One of the aspects of the 19th century Redwood Coast lumber boom that most captured my imagination and compelled me to create stories to bring that time back to life was the Herculean efforts that was required to move thousands of enormous redwoods from forest to mill to market. Being from Berkeley, I can hear the howls of protests reacting to that statement. “Why are you trying to glorify the way these people ravaged virgin forests?”
The short answer is that I’m not.
Having traveled extensively through Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, I’ve always lamented the spoiled remains of clear cutting operations and the distressing human casualties they left in their wake in lumber towns like Scotia, Orick, and Fort Bragg. It is the human factor, the effort people were willing to expend, the hardships they were willing to endure, that makes The Relentless Harvest more of a story about courage, ingenuity, and persistence than one about the grandeur of lumber barons amassing huge fortunes. It echoes the recurring American story of ambition, struggle, and triumph. If it includes people of wealth and influence ruthlessly exploiting the intrepid souls blazing trails and making sacrifices, that is also part of our American story.
Many of the first loggers to arrive on the coast in the early 1850s had been involved in timber businesses back east. But they had never encountered anything the size our Sequoia sempervirens before. Their crosscut saws were too small to span the redwood’s enormous girth, their method of felling it were inadequate, and, once they wrestled the giant to the ground, they were hard pressed how to transport it.
The first operations were in close proximity to the few mills that had been built, so transportation wasn’t such an issue. The loggers relied on techniques they’d learned back east: building a series of chutes and skid roads between the cutting area and the mill. A chute was like a vertical road. The loggers cleared a path down a hillside twelve to fifteen feet wide so they could slide logs down an embankment. A skid road was often constructed on more level terrain. As with chutes, a crew would clear a roadbed, twelve to twenty feet wide (a process known as swamping). Then they would place logs eight to twelve inches in diameter and as long as the skid road was wide across the roadway at ten foot intervals. The last step was to fill in the spaces between the logs with branches, brush and dirt. The finished skid road might be as much as two feet higher than the original road bed, depending on the terrain and construction methods.
Creating a network of skid roads and chutes in the mountainous terrain of the Redwood Coast was a tremendous undertaking, an impressive feat of engineering. And expensive: $5000 per finished mile at a time when loggers were earning less than $35 per month.
Before the logs could be moved over the skid roads and chutes, the thick redwood bark had to be removed. Barking was a dangerous job done by men known as barkers or peelers. The bark was itself a valuable product and was hauled back to the mill with the timber. When the barking was done, buckers would come in to cut the fallen trees into manageable pieces, often twelve to twenty feet in length. In order to do this, new crosscut saws had to be developed that were long enough to cut through larger diameter trees.
Once the trees had been cut into sections, they would be moved down to the skid road by a yarding crew using ropes, horses and ingenious devices called jack screws (or sometimes screw jacks). When the segments were lined up on the road, they were tethered together with chains and pulled by a team of horses or oxen. A load might consist of as many as eight to ten log segments.
The skid road was lubricated with either water or grease by a man known as a water slinger or grease monkey. The other key person in moving a load was the bull punch, who controlled the ox team, mainly through vocal commands but occasionally with the use of a goad, a long stick with a nail on the end. The load would either be hauled directly to the mill or to a stream where they would later be floated to the mill.
Hauling a load along a skid road could be a treacherous undertaking. The water slinger had to know when to speed up the load by lubricating the skids and when to slow it down by covering the skids with dirt. If a load moved too slowly, it could come to a sudden stop, which not only might injure the oxen, but also make it harder to start moving again. If a load moved too quickly, it might overtake the bull punch and team. There are numerous stories of men and animals being severely injured or killed by a runaway load.
New technology appeared over time to ease the task of moving timber to the mill. Steam donkeys eventually made yarding the logs much easier. The steam engine also helped usher in a new age of logging railroads that could get larger loads to the mill more quickly. While loggers required fewer skid roads in the age of steam, it would be decades before they would abandon them altogether.
There are still numerous places in Mendocino County where you can see the remnants of skid roads. The photo of the logging boom above was taken along the Big River Haul Road, just outside the town of Mendocino. And the Fern Canyon Trail in Van Damme State Park along Little River follows an old skid road.