Document 36: An Immigrant Boy Enters the Logging Industry, 1905-08

Torger Birkeland, Echoes of Puget Sound: Forty Years of Logging and Steamboating (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1960), p. 19-29.

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A typical Puget Sound logging camp was that of Storseth and Garthe, near Bangor on Hood Canal.

This was where a husky lad of eleven years obtained his first job. With great enthusiasm and in anticipation of the money he was to earn by way of pay, ten dollars per month and board [meals], and the last words of admonishment from his mother and the shouting of the smaller kids still ringing in his ears, the young logger, with the blanket roll strapped to his back, trudged his way over the narrow, winding path through the thick woods to Tomlin's Landing where the camp was located.

On arrival, my first concern was to find a bunk in which to deposit my heavy burden. The bunkhouse, with sixteen bunks, had two empties, one upper and one lower. When I was all settled in the lower, an oldtimer arrived who quickly sized up the situation and, with a few words, I was given to understand that he would take the lower bunk and I, the kid, could have the upper. From then on the kid knew where he belonged.

The small amount of hay remaining in the bunk had been kicked into the corners. Spreading the powdery stubbles out on the one-by-twelve boards was a dusty undertaking, and with the fleas hopping around like they did it was an especially disagreeable job and a relief to get the whole thing covered with a blanket so I wouldn't have to look at it any more or inhale all the dust.

After my bunk was made ready for the night, through much stretching, kicking, and hanging on by the skin of my teeth, the supper bell rang. Holding back somewhat, I lined up behind the gang and, single file, we marched over the rough plank walk to the cookhouse, which was also on a float [above the water of Hood Canal] as was the bunkhouse, and my place was assigned me at the table. In wonderment my eyes roamed from one end of the board to the other. Never had I sat down to a feast like this.

One of the last to leave, I made my way back over the swaying planks spanning the distance between the two buildings. I saw kelp and seaweed below me and the large road donkey [engine] sitting on the ten-foot-high grassy bank above.

The most interesting place this first evening was in the bunkhouse listening to the conversation of the men I would be with for the next five or six months.

At nine o'clock the coal-oil lamp on the table in the back end near the only window was blown out. The wooden bar was set in place to hold the door shut when the tide, at some hour of the night, would go out far enough so that the entire float of cedar logs on which the house was sitting would go dry and list [lean] over some degrees. However, there was no lack of fresh air. The hand-split cedar shakes on the roof were laid in such a way that one could lie in the top bunk and count the stars. Strange as it may seem, such a roof rarely ever leaked.

The first night's sleep was not too good. The fleas, having found their way out, were having a grand time, jumping around and feeding on brand-new, tender skin. Sleep came after my little friends had all been fed and had crawled back under the bottom blanket again. All too soon the cook was pounding on the triangle. Six o'clock, a quick cold-water wash, and when the second bell sounded, all hands marched for the cookhouse. Then the long table, again loaded with meat, spuds, oatmeal, hot cakes, and other food, met my gaze as I entered this typical logging-camp dining room. It was of the same rough construction as the other camp buildings, with the large wood range and cook's bunk room partitioned off in back. From behind that one-by-twelve board wall came some of the world's finest foods. The loaded dishes were quickly cleaned by the hungry loggers, and more food was brought in by the "flunkey" as fast as it could be eaten. I felt that if I could down just one more of those hot cakes I could hold out till noon. So, with my stomach near the bursting point, I hurriedly left the cookhouse to catch up with the gang for the hike up the dusty skid road to the woods where the day's work would commence at seven.

Paul, the hook tender [the foreman who supervised the process of moving logs from the woods to the water], led the way, following the whistle wire [a wire connected to a loud, steam-powered whistle] through the dense undergrowth for two or three hundred yards. There he climbed on top of a huge stump and commanded me to follow. This was when I took my first lesson as a whistle punk [the whistle operator who signaled when to turn the donkey engine off and on].

"One sharp yank on the wire to go ahead," says Paul. "Two to come back, and one to stop. And be sure you make no mistakes, for someone may get killed if you do," With this word of admonishment I faithfully and conscientiously take over and commence my first logging job.

Soon the rigging slinger [the person who attaches wire ropes to the logs] yells to go ahead. The 1 1/8-inch diameter steel cable is hooked onto a log, the powerful donkey surges up on the cable, and everything in the woods seems to move—windfalls and saplings flying in all directions. If one comes my way I just have to scramble through the brush for life or else try and duck in behind a large tree. I soon discover there is no lack for excitement around this rigging crew, but, nevertheless, when standing on top of a stump and just listening, time seems to drag, and after five solid hours I think most any eleven- or twelve-year-old boy would welcome the noon whistle. Needless to say, there was no grass growing under my feet when I tore out of the woods and down the skid road to be first in line waiting for the dinner [lunch] bell.

Midsummer came along and the sun was hot this afternoon as I stood on a sandy hillside with my whistle wire. My glance went downward to my feet partly buried in the hot sand, and then, to my amazement, were literally hundreds of my pet fleas frolicking around me. Feeling completely deserted, I moved over a few steps to make sure they would stay in their new home. Right away my thoughts went to Jens, the rigging slinger, who was having such a time. I felt sure that by spending a little while here in this hot sand, he, too, could get rid of his fleas with much less effort than his scheme of converting his blankets into a hammock suspended under the rafters. He admitted climbing in and out was a tough job, but at least he got some sleep that way, he said. As far as I was concerned, I soon learned to sleep with them, and the little fellows were accepted as part of camp life.

One day in late August, shortly after my twelfth birthday, on our return to the woods after lunch, we found the hillsides around the donkey afire. A spark from the smokestack must have come to life after everybody had gone to camp. The fire, already out of control, covered a large area, the woods being tinder dry after a long period with no rain.

All logging operations temporarily ceased, and all hands were put to work fighting fire. I nearly always managed to be out there in the front lines where the fire was raging the most so as not to miss anything. When the men staggered in at night, they could all have passed for colored people. After supper the cold, invigorating waters of Hood Canal were our bath, with the log boom handy to walk out on and dive off.

Ah, those stimulating waters of the canal, a godsend for the grimy logger after a day of toil in the soot and dust of the burned-over hillsides. With no other bathing facilities, these summer evening dips were looked forward to, for even a lumberjack appreciates a bath once in a while. The winter months, too cold for outdoor bathing, were another story. There just weren't any baths, but, with perspiration keeping the pores open and with a good thorough soaking two or three times a week out there in the brush, I believe the logger to be as clean as most anyone, and certainly the healthiest, with regular meals and regular sleeping hours. [There was] plenty of griping and groaning, but the men were nevertheless proud of their profession. The fleas, so common in all the camps, were not due to uncleanliness, but rather to the straw in the bunks which formed a natural breeding place for these little hoppers.

Getting back to the fire. It destroyed all the underbrush as well as some beautiful stands of green timber. Anyone having worked in burned-over country will understand what devastation a forest fire leaves behind. After much toil and sweat the fire was brought under control, but logging wasn't the same. Instead of the beautiful green hillsides, everything was now scorched and black, and in all the soot and ashes the work continued most of the summer till the burned area was logged off. The fire had destroyed most of the small but not the large logs.

The steamer Perdita made one round trip from Seattle to Union City every day, but it stopped at the camp only once a week. After all, ours was but one of dozens of camps for sixty miles along the canal. About the only deviation from this schedule would be when six or eight head of horses brought the ship into some isolated cove where a new camp was being opened up. The steamer would come in to shore as close as possible without touching bottom and the horses would be backed out of the open part and shoved overboard to swim to land. This infrequent service created many problems and shortages of essential food, especially perishables.

Being the kid in the camp, I naturally had the jobs no one else wanted assigned to me. So when the cook ran out of butter I was the one most conveniently called on to make the twelve-mile round-trip hike over the winding trails through the virgin forest to the little town of Poulsbo on Liberty Bay. This particular time my load was sixteen pounds, carried in a sack on my back.

Wild animals such as cougar and bear were plentiful in the Northwest woods. Many stories had been told, especially about the cougars, and I was alert to any sound in the bushes, always wondering what might be lurking around the next bend. At the age of twelve the imagination runs wild under such conditions and, as I hurried along, a crashing sound burst forth from below the rim of the gulch and sent a chill rushing down my spine. Thinking only a great bear could make such a noise, I immediately turned and started back along the trail, wondering how soon the ferocious animal would catch up with me. I imagined he must smell the butter I stubbornly persisted in carrying.

Without a halt, I walked and ran about two miles to the nearest lone farmhouse on a small clearing in the woods where Mrs. K. H. Myren, one of our fearless pioneer ladies, listened sympathetically to my story, put the load of butter on her own back, and hiked back past the place where I thought the bear was and, like the loving, considerate mother she was, left me with the encouraging word that now it was perfectly safe just to keep on going. Bless her dear, loving heart.

My mission accomplished, my burden delivered to the cookhouse shortly before suppertime, I, with the rest of the men, cleaned up for supper. The butter, after resting on my warm back in the hot sun most of the day, reminded me of what we used to pour on the lutefisk [a type of pickled fish, which is sometimes served with vegetable oil]. After making some speedy stabs in an attempt to bring back a little on the knife blade, the hungry loggers all agreed that it [the melted butter] would be much better for greasing the grindstone.

My experiences in this little two-by-four camp were many and varied, the most enjoyable and looked-forward-to being the sweet music of the dinner bell and the patter of rain on the shake roof in the early morning with the anticipation of a day in the straw. Ah, yes, the sweet music of those raindrops falling so softly on the smooth waters of the lagoon out there in front of the bunkhouse door! If they [the raindrops] would only keep on till after breakfast [we wouldn't have to work and] I'd be assured a fishing trip up the gulch with the boom man [the worker who sorted and connected the logs dumped into the water], who never failed to bring in a good mess of trout, and of a part of the day for just loafing around and watching the ducks come gliding into the lagoon. There, busily engaged in diving for food or just peacefully floating about, they [the ducks] let the rain fall on them as if they really enjoyed it.

Well, in the fall, after this first lesson of learning to stand on my own feet, I was called home to go to school, having earned enough to buy myself some much needed clothes and $9.50 for a hand-power washing machine for my mother, who had six boys and two girls to keep clean.

We lived on some logged-off land that Father had bought before Mother, with the six children, had arrived from Norway in June, 1903, two years before my story begins. Three rooms, with a large attic which served as a bunkhouse for all the kids, was my much loved home. Being next to the oldest was one reason for the cares of this life commencing at such an early age. Father's pay of $2.50 to $3.00 a day would not reach to feed and clothe such a large family. Providing for the necessities of life was the most important, so my poorly attended school years came to a complete end after my thirteenth year. From then on, little time was spent at home—only a couple of months in midwinter. Only when it was too wet and sloppy out there in the woods could we afford to stay home and clear land, a backbreaking, slow process with a pick and shovel.

At the age of fifteen I was a full-fledged logger. With my blanket roll I boarded the stern-wheeler State of Washington at Bangor, Captain Holbrook in command, and my destination this time was Holly, where I had the promise of a job as whistle punk. Being three years older, the pay was now one dollar per day and board. . . .

Holly is a beautiful spot on Hood Canal. From here one can sit reclined against the driftwood for hours and feast on the inexpressible beauty of the towering Olympics directly over the waters on the other side, and across the canal to the left is the Hamma Hamma River, winding its way down from steep mountains through wooded valleys and green meadows. Just another of the many fine trout streams which has such an attraction for folks who love the great outdoors.

My greatest pleasure here was when, after supper on those beautiful, warm summer evenings, I would find a log to lean against and sit on the beach, gazing out over the calm, lazy water, drinking in the scenery and watching the slow-moving tugs, dreaming even then of the day when I, too, would be a deck hand and would just drift around on the Sound. [Birkeland became a steamboat captain many years later.] I remember the Katy, the Cherry, the Doctor, the F. H. Folsom, the Sea Foam, the Elk, the Nellie Pierson, not forgetting the side-wheeler Favorite, of Port Blakely, and many others with their rafts of logs, unhurriedly and noiselessly moving down the canal.

Loggers never stayed long in one place. When they had what was called a stake, anywhere from ten to one hundred dollars, the blankets were rolled up and they went off for town and the Skid Road [Yesler Street in Seattle]. Rarely did they ever venture above Pioneer Square. Our House, Jameson and Moffett, Billy the Mug, the Horse-Shoe Bar and such places got all their money. The saloonkeeper would then stake them [give them money] to buy another job listed on the board of one of the employment offices which were numerous on Occidental Avenue, Washington, Main, and Yesler. [Employment offices charged a dollar or two for a referral to a job.] Hotel rooms were from twenty-five cents a night up to fifty cents and seventy-five cents in that part of town. For the average logger, most of the time was spent at the bar as long as the money lasted.

In the same year my next job was greasing skids [planks or small logs over which large logs were dragged]. For this I had a five-gallon square can, cut down on one side about halfway, and a handle set in at the top so the can could be carried with two and a half to three gallons of crude oil. A swab, made from the tail hair of horses, with a handle about three feet long, was the instrument used for this operation. The greaser walked ahead of the team of six or eight very large horses.

Skids are spaced about eight feet apart and each one swabbed with grease on the center where the log rides. At the end of the road, that is, at the landing on the beach, grease can and swab were set aside and my job now was to unhook the rigging [wire ropes] from the log, then carry the heavy gear and follow along behind the horses to wherever the teamster [horse driver] desired to stop next. All the dog chains [chains connecting the logs to one another] were pulled loose and the logs rolled into the water. The sled, called the pig, long and narrow and sharp-pointed on both ends much like a boat, which was hooked to the last log on the way down, was now loaded with dog chains for the return trip to the woods. I now took my place on the pointed back end of the limber, swaying pig with a broom and gave one swipe to the saddle [the groove through which logs were dragged] of each skid as we pass over, so that the skid would be clean and ready for the grease on the return trip with the logs.

The teamster and greaser have a long day. At four o'clock in the morning they were out in the barn to feed and curry [rub and brush] the horses and clean the barn. After supper the same routine. Work horses had to be well cared for, especially when working under such dusty conditions.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest