Forest History Center
2609 County Road 76
Grand Rapids, MN 55744

Hours

Sept. 5, 2017 - June 10, 2018:
Saturday 10 am-4 pm

Call 218-327-4482 for group tours and school field trips.

 

Admission

  • $10 adults
  • $8 seniors
  • $8 college students
  • $8 veterans and active military
  • $6 children 5-17
  • Free for children 4 and under
  • Free for MNHS members

Contact

218-327-4482

2017 Nov 21

Weather Forecast
 

Log Drives

Lumbermen used log drives to transport cut logs from the forests to sawmills miles away.

Logs cut in winter in the woods were stacked on frozen waterways. As spring arrived and the rivers opened, the logs drifted downstream. Left alone, the newly cut pine logs would run aground on sandbars, deadhead on the riverbanks or jam in river rapids.
 
To assure that logs reached the mills lumbermen formed companies to guide the logs downstream. The area's first organized log drives began on the St. Croix River, to move logs to mills in Illinois and Iowa. More rivers carried logs as the industry moved northward. 
 

35

Log drivers, called "river pigs," began in the spring and worked as long as logs remained in the river. River pigs had three separate work roles: a drive crew that pushed, pried and pulled the logs off rocks, roots and rapids to keep them moving downstream; a rear or sacking crew to find the logs that had stalled on obstacles; and the elite jam crew ahead of the main drive to clear the river of obstacles and break small jams before they became large enough to block the flow. River pigs were ferried up and down stream in a double-bowed boat called a batteau, which rode over logs and rapids.
 

A floating cook shack and warehouse called a "wanigan" supplied the drive crews. This barge-like boat carried hardware and food for the men. Supplies could be restocked at villages and farms along the way. While the men were going through the wanigan to get their food, the cook often slipped into town to purchase all the available meat and poultry.

36

Log drivers ate four meals a day: breakfast before dawn, first dinner, second dinner and supper. Dinners were packed for the men in canvas sacks called "nose-bags," named after the grain bag hung under the nose of a horse when he was fed on the job. Men ate breakfast and supper on the riverbanks where the wanigan tied off at night.
 
Log drivers held the most dangerous positions in the industry, but the pay was attractive - about $2 a day, nearly $1 more than lumberjacks. Because drives began as soon as the ice broke in the spring, log drivers often waded between ice flows. They were in the water before dawn and walked back to the wanigan after dusk. 
 
Men greased their legs and waist with lard to ease the pain of cracked skin and icy waters. Workers could easily slip and disappear between the turning and bobbing logs on which they worked. If the logs closed above him, his body may never resurface.
 
Men on special jam crews broke up logjams. This task required men to work at the head or face of the jam prying and pulling logs from the tangle and moving them downstream. Once enough logs were moved, the jam would groan and creak, signaling an impending break. The jam crew then rushed to the bank, hoping to make it before the jam gave way. 
 
Many logging camps moved timber in the same stream, making some drives chaotic. "Stamp hammer marks" and "bark marks" identified ownership. Logging camps were issued a stamp hammer - a heavy sledgehammer with a cast symbol on its face that was used to stamp the mark into both ends of the log. Bark marks, on the trunks of logs, were used to help identify logs that rode low in the water.
 
Mill hands at saw mills used these marks to credit the logs to the appropriate company. The marks were registered with the State Surveyor General and were bought and sold as companies changed hands.
 
Log driving was dangerous physically for workers and financially for companies. Logs deadheaded (sank) or became stranded on riverbanks. Generally, about 10 percent of a winter's cut was lost on log drives. Unpredictable water levels complicated log driving. Floods carried logs back into the timber. If rivers were low, logs could be stranded upstream far from sawmills and a winter's cut could be lost.
 
After the dry winters and springs of 1899-1900 and 1900-01, nearly the entire winter's cut remained "up-north" and sawmills stood silent because rivers lacked enough water to float the logs over rocks and through rapids.
 
Desperate timber interests worked with railroad owners, like James J. Hill, to get preferential rail rates for hauling logs. With pine logs reaching saw mills by rail, timber owners built narrow-gauge railroads into the woods, increasing the harvest of old growth pine and hastening the end of the saw log era.
 
The last major log drive in Minnesota occurred on the Little Fork River in 1937, ending the era of river pigs, wanigans, batteaus, and nose-bags.
 
View more historic images of Minnesota log drives in this photo gallery
 

Return to 'Forests Then.'