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Logging and Timber


Heavily timbered land covered nearly all of Michigan in pioneer days. Lumbering became one of the first big industries and continued to be such until quite recent years. Many of the largest private fortunes in the state were founded on lumber, and the sawmill, logging and rafting period figures in numerous novels. Stories of the loggers and logging days are still related by the older residents and the romance that centers around them will perhaps never cease to be favorites with the writers of fact and fiction.

The first sawmill in Grand Rapids was built by Gideon H. Gordon at government expense, for the Thomas Indian mission, in 1832. It was on Indian Mill creek--a slow, small mill with the old-fashioned upright saw and it was capable of cutting 500 to 800 feet a day when there was sufficient flow of water in the creek to keep it in motion.

The second sawmill was completed in the spring of 1834 along the east channel of the river, near where the Hotel Pantlind now stands. A low dam was constructed from the head of Island No. 1 to the east bank, and the power was applied through an undershot wheel. The great freshet of 1838 swept it away.

Soon a dozen others were built, all run by water power, and on which could turn out 4,500 feet a day was considered of large capacity.

About 1853 Powers, Ball & Co. built the first steam sawmill, with a circular saw. It was north of Leonard street.

In 1885 C. C. Comstock brought to Grand Rapids and set up what was probably the first shingle sawing machine in Michigan.

The first boom was built across the river at Grand Rapids during the winter of 1853-54 by Harry Waters, William T. Powers, and C. C. Comstock. It was not a very substantial affair and soon went out.


In pioneer days there were extensive tracts of pine timber along Rouge river, Flat river, Maple river, Fish creek and the other affluents of Grand river, with their tributaries, above Grand Rapids.

Soon after the first sawmills began operating in Grand Rapids the river and its tributaries were utilized to float logs to this city and to other places where there were markets for them. It is claimed that the first lumber rafts down the river were sent out in 1838 by James M. Nelson. About the same time George W. Dickinson brought down a raft of at least 30,000 feet from Flat river, said to be the first one from that stream to reach Grand Rapids. For twenty years after the lumber trade began in this vicinity the only profitable avenue for shipments to other markets was by floatage to Grand Haven, where further shipment was made by lake vessels. The business grew so rapidly that in 1855 lumber shipments from the mouth of Grand river amounted to 45,000,000 feet, estimated worth $450,000.

In 1854 log running had become a big industry. The operators in Grand Rapids that year included C. C. Comstock, who was associated with Deacon Chapin; the firm of Powers & Ball, composed of William T. Powers and Morris Ball; M. S. Waters & Co. and Benjamin Luce. In the winter of 1853-54 these operators had either cut or purchased immense numbers of logs from trees felled north and east of the city. The logs were put into the Rouge and Flat rivers and Fish creek and the following spring and summer floated to Grand Rapids.

As there were then sawmills on Rouge river, the owners, the workers and residents upstream aroused a strong sentiment against the running of logs past those mills. The bitter feeling engendered was the cause of much lawlessness on the part of the Rouge river mill men. This bitter feeling manifested itself chiefly in "hogging" logs in transit and cutting them up into lumber. "Hogging" was the polite term for what in plain language would be called "stealing." As soon as one group of operators and workers started to use this means of getting logs, the other resorted to it, and there were battles galore along the Grand, Rouge and other rivers and creeks.

The conditions became worse when sawmills wee built below Grand Rapids, at Nortonville, Mill Point (Spring Lake), Ferrysburg and Grand Haven. The operators at Grand Rapids then, in turn, made demonstrations against the floating of logs past this center of activities.

An incident is related to illustrate to what lengths the practice of "hogging" was carried. One of the Grand Rapids sawmill owners happened to see a fine log floating up his mill carriage. The log was marked with an "O," but that was not the mark of the particular mill owner about whom the story is related.

"Hold on there," he cried to his head sawyer. "That ain't our log."

"Oh, yes, it is," replied the sawyer, "Don't you see the mark? 'O' stands for "Ours."

In the up-river localities the practice of "hogging" was indulged in mostly by "shinglewavers," men who established camps in the woods and along the streams, where they manufactured shaved shingles. They also "hogged" large quantities of government pine. It was their custom to cut a fine tree and use only the butt log, leaving the rest to rot.

LOG JAM OF 1883 (pp. 130, 131)

Perhaps the most sensational incident of lumbering on the Grand occurred in 1883, and many of the present residents remember it well. July 26 of that year, 150 million feet of logs broke away from the booms above the Detroit, Grand Haven & Milwaukee railroad bridge and came crashing down the river, never stopping until the head of the jam reached a point some miles below Spoonville. The logs were piled from ten to twenty feet high in the Grand until the weight of water forced them away. C. C. Comstock lost lumber valued at $50,000, and the total loss was estimated at more than $300,000. The Ottawa County Boom company took charge of recovering the logs and many of them were hauled out of the water at Spring Lake and returned to Grand Rapids by rail.

Although no statements were kept of the number of logs rafted by this company while it operated, a fair idea is afforded by the records of later years. In 1868 nearly 43,000,000 feet of lumber were rafted and delivered, and in 1883, the year of the jam, the high mark was reached when the company rafted and delivered some 1,028,908 log, amounting to nearly 200,000,000 feet.

In 1870 the Grand Rapids Boom company was organized, and for twenty years thereafter handled a large proportion of the logs floated in the river, both above and below the rapids. Ichabod L. Quimby, C. C. Comstock, L.H. Withey, F. Letellier, Daniel H. Little and W. J. Long were interested in its operation.

Besides the logs delivered by this company to the Grand Rapids sawmills it rafted for operators below the city hot less than two billion feet during the seventeen years 1871-1888. In those same seventeen years the company delivered 650,000,000 feet of logs to the Grand Rapids mills. It continued in business until 1893.

An estimate of the total yield of logs from the forests adjacent to and above Grand Rapids, which found market over the waters of Grand river, would be more than three and a half billion feet.

By the year 1893 almost all the available pine timber in this immediate section of the state had been cut down and sawed up, the industry gradually declining hereabouts, and logging and sawmill activities were removed to upper Michigan.

Today there is very little pine timber left in Michigan. Unfortunately, there was no federal or state supervision of forests in the early days and the woodsman's ax was used ruthlessly. The supply of pine timber was considered inexhaustible, but it lasted only a comparatively few years. In more recent times the people have begun to recognize the wisdom of a policy of conserving our forests and of reforesting. But it is not so easy to grow trees as it is to cut them down. Today it is estimated that there are in the state about eleven million acres of land which once grew magnificent pine trees but which are now almost worthless. As yet no comprehensive plan of reforesting these waste lands has been prepared, but the persistent efforts of a small group of far-seeing citizens have resulted in the beginning of a movement that in time may bring about the growing of new and valuable forests.


Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
Created: 16 January 2000
 URL: http://kent.migenweb.net/etten1926/logging.html