Logging the North Woods
By William Dunham
It was a cold January day in 1883 when a fellow by the name of William Howard White, a man born to Scottish-Irish parents in Owen Sound, Ontario in 1859, arrived in Boyne City. This humble man had just lost $600 in wages when the company in East Jordan he was working for went bust. He obtained $450 worth of merchandise from the bust company as payment, and shipped them by sleigh to Boyne City. Having no money when he arrived, he had to borrow $2 to pay room and board. No one at the time could envision how this simple move would drastically change the face of the little settlement known as Boyne City.
Now the year is 1907. You have just arrived by train at Camp 11, southeast of Boyne Falls. The men have just finished breakfast at the camp kitchen, and are heading out to the woods. After walking about 2 miles you come upon some men felling a tree. The work is not easy. Two men using axes are chopping a notch in the base of the tree. Once that is completed, two other men call sawyers, begin cutting the tree opposite the notch using a two-man crosscut saw. A third man sets a wedge in the saw cut, behind the blade, and drives it in with a sledgehammer. This prevents the tree from pinching on the saw, as well as encouraging the tree to fall the direction that is desired.
Once the tree has fallen to the ground, the axmen busy themselves chopping the limbs off the tree. The sawyers measure up from the base, and begin cutting the first log. You notice a team of horses approaching, dragging a set of tongs. Once the log has been cut, the teamster backs his team of horses up to the log, and jams the barbs of the skidding tongs around the small end. With a sharp "Git" the horses lean into the harness and begin the journey out to the cross-haul. Once the log has been "snaked" out of the woods, it is placed next to other logs awaiting the journey back to camp.
Because it is summer time, you are now waiting the arrival of a set of "Big Wheels". This contraption, with its extremely large wheels, was designed to straddle the logs it would be carrying. In the mean time you witness workers fishing sling ropes under each end of a small pile of logs. The Big Wheels are backed into position, and the tongue removed from the horses. The tongue is lifted till it is high in the air, while the workers attach the rear sling. Once the sling has been attached, the tongue is pulled down tight to the ground. This lifts the rear sling with its load of logs clear of the ground. The front sling is now attached. The tongue is once again lifted and reattached to the team of horses. The load of logs, dangling just clear of the ground, are now ready to head to camp.
In the wintertime sleighs replace Big Wheels. Small horse powered jammers are set up at the cross-haul. A sleigh is placed beside the small jammer, and logs are hoisted up onto the sleigh. Once loaded, they head down the snow packed trail toward camp. These trails take a beating with all the sleigh traffic, so there are times when snow has to be hauled in to fill bare spots. Water tanks are placed on sleighs and the trails watered down to create an ice road.
Back at the camp is a flurry of activity. There are several sets of Big Wheels unloading next to the railroad track. There is a big McGiffert steam loader backing into position to begin loading the morning train. This beast is a clever contraption. Totally powered by steam, it rides on two railroad axles powered by chains from above. Once in position, these axles are raised allowing the machine to settle onto its frame. The frame is then wedged under the rail to secure the loader. The wheels are then lifted up into the belly of the beast. The framework has been designed so that empty flat cars, such as the Russell log cars, can be pushed through and on down the track behind the loader.
Once the train has backed into position, the loader starts loading the first car in the train. The loader is a simple crane, which does not pivot. The boom always remains centered over the log car. The cable, which looks like a "Y" upside down, is played out and is attached to opposite ends of a log with barbs. When the signal is given to the operator he begins reeling the cable back in. The log is dragged across the ground, then up two guide poles leaning against the car, and finally it clears above the car. As the operator lowers the log, two men, one on each end of the log, guide the log into position on the car.
Once the first car in the train has been loaded, the engineer pulls the train up so the second car can be loaded. This process continues until the entire train has been loaded. The train then heads back toward Boyne City with its cargo in tow.
When Mr. White arrived in Boyne City, he set out to start a business. He tried several times to partner with people, and operate businesses, but all failed. Then in the fall of 1866 he bought a sawmill from the Sheboygan Chair Company of Wisconsin for a rumored $2,000. This he owned and ran on his own until 1889 when his brother James moved into town, and bought out a quarter share of his company for $1,000.
In order to secure an ample amount of logs Mr. White decided he needed a railroad. So in 1893 the White Company organized the Boyne City and Southeastern Railroad. They built east from Boyne City, crossing the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railway at Easton, about 1 mile north of Boyne Falls. This line went as far as Thumb Lake, with several branches to the south.
At Cushman a second line was built toward the southeast. At Moore a wye track was built, with the east leg extending across the Boyne River and into Boyne Falls. The first train arrived in 1893. This was the interchange point with the GR&I, and also the location of the passenger Depot that was served by both railroads.
At Project, just south of Moore, a branch was built off the main line toward Goo. From there many branches were built south toward Alba. Continuing on southeast from Project, the mainline began its climb of Elmira Hill. A huge trestle was built over the GR&I at North Elmira, and the line continued on toward Gaylord. This trestle was eventually replaced with a large fill, and a much shorter steel bridge. Several more branch lines left the main for logging camps strewn out between Elmira and Gaylord.
On November 25, 1905 the railroad was renamed the Boyne City, Gaylord & Alpena Railroad. They crossed the Michigan Central tracks at Gaylord, and in an attempt to build the only independent cross-state railroad, headed on toward Alpena. This was a huge struggle for the company, but they did succeed, with the arrival of the first train to Alpena on December 20, 1918.
Back at Boyne City, our load of logs has just arrived, and is being pushed into place at White #1 for unloading. This is one of five major sawmills in Boyne City. White #1 was just north of the BCG&A roundhouse in what now is a park. Just north of this mill was the Von Platen Mill, owned by Godfrey Von Platen, another lumber baron of the area. White #2 was located just south of the roundhouse, and was built exclusively to cut ties for the railroad. A third White mill (#3) was built in Coon pasture, east of town along the Boyne River. Boyne City Lumber Company was to the south of White #2.
After the logs were unloaded from the rail cars, they were rolled into a millpond. The logs were spun and pushed around with men banishing long poles. This process washed off the sand that had covered the logs while they were being snaked out of the woods. Once clean, the logs are guided toward a slue way. A hook and cable device pulls the logs from the pond and up a ramp toward the second floor of the mill. Here on the second floor is where all the sawing took place. The log was broken down into lumber on a sawmill, and then edged and cut to length on other smaller saws. All waste material went through the floor. Wood tailings, or slabs, were fed to the boiler, which created the steam power for the entire factory. Spent steam was used for heat, and also to heat the millpond so that it wouldn’t freeze over in the winter.
The finished lumber was loaded onto small wagons called "Trams". Mules were used to pull these along many miles of Tramways, which were built, along the waterfront. Loads of lumber were piled to allow for drying. These piles of lumber were "stickered" so that the lumber would dry evenly. This consisted of placing small wooden strips of wood (stickers) between each layer of lumber so that air could get to all sides of the board at once. If not stickered properly, the wood would warp, mold and then rot.
Once the lumber was ready to be shipped to market, it was once again loaded onto trams and moved to the docks. From there it was loaded onto one of several White Lumber Company steam ships, or if traffic demanded, a leased ship. This lumber was all moved by hand, and up to 900,000 board feet of lumber could be put on a ship. It usually took the better part of two days to load one ship. Once loaded the ships set sail for Tondawanda Yard near Buffalo, New York. This was a large lumberyard managed by Mr. White’s brother James.
Aside from logging the BCG&A also moved people. Passenger trains left Boyne City several times per day. There was a shuttle that departed for Boyne Falls three times per day. A self-propelled gas Motor Car #17 later replaced this. This provided passengers with a connection to the GR&I. Trains also traveled to Gaylord for a connection with the Michigan Central, and one train per day went all the way to Alpena.
As the 1920’s arrived the timber had pretty much played out. Godfrey Von Platen had been the first to leave, selling out in 1916. White #1 had suffered a massive fire in 1918, and burned to the ground despite the valiant efforts of the Boyne City Fire Department and two fire tugs from Charlevoix. The mill was never rebuilt. White #3, which had been idle for a time, was started back up. This mill was eventually dismantled and shipped to Sault Ste. Marie. The Boyne City Lumber Company shut down in 1923, and shortly thereafter burned to the ground.
The BCG&A, with no more logs to haul, became a common carrier under the name Boyne City Railroad Company. All the logging branches were pulled up and the main line to Alpena removed. Eventually everything south of the wye at Moore was taken up. All but two locomotives were either scrapped or sold. Finally in the 1962 the last steamer, #18, was sold to the Arcade & Attica Railroad in New York.
The railroad clung on into the early 70’s thanks to the one remaining heavy industry in town. The Boyne City Tannery was still a heavy rail user and along with a lumberyard in town, F.O. Barden & Sons, the railroad had enough traffic to keep a few people employed. But when the Tannery shut down, the writing was on the wall.
The railroad saw yet another change as it became the Boyne Valley Railroad in the early 70’s. They provided scenic passenger service between Boyne City and Boyne Falls for several years. They even purchased an English 0-6-0 steam tank engine and a couple of passenger cars. But the end was inevitable. The construction practices of the turn of century could no longer please the FRA, and the railroad could little afford to rebuild their line. So it all went on the auction block.
Today driving through Boyne City one can only imagine the massive industry that used to be the backbone of the community. The rail yard and roundhouse have been replaced by a luxury hotel and restaurant. The Tannery is now a condominium complex. The foundations of White #2 is now a marina, and so on. The depot still sits along a back street with a left over open passenger car and caboose in front. The last I knew the "Depot" was a restaurant, and at one time you could enjoy your meal sitting in the open passenger car. Around the corner is a large brick office building, which once housed the general offices of the BCG&A.
What you won’t see and hear are the workings of an industrial city. You will not hear the slap of the lumber as dockwallopers scurry to load yet another schooner with lumber. You won’t hear the lonesome moan of the many passenger trains leaving town, or of the evening log train arriving. And you won’t hear the piercing whistle of White #1 calling its workers to another shift at the mill.
Photo info/credit: Top, The BCG&A engine house, located on the waterfront in Boyne City, was at one time home to 13 locomotives. Workers at the shops also had to maintain nearly 350 cars, including several hundred Russell logging cars. White No. 1 can be seen in the background of this photo. 2nd photo, In the winter, logs were hauled from the Cross-haul to camp using sleighs. Here you can see a jammer to the right of the sleigh used to load the sleighs. This was powered by a team of horses pulling a cable to lift the logs onto the sleigh. 3rd photo, This inbound BCG&A passenger train arrives at Boyne City. The dress of the patrons waiting for the train suggests that someone special is riding the train.4th photo, All mills required the talents of a Sawsmith. These saws were gummed, swedged and sharpened by hand. The hardest part of the craft to learn was the art of hammering a saw so it would run true. Here, the Sawsmith is displaying two saws. The mill saw in the background is for cutting with the grain of the log, the chop saw he is holding in front of him is for cutting across the grain, 5th photo, William Howard White, Boyne City's premier lumber baron. Photos from the author's collection.
About the Author: Bill Dunham grew up in Boyne Falls and was a rail fan from a very early age. Bill's father was a sawmill operator in Boyne Falls, and he collected machine tools. Bill worked full time for his father after graduating from school in 1977, and he took over operations of his father's sawmill in 1981. In 1992 he and his wife moved to Kalamazoo where his wife finished her teaching degree at Western Michigan University. In 1993, Bill was hired by the Grand Trunk Western Railroad in their maintenance of way department and he was assigned to Valparaiso, Indiana as a trackman. He later transferred to a welder's job in Battle Creek, bringing him closer to home and soon he became a Foreman. He moved to transportation side of the railroad and worked as a Brakeman, Conductor and finally he became an engineer in 1997. Bill's dad has retired, but still has a machine shop in the Boyne Falls area.