Document 37: Emil Engstrom Depicts Life as a Bucker and a Faller, 1903-13

Emil Engstrom, The Vanishing Logger (New York: Vantage Press, 1956), p. 8-9, 22-24, 64-65.

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The tall timber beckoning, I hired out in Portland, Oregon, the summer of 1903 (or was it '04?) to work as a bucker [someone who cuts fallen trees into sections] in a camp located not far from Kelso, on the Columbia River. Reporting for work after breakfast in the morning, the foreman took me to the filing shack and I was given a seven-foot-long bucking saw, a quart bottle with a sharp hook attached and full of saw oil, an axe, a ten-pound sledge hammer and four seven-pound steel wedges—a full load for a strong man. Bushel (contract) buckers of today will try to get by with only two wedges; I still give preference to three, if not four, in big timber.

The bullbuckers [foremen who supervise felling and bucking operations and who are in charge of ensuring safety] were unheard of in them days. The bull of the woods [the head foreman of the camp] took me out and put me to work on a nice pile of windfalls, some of them seven feet at the butt cut, far out in the standing timber to work there alone. That is unlawful nowadays. I had hired out as a bucker and it was up to me to do the work. My first task was to cut a slender eight-foot measuring stick and mark the first tree into logs, twenty-four to forty feet long. Some trees would measure up to four forty-foot logs, the last one twelve inches across the top. . . .

This was not my first bucking experience, but the first in big timber long-log bucking, and I squirted saw oil on an old rusty saw. Windfall buckers were always given the worst saws there were in the buckers' saw rack; some were kinked and others had a few teeth missing. Most anything was good enough for a windfall bucker. . . .

[After a few seasons as a bucker, Engstrom became a faller—someone who cuts down standing trees. Falling generally paid somewhat better than bucking.]

During the early winter of 1910-11, a large number of logging camps closed down. Disliking to work in slushy snow, Mattson, a big muscular faller, and I were taking it easy, holing up for a few months in the Hotel Kalmar, several blocks from the Skidroad [Yesler Way] in Seattle. A willing and hard worker, Mattson became restless toward spring and put in much of his time on the Skidroad, the loggers' hangout when not out in the woods. When a falling job at Buckley [a town along the White River in eastern Pierce County] came up he insisted I should go out and fall with him. My often cursed blanket bundle was in storage at the Skidroad and the storehouse was closed early in the morning when we were to leave for Buckley, so I missed the train. A late evening train was my only recourse. A mist-laden, dark night had set in when I arrived at Buckley. . . .

We worked from early dawn till dusk. With breakfast over, and a glimmer of daylight breaking out on the far eastern skyline, Mattson and I went down to the filing shack to pick out our falling tools. These consisted of a nine-foot-long falling saw, two long-handled falling axes, two springboards split out of a maple tree, a ten-pound sledge-hammer, two new and ungodly long falling wedges and ever-handy oil bottle. That done, we were passing the time talking to the filer when Gentleman Silvertip [the foreman of the camp] came down in person. Brusquely Silvertip took us half a mile into the woods to a special tree he had selected for us, as if in doubt that we were fallers. Sizing the tree up to find a place where it would fall easy and not break up on a number of big stumps, Silvertip gave us his final instructions and departed.

What a tree! And we were soft after laying off in Seattle for three or four months. It did seem as if Silvertip "had it in for us"—or was he merely trying to find out if we were fallers? The tree was eight feet across where we were to cut it and at least three hundred feet tall. It was a real forest giant.

Our first task was to chop in a few boreholes for the springboards. With this great Douglas fir tree, half dry on one side and hard as a bone, our axes simply bounced back when we started to chop the undercut [a V-shaped cut that determines which way the tree will fall], and we had to resort to the saw. We would saw as far as we could and then chop out the chips. That done, we changed our springboards and started in on the other side to saw the tree down. As was to be expected, the tree was timberbound [heavy, full of sap, and difficult to cut]. It didn't take long before the cut began to pinch our saw. Usually not addicted to profane language, Mattson commenced to curse. That having no effect on the tree, we started to drive our two wedges as soon as we possibly could. With the strokes for our nine-foot saw beginning to be short, we struck dry pitch—the very worst kind of pitch. The rakers on the saw were unable to pull out the sawdust, and to "easy up" this much-cursed timberbound tree, we chopped deep notches on each side. That having but little effect, Mattson went into the camp after an eleven-foot falling saw and some more wedges. A tremendous, timberbound tree, the wedges would not lift it, and for that reason we had to chop a still deeper undercut.

After [lunch] in the camp we brought out another load of wedges, and steel plates to put in the cut between the long wedges. We also brought a gallon of saw oil. The tree had settled back and tightened up the cut when we came back, so that we could not get the saw in. A saw will rust within a short time in a cut, and with the dry pitch in this tree we knew better than to leave the saw in the cut of the tree, so we had hurried in to eat our noonday meal.

Rested and, as they say, strong as a bull, it was up to Mattson to do his damnedest. He hammered until the sweat poured out of him. True, I did spell him off [take over the work and give him an occasional breaks], but I could not compete with him in the fine art of swinging a mean hammer left and right as the occasion demanded.

Toward evening our task was nearly finished and Mattson set about to look for a small boulder, known to fallers as a "giant." There was a side-lean on this tree so he put the giant in one end of the undercut to draw the tree farther up from the lean. Some more hard wedging, and Mattson called out at last, "Timber! Ups the side hill! Watch out!"

The tree was falling exactly where Silvertip wanted it. The earth shook as if from an earthquake for a long minute. The tree's tremendous weight sent a shower of dirt and branches skyward. Our overalls and underwear were not damp—but soaked. We could now spare a few minutes to wipe off the sweat dripping into our eyes. With everything in this tree suitable for logs saved, we had done the very best that could be expected but Mattson was angry. "Damn it!" he bellowed, "we should have taken that tree down in half a day!"

. . . It took one of our buckers more than two and one-half days to buck up this tree [cut it into sections].

. . .

[Two years later] I hired out for work in the Index Galena Logging camp, located a short distance upon a turbulent stream from Index, a sawmill and logging town [along the Skykomish River in Snohomish County].

Falling and bucking always were the most dangerous work in the West Coast camps. Experienced buckers can tell with reasonable accuracy how much a Douglas fir will stand before breaking off, but hemlock and cedar will snap off with a loud bang when least expected, and are often a problem to new and to experienced buckers alike.

I was working on a big cedar, long and limber, and the top where I was to make the last cut hung some forty feet up in the air. To avoid the useless climbing down a steep hillside to make this cut, I started to chop on both sides so that the top would break off when the rigging men hooked on to this log. There was not a man within sight or hearing and my task was nearly finished when I thought I heard a sound like a revolver shot. As if shot from a powerful catapult I went flying up above this green cedar, "hell-bent for heaven." How high I cannot judge, but evidently I had started too early and I was not wanted up there. The only thing I can recall is that I came down head first in a brush pile on the steep slope, with a roaring creek full of small boulders only a few feet farther down. Had I landed in the creek, it would have been the last of one bucker. As it was, I believe that striking the steep side of the hill with a glancing blow of my shoulder and back did save my life. My clothes were torn into rags, my body and face bruised, and I never was so surprised in my life to regain consciousness.

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