Logging: Lumber for Progress

View item information

"Bertie Lord and his father use a crosscut saw to cut blocks of wood from a very large tree, Bitterroot Valley, Montana." Courtesy of the University of Montana - Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

The start of the gold rush in 1862 ushered in a much greater demand for lumber than Montana forests had previously seen. Lumber was required for the new industry and the influx of people who rushed to the territory seeking their fortunes. Miners needed everything from sluice boxes, to firewood, to cabins, to stores. Wagons, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure used in mining required wood. One of the first sawmills was established near Virginia City in 1862. Lack of access to proper tools forced many loggers to improvise tools for logging. Dozens of small steam or water-powered lumber mills were soon operating in communities throughout the region.

Logging originally required lots of manual labor. Sawyers would first cut a notch in one side of a tree to determine the direction of its fall. Then the fellers, who used a two-man crosscut saw, would fell the tree. Logs were taken by horse drawn wagons to the nearest river for transport when the water ran high. Locations near water were soon stripped of trees forcing loggers to travel farther to timber sources. Some companies built railroad tracks into heavily timbered areas.

After 1913, loggers began using high powered engines with a 100-ton winch, called steam donkeys, to haul logs to a road or railroad. The 1920s brought gasoline-powered tractors, trucks, and other vehicles. This industrialization made logging easier but created new problems for the natural environment, such as erosion and damage to animal habitats.