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Presque Isle, Prior to 1904.

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Wisconsin's Logging History.

Loading and scaling logs in the North Woods.


The Eastern White Pine (pinus strobus) is the tallest tree east of the Rockies. It rarely exceeded 200 feet high and averaged only about 100 feet high and 2 to 3½ feet in diameter; what was more important to the initial lumbermen, was the portion of the trunk clear of limbs, and therefore virtually no knots (in those days lumber with knots was not considered structural) in the first 60 feet. Rare White Pines in Wisconsin’s Northwoods were documented up to 250 feet high and 5 to 8½ feet in diameter within 250 to 400 year old stands of timber. The White Pines grew so thick that no underbrush grew and the sky could hardly be seen overhead.

The Chippewa Valley (Dunn County, WI) began logging with 1/6 of the nation's white pine in 1838. Initially producing a billion board feet of white pine a year. Surveyors estimated the total pine stand in Wisconsin at 136 billion board feet of prime lumber. Lumbermen considered the supply inexhaustible. Harvesting began with 5 foot diameter white pine trees 160 feet high wasting 60% in stumps, slashing, sawdust, slabs and fires. Slashings, and branches were known to be left piled 40 feet high to rot or to burn in the numerous forest fires which wiped out early villages. A tree less than 3 feet in diameter at the stump was considered too small in the initial days of logging to be worth the cutting.  Logging ended in most counties of Wisconsin in the early 1900’s with 5 inch diameter logs!


Before railroads oxen were used for skidding logs because they could tolerate rough feed and crude shelter while living and working on a diet of marsh hay and rutabagas, which grew locally. Breakage of equipment was infrequent from ox’s power, as it is applied smoothly, unlike the lunging of horses. Sickness and injury were uncommon with oxen. Horses require hay and oats, which had to wait until the railroad arrived. Horses replaced oxen for skidding because they were faster, and do more work in a day. Old-timers grumbled about the replacement by horses because you could eat oxen when too old to work.

Logging efficiency and less material was left in the woods as an improved crosscut saw becomes available to fall trees in 1880, replacing axes. Axes continued to be used to top off branches and to cut the preliminary wedge. Bottles of kerosene were used as a lubricant when sawing. The crosscut saw was only 18 inch longer than some of the biggest trees, so it could take two Lumberjacks the better part of a morning to bring a giant White Pine crashing to earth.

When the Band Mill became practical during the 1880's the amount of waste decreased at Sawmills because the band saw blade was thinner than circular saw blades, creating less sawdust and an increase of solid wood yield. Sawdust being the most costly/expensive product from a Sawmill, because there were no customers for this material. Also, less power is required to operate a band saw than a circular saw, thereby also reducing the operating costs of a Sawmill.

Logging initially occurred near rivers and streams with logs being floated down to the mill where they were manufactured into lumber. Even relative small streams were used by damming them up. Ponds were then created behind the dams from the spring snow melts where the logs were decked during the winter. The dams were then dynamited with virtually all the logs reaching the mill. Different independent loggers who had purchased logging rights near waterways would float their logs to the same Sawmill. The independent loggers would use simple patterns stamped into the end of logs with a maul that identified the owners. Obviously there were log pirates which would cut off the end of others logs and use their stamps to steal them. In some isolated areas of the Northwoods these cut offs may still be found. The lumber industry today uses trademarks based on these log marks.

Documentation says the heyday of Wisconsin logging took place from 1830 to 1939, but by the early 1900’s most large logging operations had ceased in Wisconsin because logging had removed the timber within easy access to the large streams and rivers. With the first logging companies located primarily along waterways, leaving areas, specifically those that did not contain rivers with virgin forests, like The Presque Isle area. Railroads became a new mode of transportation for logs. As a result of railroads, Sawmills could be further inland, away from rivers. Now with access to these vast stretches of the prized huge white pine plus the hardwoods of maple, ash, and white birch (once useless hardwoods) could now be lumbered. This removed the importance of softwoods. Previously only softwoods were rafted because of their superior buoyancy.

Also, initially Logging could only be accomplished in the winter. Loggers used frozen ground or made their own “Ice Roads” for hauling in the winter. In warmer weather the soil was too soft and it could not support log hauling equipment. Therefor logs could only be skidded in the woods in the winter when the ground was frozen hard. In 1881 Ephraim Shay of Harbor Springs, Michigan patented a steam geared locomotive to haul his logs out of the woods to a Sawmill any time of the year. Another Michigan inventor, Silas C. Overpack of Manistee, MI built Big Wheels starting in 1875 which was another piece of equipment allowed logs to be hauled in the woods in warm weather. These two inventions extended logging virtually the year around, but submitted the loggers to Wisconsin‘s many mosquitoes. (Known to the loggers as the State Bird!) 

Logging in Vilas County, Wisconsin.

The reason for all these White Pine trees remaining in Vilas County, Wisconsin was because of a watershed divide which runs through Vilas County, where water from the north slope (where the VCLCo was located) flows into Lake Superior and the south slope into the Mississippi River basin. The north slope waterways are full of rapids and waterfalls, making log raft travel virtually impossible to a Sawmill. Most streams in Vilas County are also relatively small because of this watershed divide.

Vilas County’s lakes and ponds occupy 140 square miles, or more than 15% of the area of the county, nearly as large as the state of Rhode Island. In few parts of the world are there more lakes per square mile. Thereby making access to this area difficult. Because of limited access to this area, therefor, for many years this area in northern Wisconsin only knew abundant wildlife, an occasional trapper, a big city hunter, some vacationers and Native American

Combined with the practice of building logging railroads into the Pinery these isolated trees in Vilas County became commercially viable for logging and this was the beginning of major logging operations for the Turtle Lake Lumber Company in Winchester and the Vilas County Lumber Company in what is now Presque Isle. 

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