April 01, 2009


By Jeanne Marie Leach

When we think of the old west, the cowboy immediately comes to mind, but he wasn’t the only type of man to swarm across the plains and into the mountains in search of steady work.

The hearty loggers came in droves and lived a lifestyle uniquely their own. I have entire notebooks about these men from the research I’ve done for my series set in the 1880’s about lumberjacks. There is no way I could share all of this with you in one blog, so I’ll hit the highlights about these men today, and I’ll share more about their life and work next month.

Man is either dominated by the forest or he dominates the forest. The lumberjack knew this very well and quickly gained a respect for the woods or else he died. He faced danger from sunup to sundown six days a week, and his instinct for survival never slept. Even at rest, every muscle and nerve remained alert.

At the end of each day, two dozen “shanty boys” lived in a single log cabin, and fights broke out nightly over something as insignificant as someone else’s socks laying on the floor in front of a man’s bunk. The fights were squelched as quickly as they started by the other men because fighting was outlawed by the Timber Boss, and a man might not only lose his pay, but his job as well for fighting, drinking, or reveling with women of the sordid type. These weren’t allowed in camp—ever.

So on Saturday night after supper the lumber camp quickly emptied as the men made their way to the nearest town to let off the “charge of gunpowder” they’d held inside for six days.

Whenever a lumber camp was situated near a town, the houses of ill repute relocated to the end of the skid road, the trail built by the lumberjacks that contained logs at ten-foot intervals down the road for the ease of being able to skid their logs down to the mill yard.

It didn’t take long for these saloons and soiled doves, women of bad reputation, to become known as skid row. The name has stuck to this day as a description of a bawdy place in any town, but it originated with the loggers.

The lumberjacks too lived by an unwritten “code” that said no man could offend, insult or molest a woman or speak lightly of a woman of good reputation. By the code, women and children were helpless and were always safe when woodsmen were around.

It didn’t take long for gamblers to infiltrate the camps, taking jobs for a time to size up the crew and find out how much money they had. Lumber camps were ripe with men unable to spend their money throughout the week and they easily fell victim to the gamblers’ games.

The camps were one of the least discriminating places in the west. Without blinking an eye, they hired men from all backgrounds and nationalities. These men worked hard from the moment the whistle belted out “Daylight in the Swamp” at dawn’s first light to “Gabriel Time” calling them in to supper. They gulped their meals in less than ten minutes, because there wasn’t much time left before their nine o’clock bedtime.

You may think the life of the early lumberjack to have been very harsh and restrictive, and they were, but the Timber Bosses paid them a dollar a day and higher, and competed with other logging camps by offering better and more food, better bunks, thicker blankets, and other perks in order to attract hard-working men to their camp.

The lumberjacks quickly found this out and soon got the reputation of being persnickety over something like rancid butter or over-cooked flapjacks. They nailed the offending victuals to the cookhouse door and walked off the job in search of a camp with better food, leaving the Timber Bosses scrambling to move men into different teams in order to keep up with their eight to ten-thousand board feet per day goals and deadlines.

Stay tuned for more about the lumberjacks of the west.



What western movies have there been about lumberjacks? I'm sure there was a kirk douglas one.

Vickie McDonough said...

Fascinating info, Jeanne! The part about skid row was very interesting.

Susan Page Davis did a book called The Lumberjack's Lady. I know I've read other one but can't think of the titles off the top of my head.

Abi said...

Very interesting. I enjoyed reading your post.

Jeanne Marie Leach said...

Yes, the lumberjacks have been a forgotten breed in the west. As the Oregon territory became populated, the need for timber became great. There were logging camps everywhere in the west. But there haven't been many movies or books written about them because their vocation wasn't as "romantic" as the cowboy or rancher. I find myself drawn to their fascinating stories, and that's why I've written a series about them. I hope to get them under contract this year. :)


Deeanne Gist said...

Ohmygosh, Jeanne! The hero in my upcoming May release is a lumberjack! But he was logging when the industry was still in its infancy (1860s). Still, it was great fun to read your post.

Edna said...

I love to read about the old west, glad I didn't live there, but I loved the old TV shows, as "The Lone Ranger" "Roy and Dale Rogers. Gene Autry" oh the good old day.

If you are having a contest with one of you books I would love to be entered into it.

May God Bless