friction, but the bull donkey yanked the logs down by brute strength until a groove was worn in the skids. The bull donkey engine was large and had tremendous power, its cable would often be five miles long. The cable was wound around an enormous drum as it was pulled in, while a smaller cable was played out, so that the longer cable might return to the logging area.

The high line, powered by a bull donkey, was introduced in the 1900s. Instead of snaking the logs along the ground, it lifted them to the landing at the railroad.

By 1912 Hobbs, Wall had abandoned the use of jackscrews in unloading their cars into the pond. They now employed capstans to pull the logs off. The company likewise discontinued the use of truck cars, switching to "Bobby" and "Kimble" cars.

Caterpillars were first used for logging in the area in 1925 at Klamath Bluff. By the following year, Superintendent Davis and his team were using caterpillars to assemble their rafts at the mouth of the Klamath. Power saws appeared in the early 1930s, and by 1936 their use was general. After World War II, with the rapid expansion of the lumber industry in Del Norte County, bulldozers were used to build roads into the logging areas, and trucks and trailers to speed the logs to the mills.



The information on this page is from:

REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK: History Basic Data, Del Norte and Humboldt Counties, California - 1969 / 1982

National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service Division of History Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation