Commercial lumbering began in Minnesota in 1839 with the founding of Marine on St. Croix, which formed around the area’s first sawmill. A year later a second commercial mill was erected at Stillwater and the lumbering boom began.
Steam power was introduced into saw milling in the 1870s, replacing the need for water power and allowing saw mills to move to other river towns. By 1880, the growth of commercial railroads, steam engine improvements and the invention of the band saw, led to larger sawmills and saw-milling towns in Brainerd, Little Falls, Crookston, Cloquet, Duluth and International Falls.
Logging camps also grew, adding more men and replacing slow-moving oxen with faster draft horses. Log drivers, called "river pigs," made sure cut logs from the forests made it safely to sawmills miles away. By the turn of the century, railroads reached the North Woods and locomotives began to replace horses. Wood from Minnesota supplied these railroads and helped build schools, homes and farm buildings across the West.
Minnesota logging peaked in 1900, with more than 2.3 billion board feet of lumber taken from the state's forests. But problems existed; catastrophic forest fires fueled by logging operations leaving dry tree tops called "slash" swept the landscape and devastated many northern communities: Hinckley in 1894, Chisholm in 1908, Baudette in 1910 and Cloquet-Moose Lake in 1918. Seeing a need to begin conservation measures and fight the growing danger of forest fires, the state created the Minnesota Forest Service, a forerunner to the Department of Natural Resources.
Dwindling Supply: 1900
At the same time, pine harvests grew smaller. The quality of Minnesota lumber was going down, and lumber prices were going up. National demand for wood remained high, however, and Minnesota lumbermen kept cutting. As supply dwindled, sawmills on the St. Croix closed and those at St. Anthony Falls were replaced by flour mills. With the industry in decline, lumber companies looked to the Pacific Northwest and the South for timber. In 1929, the Rainy Lake Lumber Company in Virginia, Minnesota, closed its doors and signaled the end of pine logging in the state. Lumber companies that remained in Minnesota shifted production from saw logs to pulp, paper, matchsticks and manufactured building materials. The last log drive in Minnesota occurred on the Little Fork River in 1937.