The Steam Donkey in Martin Grainger’s Woodsmen of the West
In the beginning of the 20th century, the logging industry in B.C. and around the world saw a dramatic change in the way logs were being logged. Techniques came and went although some stayed longer than other. New technologies played a very important role in this change; none more than the invention of the steam donkey. In Martin Grainger’s Woodsmen of the West, Carter’s acquisition of a steam donkey allowed his men to be more effective and efficient while logging in the wilderness.
In the early 1900’s, British Columbia, barely 30 years old, was seeing an increase in the demand for lumber due to the rapid increase of population around the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island regions. In 1901, these two regions accounted for 58.5% of British Columbia’s total population. The majority of the new population were immigrants. Most of these immigrants were Chinese, Japanese, and other Canadians coming to B.C. from the rest of Canada. One of the main factors attracting immigrants to B.C. was the opening of the CPR. It opened up new trade routes previously unknown to the isolated British Columbians. This increase in demand for lumber forced logging camps to look for new methods to log as much forest in the quickest amount of time possible. Carter, the boss-logger, money hungry man that he was, got his loggers
only to fell trees that were close to shore. As Grainger explains, “In those days good timber was plentiful- good timber, on sea-coast slopes, that could be felled and shot right down to water- hand-loggers’ timber.” Most boss-loggers of the early 1900’s were looking to make cash and make it fast.
A typical logging camp at the turn of the century consisted of approximately a dozen men. The tools used by these loggers were not particularly developed as would have been preferred. In fact they were quite heavy and beastly. If one was to take a trip back to a logging camp around the turn of the century one would see various tools such as: heavy jack-screws, a light ratchet screw, big seven-foot saws, axes, and heavy chains for chaining logs together.
A logger’s typical work day, as Grainger describes it, would start before the break of dawn by getting in one’s rowboat and rowing to the desired spot to begin the day’s tasks. Now before a logger could start logging an area, they would have to construct, or in loggers terms, “hang” a boom. A boom is a series of logs chained together and anchored to the shore at each end. It would stretch across the surface of the water creating a man-made harbour. It’s purpose to trap the cut logs so that no logs could wander of to sea(72). A logger’s daily tasks consist of: carrying their heavy, awkward tools up the hillside, chopping and sawing, felling big timber, cutting up logs, barking them, and using their heavy jack-screws to coax the logs down toward the shore to be placed inside their boom. Once the boom was filled, usually with approximately 300 logs, an experienced “boom-man” would chain up the logs into a strong durable rectangle shape ready to be towed to a sawmill to be processed into lumber for the marketplace(37-38).
The process of hand-logging, especially coaxing the logs down the hillside was a strenuous and time consuming procedure. In Grainger’s Woodsmen of the West, Carter’s acquisition of a steam donkey allowed for the quicker more efficient method of logging he was looking for. Carter paid five thousand dollars for this beast of a machine; five thousand well spent dollars if one just imagines the time, energy and money one could save by this investment. One may ask the question, “How would the acquisition of a single of machinery benefit Carter so much?” To answer that question one must know what a steam donkey is and what its primary functions are. Then and only then can one realize the immeasurable impact it could have on the availability of logs, the workload of loggers and also the final output of logs ready for the sawmill. The “Steam Donkey,” as Robert from the VanNatta Logging History Museum of Northwest Oregon, consists of a steam boiler and a steam engine connected to a winch all mounted on a sled’ called a donkey sled’. The donkey and all of its components are operated by a number of skilled employees trained specifically to do what was required of them. When operating the donkey each employee had a specific task to tend to. First off, the rigging men would drag a heavy wire rope in a circle around the felled trees desired to be pulled towards the water. Once completed, the rigging slingers would have to hook a log onto a point of the wire cable only to stand back and wait for the signaller to pull the wire telegraph and make the donkey “toot”. When the engineer heard the shrieking sound he would then flip the levers on the donkey over and open up the throttle which would start winding up the cable that pulled the trees toward the water.
The main goal of the donkey was to drag logs, longer distances from the water, toward the water in a quicker, less labourious, efficient manner. Although the donkey fulfilled these obligations quite thouroughly, it also performed various other tasks including bridge building and also retrieving sunken ships. In Woodsmen of the West, Carter the handyman that he was, considered wrapping the main-line around the Sonora and hauling her through the water back to shore(171). One must have a tremendous imagination to think up such a plan where as using a piece of logging equipment to fetch a sunken ship. It goes to show the enormous power a steam donkey must have to haul a water-bogged ship ashore.
After the acquisition of the donkey, Carter’s men used a majority of the same tools they had used before the arrival of his big investment. Although most of the tools remained the same, the donkey terminated the use of the loggers’ heavy jack-screws; the main tool used in coaxing the logs down to the water. The process of coaxing logs, tiny movement by tiny movement, had been reinvented. The steam donkey was the main reason why the logging process was sped up. Time was cut down (no pun intended), considerably thanks to the donkey. Labourious time and money spent coaxing logs down using the traditional method could be used more wisely in the felling and booming of logs much needed by the industrialized nation.
When Carter bought “his” donkey he would have been able to cut spending considerably. Saved time meant less money spent in wages and more money in his pockets. More of Carter’s unexperienced men were liable to lose their jobs because he had his donkey, a machine which took the place of many unexperienced men. To work with the donkey it took skilled artists such as: hook-tenders, rigging slingers, and educated engineers. Many of the men originally hired by Carter were as uneducated as Carter himself. There was no room for the uneducated when it came to operating a high-tech machine as the steam donkey.
The result of such an increase in production of logs, brought on by the steam donkey, was that the economy did not have the demand for logs that they once did. The demand for logs just wasn’t present anymore. Soon Carter wouldn’t have a job.
Overall, even though in the long term it seemed to be a problem, the donkey ultimately helped Carter and his men be more effective and efficient while logging in the wilderness. The steam donkey proved to be an important factor in the well-being of logging companies, the job security of employees, and also the history of logging; whether it be the business or economic side of things. Ultimately, the steam donkey fulfilled its purpose in Grainger’s Woodsmen of the West in that it helped Carter attain the short-term income that he was looking for by creating an efficient and effective workplace.
Grainger, Martin Allerdale. Woodsmen of the West. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1996.
Robert, VanNatta Logging History Museum of Northwest Oregon. [webpage online], accessed 14 November 1999; available from http://www.aone.com/ robert/histlog.html.