Tag Archives: Michigan lumbering

Lumbering in the Great Lake State

Grace Gillengerten

Præteritum Michigan contributor

The beautiful Michigan we know today was once called a land worth nothing unless you wanted to raise frogs or mosquitoes. After land surveys were taken in the first half of the 1800s, the knowledge of Michigan’s dense and vast pine forests spread far and wide. Soon enough, Michigan became the country’s leader in the lumber industry, at least for a short while.

Exploration and Treaties

In 1820, Michigan’s Governor, Lewis Cass, gathered together a party to explore Michigan. He wanted to promote Michigan as a desirable place for settlement as well as make contact with natives, study the topography, pick out locations for forts, and find the source of the Mississippi River. Cass and his crew discovered that for hundreds of miles, Michigan’s great forests were untouched. It was said that Michigan had enough pine to build a floor that could cover all of the Michigan land area plus all of Rhode Island, but even this estimate proved to be low. One New Englander claimed, “We’ll never cut all this pine if we log it until hell freezes.” In 1897, an estimated 160 billion board feet of pine in Michigan had been cut, with plenty still to go.

At the time, there were 40,000 original settlers living northwest of the Ohio River. Before the sought after white pine could be cut down, deals with the natives would first have to be made. Over the course of Cass’ term as governor, he made a total of 22 treaties with different tribes. Though not all natives moved west, they no longer were a major obstacle in the settlement of Michigan.

Further reading on the Saginaw Treaty:


Map of Indian Land Cession Treaties in Michigan
Map of Indian Land Cession Treaties in Michigan. Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/Indian_cessions.html

The New Settlers and Settlements

Many men from the east headed west to Michigan. The lumber supply in the east was beginning to become exhausted. Many men came from Maine, which had previously been the source of prime lumber for the United States. Michigan was yet to be civilized; that meant plenty of space, plenty of jobs, plenty of lumber, and also good wages. One could be expected to be paid twenty or even thirty dollars a month. These higher wages meant the workers would have ample money to spend in town.

Image of a nineteenth century lumbering camp
The men of a lumber camp. Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/whitepine-loggingII.html

The lumber industry of Michigan was born around the Saginaw area. There were three million acres of white pine ready to be harvested. Rivers such as The Cass, Flint, Shiawassee, Bad, Tittabawasee, and Chippewa, converged to form the Saginaw River. This provided 864 miles of water for the logs to be floated on to the sawmills, making Saginaw an ideal place for logging. An estimated 15,000,000 trees we cut in Saginaw alone between 1851-1897.

The Process

The race to profit from the pines started with men who scouted the land. Land lookers, also called timber cruisers, were expert judges in pine. They were hired to pick the best available tracts of land. Taking into consideration the quality and quantity of the lumber as well as studying the terrain for waterways to transport the logs. Hills and swamps were obstacles that timber cruisers had to keep a lookout for. Once a section of land was determined to be desirable, the surveyors had to make a claim on it for their employer. The system was first come first serve. If two scouts both wanted the same piece of land, it was only a matter of who got to the land office first.

Logs being hauled out of the forest on horse-drawn sleighs
Lumber sled pulled by four horses.
Image source: https:// www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM57239

With a spot for the lumber camp picked out, an advance party would head to the site in early fall to prepare for the winter. A number of shantys were set up depending on how large the crew would be. Winter was ideal for the cutting of the timber because it was easiest to move the logs to the river banks. Huge bobsleds were used to slide logs piled twenty to thirty feet high over the iced logging roads. When the ice thawed, the logs were then dislodged from their piles and all sent tumbling into the river. Rivermen then worked to drive the logs. Preventing and fixing log jams, navigating dams, rapids, and falls, were all part of the job. When the logs reached the mouth of the river, they were sorted according to the initial or insignia on it of the company it belonged to. Once sorted and tied together to form a sort of raft, they were then hauled off to the surrounding sawmills. Later on in the 1870’s, the methods of transporting timber changed with the use of locomotives. Without the absolute need of a river to transport their logs, lumbermen could now attack pines several miles from rivers. Along with locomotives, “big wheels” led by horses were used to haul three or four logs at a time. These new methods of transportation also meant logging could take place in the warm seasons as well as the cold ones. The cut timber was used to build Chicago and other growing midwest cities.

Big wheels invented by Silas C. Overpack, making logging possible in all four seasons.
Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/big_wheels.html

Source: http://www.catskillarchive.com/rrextra/lgjam.html
Image of logs at the mouth of a river in the late-1800s
Logs arrived at the mouth of a river.
Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/whitepine-loggingII.html


After the valuable timber had been cut, the land it had been taken from was no longer of any importance. Many big names in the lumber industry were also political leaders. The mixing of pine and politics meant the abuse of the forests for the benefit of the lumber companies. No effort was made to conserve uncut trees or replant the cut ones. The lumberjacks were careless and often responsible for causing forest fires. When the pine had been hauled away, a wasteland of stumps and cut branches were what remained. The mess left behind was essentially kindling, waiting for dry conditions and a spark to set it ablaze. Forest fires were commonly started by a forgotten campfire, sparks from a locomotive, and “pasture maker” fires used to clear a plot of land.

On Sunday, October 8th, 1871, three major fires took place in the midwest. The Great Chicago Fire, The Peshtigo fire of Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Thumb Fire of 1871. 200 lives were lost in Michigan on that hot and dry day. Affected by the fire were the towns of Manistee, Holland, Richmondville, White Rock, Forestville, Sand Beach, Lansing, Forester, and Huron City. Whole towns were in ruins. Families were forced to flee from their wooden homes to search for safety in their wooden towns that were surrounded by woods. Many people were trapped on all sides. At the time, there were no firefighters to come to the rescue.

A decade later, on September 5th, 1881, a fire even more terrible broke out in Michigan. The Thumb counties of St. Claire, Lapeer, Tuscola, Huron, and Sanilac, were primarily affected. The Thumb Fires of 1871 did not stop the lumber companies from continuing to operate in ways that posed great threats of forest fires. No rain had fallen in the two months prior to early September. As it was common for small fires to occur as farmers burned their brush, no alarm was raised at the scattered fires happening at the time. It was not until a southwest wind, reported at 40 mph, swept up these scattered fires and turned them into huge raging flames. It is estimated that the fire killed nearly three hundred people. Notably, the 1881 fire was the first disaster relief project of the American Red Cross.


At the turn of the century, the logging industry began its decline. Pine was no longer seen as inexhaustible as its numbers dwindled. The Lake States’ lumbering history summed up, “Its rise swift, its heyday short, its effects devastating, its decline precipitate.” Ghosts towns became more common as employment dropped by almost half. Conservation efforts by national and state governments set aside forest lands to preserve what was left. Though huge plots of land were now available for farming, much of the land cleared of pines was not suitable for growing crops. The best answer was to replant trees. The reforestation was able to restore some of the former pineries, though it will never be the great sea of timber it once was.


The lumber boom in Michigan is a prime example of how an industry can be very destructive when there is no forethought into the future consequences. The case of lumbering in Michigan opens the door to further discussion in other areas of conservation in Michigan such as hunting, fishing, and Michigan’s bodies of water. Different narratives to consider in land use and conservation include that of native groups, everyday men and women, and industry and political leaders. Born through the harmful environmental consequences from early land exploitation came legislation for conservation and later groups such as the Civilian Conservation Corp. Today the conversation of environmental protection continues as climate change and corporations threaten animal populations and precious resources.



Wells, W. Robert, Daylight in the Swamp!, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1978.

Dunbar F. Willis, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.