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The Evolution Of West Coast Logging

There’s an old black and white photograph at the British Columbia Archives that shows a group of men standing next to a team of oxen. Most of the men are loggers and their hardened looks resemble the very stuff they are harvesting from Canada’s West Coast forest. One man is leaning on an axe, two more are standing on top of logs that appear to be 1.2 metres in diameter.

The old photograph also tells us something about the crucial role Canada’s West Coast timber industry has played over the years. It is, indeed, an industry that has shaped people’s lives and powered economic growth in many coastal communities. More recently, however, the decline of old-growth forests, mill closures and conflicts over land use have resulted in a crisis that has spelled uncertainty–even misery–for the people who have come to rely on the industry for a paycheque.

At the same time, it seems that many people who are involved in debates over reforestation and clear-cut logging have little use for the industry’s history. And so perhaps an understanding of the West Coast timber industry’s past can be of some value in charting its future.

When the first Europeans arrived on the Pacific Northwest Coast in the 18th century they encountered a magnificent rain forest, the result of favorable soil conditions and moisture-laden ocean winds. For centuries, the Indians of the region had used western red cedar in the construction of houses, canoes and a range of other items. British sailors, including Captain James Cook, also recognized the value of timber. History records that Cook’s men cut logs for masts and spars on Vancouver Island in 1778. Ten years later, fur trader John Meares took a load of furs and spars to China, a delivery that marked the first European timber trading venture.

Since the 19th century, the Douglas fir, named for botanist David Douglas, has been the mainstay of the West Coast forest industry. In 1848, the Hudson’s Bay Co. established a small mill at Fort Victoria, site of present day Victoria, where timber was cut into lumber and shipped to markets in San Francisco, Calif., and Hawaii. The first real export mill was opened at Alberni, B.C., in 1861 by industrialist Edward Stamp. However, Stamp’s business venture here was short-lived because of local timber depletion and competition from mills situated on Puget Sound in American territory.

By the time B.C. entered Confederation in 1871, Stamp and Sewell P. Moody had established large logging camps and cargo mills on the shores of Burrard Inlet where Vancouver now sits. It was these mills that gave rise to lumbering as a prominent industry in B.C.

As the West Coast timber industry developed, it became obvious that a number of logging techniques used east of the Rockies were not going to work on the West Coast where loggers encountered enormous timber–some 60 metres high–and very rough terrain. Loggers west of the Rockies also had to contend with turbulent coastal rivers.

From these thick, moist forests only the finest timber was selected for removal. However, some of the best trees survived the axe because they were impossible to get at. In Eastern Canada, loggers hauled or “skidded” logs out of the forest on snow-covered roads. This technique could not be used on the West Coast because there was no snow with the milder coastal climate. The solution was to build “skid roads” out of logs.

The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s created more demand for B.C. timber because it provided a transportation link to eastern markets. The double-bitted axe came into use during the 1870s, followed a decade later by the two-man crosscut saw. Men–known as “fallers”–worked in pairs with each man standing on a springboard. These small planks were inserted on opposite sides of the tree just above the flare of the trunk. Using the two-man crosscut the fallers would saw in the under-cut and then chop out a wedge to determine the direction of the tree’s fall. They would then saw from the other side of the tree and scramble off the springboards when the tree began its descent.

Workers, known as “buckers”, would saw the fallen tree into sections. The jobs of the faller and the bucker were–and remain–dangerous. Without the proper skill and judgment, a man could get seriously hurt or killed. Incompetence could also lead to wasted timber and lost profit.

Before the logs were hauled out of the forest, axe men bevelled or “sniped” the lead end of a log. This involved the removal of any tree bark and knots that could hinder a log as it was pulled out of the woods. Other workers, known as “swampers”, were responsible for clearing a path to the skid road.

Lumbering on the West Coast depended heavily on horses and oxen to haul the logs out of the forest. The job of negotiating the log’s passage along a path to the skid road demanded great skill from the “hooktender” and the “teamster”. The hooktender’s job was to attach a complex arrangement of cables and blocks from the animals to the log. He would use any adjacent trees or stumps in order to gain power and manoeuvrability. And so it goes without saying that the job was easier for those men who had an understanding of common physics. The teamster, meanwhile, was responsible for driving the animals and the load out of the woods.

After the logs were hauled out to the skid road, they were coupled with chains and attached–with a cable–to a second team of animals. The heavy load or “turn” was then hauled to the water’s edge.

Towards the end of the 19th century, forest depletion in the timber regions of Eastern Canada prompted resource capitalists to seek new timber supplies elsewhere. Attractive tenure policies drew speculators and lumbermen to B.C. and this created a frenzy of timber acquisition. This new economic order called for mass production methods that soon saw the teamsters and their animals banished to the industry’s margins.

Logging’s industrial revolution began in the 1890s when the first steam-powered engine or “donkey” engine was introduced from the United States. A wire or cable was extended from the donkey to the logs where the hooktender supervised the rigging. When everything was set, an engineer engaged the machine and the logs were pulled in. Donkey engines could drag logs up to 150 metres and this made it easier for West Coast loggers to compete with lumbermen who worked in places where the terrain wasn’t as rough. But while the machine helped to accelerate the logger’s work, it also introduced new frustration and more danger because stumps and timber not worth the trouble of falling presented obstacles that called for a high degree of skill from the hooktender. The danger stemmed from the fact that the power generated by the larger donkey engines was enough to snap the rigging or the cable when a log got caught on an obstacle.

As logging companies moved further inland from the coast, logging railroads were built. The cost of building and operating these lines encouraged the development of larger operations to achieve economies of scale. But while the size of the logging camps grew, the living conditions for loggers remained primitive. Crude bunkhouses, equipped with double-decker bunks, slept 50 men. The ventilation in the houses was poor and the washing facilities–if they existed–were inappropriate. Overall, the atmosphere was dirty and pungent.

What made matters worse was the fact that many operators threw the burden of the competitive and unpredictable lumber economy on to the backs of workers; loggers worked harder, but received less pay when lumber prices fell. Gradually, loggers asserted their independence by quitting or alternating bouts of strenuous labor with periods of rest and entertainment in Vancouver.

The years between 1900 and the end of WW I witnessed a dramatic development in timber harvesting methods. It was during this time when the overhead skidder and the less elaborate high-lead system were introduced to West Coast logging. By extending a hauling line through a block stationed on top of a spar tree, companies could haul the timber out by partially suspending it above the ground. As this practice continued, logging operations resembled giant factories without roofs. And so it wasn’t long before there was a shift from selective logging to clear-cut logging.

Many loggers disliked the increased speed of the work because it increased the level of danger. The advancing technology also demanded more team-work in order to maintain an even flow of logs out of the forest. This provided operators with an incentive to cultivate labor stability by improving the living conditions at the camp. However, it was the emergence of militant industrial unionism after WW I that led to greater changes for the worker.

A loggers’ union was launched by the British Columbia Federation of Labour in 1918. The Lumber Workers Industrial Union waged a brief, but aggressive campaign for recognition, higher wages and better camp conditions. Operators responded by blacklisting union members and this offensive, coupled with an early 1920s depression that threw many loggers out of work, left the union in tatters by the mid-1920s.

A desire to reduce labor turnover and undermine union militancy prompted the more progressive logging firms to upgrade their camps. Smaller bunkhouses with electric lights and steam heating appeared, along with recreation rooms and washing facilities. Some operators even built family housing and arranged for the construction of schools in order to attract stable, supposedly less radical married workers.

By the late 1920s, B.C. was Canada’s leading lumber producing province. A lot of the lumber that came from the West Coast region was absorbed by markets in Europe and along the Pacific rim, including the U.S. By 1923, the province’s logging industry employed approximately 40,000 workers. Over the next six years the value of production rose from under $50 million to $87 million.

However, the collapse of the commodity markets during the Great Depression devastated the province’s resource economy. Although wages were slashed, many companies did not survive the first two years of the catastrophe. Thousands of woodworkers lost their jobs as camps and mills closed. One resident of Youbou–a lumbering community on Cowichan Lake–observed that “with the mill shut down, one speculates idly on how long it would take for this place to revert to wilderness. So long as the mill is running, the town is all bustle…. Now it is so quiet.”

There was a modest economic recovery in 1933 that helped some milltowns recover, but in the woods the pressure to cut costs and adjust to restricted markets encouraged companies to use machinery powered by the internal combustion engine. By 1939, the chain-saw, the diesel-powered donkey and the logging truck began to replace the crosscut saw, the steam-powered donkey engine and the railroad on many operations.

Operators had looked for a way to mechanize the falling and bucking procedures, but early inventions lacked the necessary combination of strength and portability. Tests on the German-made Stihl chain-saw on Vancouver Island in 1936 proved promising, and by the early ‘40s several makes were available. The first models required two-man operation, but the wartime development of lighter metals lowered the weight and size of chain-saws, permitting fallers and buckers to work alone.

The internal combustion engine proved equally valuable to operators after 1930 as a power source for tractors, donkeys and trucks. Mobility and flexibility were the advantages that came with the new generation machinery. The Caterpillar or “Cat” proved a valuable alternative to cable systems because it made it easier for a small crew to do selective logging of high-grade Douglas fir. Light diesel donkeys provided additional labor-saving advantages, eliminating the woodcutters, firemen and water pump tenders who serviced the steam engines.

The gradual displacement of the railroad by the logging truck during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s represented the most significant expression of the industry’s accent on mobility. Trucks are capable of accessing high elevation timber at lower costs. They possess an agility that allows them to get close to where the timber is felled, thus shortening the amount of time spent on rigging and hauling logs out of the forest.

By 1933 a revived Lumber Workers Industrial Union was ready to challenge for control of the workplace. It demanded improved wages, living conditions, safety standards and the end of blacklisting. When the industry refused, Campbell River loggers initiated a walkout that soon involved more than 4,000 West Coast loggers. Eventually, government intervention produced a settlement that secured wage gains, but not union recognition. In 1937, B.C. loggers and mill workers joined with their counterparts in the American Pacific Northwest to create the International Woodworkers of America.

A strike wave throughout the Canadian economy in 1944 forced Mackenzie King’s Liberal government to enact legislation supporting labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively. By May of that year the International Woodworkers of America union numbered more than 11,000 members and after a successful 1946 strike for wages and union security, the IWA consolidated its stature as the province’s largest labor organization.

A boom in new home construction during the late ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s produced record timber cuts and high employment for the province’s timber industry. Industry giants such as MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., Crown Zellerbach, BC Forest Products and Rayonier came to dominate the industry. These companies controlled vast holdings that fed sawmills and newly constructed pulp and paper plants. Also during the postwar period, government policies helped these giant firms consolidate control over the resource. This has generated resentment among small operators who argue that tree farm licence tenures favor large corporations. However, the government-industry partnership in sustained yield forestry seemed to herald an era of stability for timber-dependent communities.

But running counter to this trend were technological changes that reduced manpower requirements. Between 1949 and 1962, the productivity of B.C. loggers jumped 103 per cent, while employment dropped by 25 per cent. The introduction of the self-propelled steel spar yarding unit in the ‘50s threatened the high riggers who prepared spar trees. However, the most dramatic innovation–and threat for workers–came two decades later with the automatic grapple that was utilized in conjunction with a steel tower or yarding crane. The grapple, which hung from a carriage suspended on a “skyline”, has been described as the greatest breakthrough in the history of the industry, but it also played a part in eliminating many jobs.

Today, the province’s timber industry survives, but it is in a state of crisis. The epicentre for all of the tension and emotion surrounding the practice of clear-cut logging is found on the West Coast. But as the battles rage over the old-growth forests, it is important to understand the history that is behind one of this country’s oldest and most valuable industries. Indeed, the crisis that the industry is in today is a product of an historical process that has not been understood. Looking at old photos from the British Columbia Archives is a small step toward understanding that history.


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