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A History of Timbering in Minnesota
By Leif Enger
November 16, 1998
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Part of Our State, Our Forests

There are few places where you can walk the kind of forests that covered Northern Minnesota 150 years ago. Giant white pines rose to 200 feet. When Minnesota became a state, more than half its land was in deep shade.

Though vast, the great North Woods weren't limitless. By the turn of the century, Minnesota timber was being marketed from New York to Denver. The expanding frontier needed wood and 30,000 lumberjacks were doing their best to supply it. Timber was far and away the biggest industry in the state, and it changed the very landscape we live in.

THERE'S A WOODS NORTH OF GRAND RAPIDS called the Lost Forty. In an age when policy makers argue about whether a tree is "old growth" at 90 years or 120, the Lost Forty is the real thing. It's never been cut. Some of these white pines are 400 years old. In the 1830s, 3.5 million acres of Minnesota forest were dominated by such pines. But the Lost Forty, says forester Chuck Wingard, is still here only because of a mistake.

Wingard: There was a surveying error in the area we're looking at - it was shown as part of Cottington Lake. And since it showed in the survey records as lake, nobody could buy it. And if they couldn't buy it, they couldn't cut the timber from it, so it's here for us to see today. Traditionally we measure 'em four-and-a-half feet from the ground, so that's about here - okay, our diameter on this one is 39.6 inches. Circumference is about 10.9 feet. We're probably looking at about 2,000 board feet in a tree that size.

Four hundred years old, 2,000 board feet. Enough in one tree for a two-stall garage, or a century ago, a small barn, farmhouse, or church. In 1837 a treaty with Ojibwe Indians, the same treaty now being contested over hunting and fishing rights, opened a large triangle of east-central Minnesota to logging. But the heyday was still 50 years off. Most of the timber being used to build the American frontier was being cut in the abundant pine forests of Michigan and Wisconsin. What jump-started the timber trade in Minnesota was a potent union of technology and demand.

Skip Drake: Steam power began to replace waterpower in the sawmills. Before this time, you had to locate sawmills on a watercourse, preferably a falls, like St. Anthony Falls, to generate power for the mill.

Skip Drake is director of the Forest History Center, a logging museum in Grand Rapids.

Drake: Then steam began to be applied to milling, which allowed sawmills to be located virtually anywhere. And we found sawmills moving from St. Anthony Falls, much closer to the North Woods, up towards Duluth, Cloquet, Brainerd, Bemidji.

Simultaneously, the pine forests of Michigan and Wisconsin began to give out. The lumber companies saw Minnesota as the new El Dorado, a promised land of pines. With settlements springing up across the northern plains, there wasn't just a demand for wood, there was desperation for it.

Drake: Certainly logging and lumbering had been going on for 50 years, but it hadn't begun to highball yet. And that's what happened in the 1880s. You needed good, cheap lumber to build this country. Minnesota, by the turn of the century, was the king of white-pine logging.

And the white pine was king of Minnesota's economy. In 1901, when Teddy Roosevelt took office, 30,000 lumberjacks were working in the forest. They were European immigrants and part-time farmers who slept two to a bunk in the logging camps and ate enormous breakfasts - yes, pancakes - before heading out to the woods. Small wonder the lumberjack is an epic figure. The trees were epic, often 200 feet tall and six feet wide waist-high. The way they fell was epic.

Once I got hit in the face and cut my lips. A branch punched through my cheek and knocked out a bunch of teeth. I was cutting the tree down and it fell over on me. That morning it was about 30 below. It broke my leg, too. I had to crawl out about half a mile. Spent 90 days in the hospital. Pretty goofy, wasn't it?

Each pair of lumberjacks might cut only a few dozen trees per day, using an eight-foot crosscut saw and a team of horses to drag out the logs. But so large was the workforce and so numerous the camps, it soon became plain that white pine was no endless resource.

Drake: People really began to know as early as the 1860s or 70s that the forests were exhaustible. Think about it: they were exhaustible back in Maine in the 1800s, they were exhaustible in New York. Clearly they knew that the pine would not last. But the old axiom is, the plow follows the ax. And it happened in those states, and it happened in the Ohio River Valley and it happened in Wisconsin, and agriculture was able to take over as the next economy. The belief was that farming would come here to Northern Minnesota and be successful.

So, much of Minnesota's forest lands changed into cultivated fields, pastures, and meadows. Old photographs show the towering white pine stands of Superior's North Shore laid bare. But farming was to fail in much of Northern Minnesota, and as lumbermen moved on into the Arrowhead and Mississippi headwaters, the plow wasn't the only thing following the ax. Jeanne Coffee is director of the Hinckley Fire Museum.

Coffee: All they wanted was the trunk of the tree. They didn't want the tops, or the branches, so that was left to lay. That became known as slash. Any spark from a train, any lightning strikes, anything could start a fire spontaneously with this very dry slash.

In August of 1894, General C.C. Andrews of the U.S. Army made a speech to timber-industry leaders. He'd just returned from studying forestry techniques in Sweden, and he was alarmed. If the lumber companies didn't change their practices, he warned, the Midwest would go up in flames. Nine days later, part of it did.

Coffee: You can still find stumps from the fire. You can see where these enormous trees were just blown out of the earth. Even today, if you dig down into the town of Hinckley, you can see the black fire-line. It's about a foot down and it's built right on cinders from the fire.
The Great Hinckley Fire was like nothing the state had ever seen. Traveling faster than a horse could gallop, it blackened 400 square miles in four hours. It burned, besides Hinckley, the towns of Sandstone, Mission Creek, Pokegama, Miller, and Askov. The glow of the fire was visible from Iowa. An anonymous survivor wrote this account of escaping the blaze in a shallow creek.
As we got in the water a bunch of confused deer raced past us right into the blast that roared over us in seconds. Wilson was in the middle with a wet, coarse wool sock held over his mouth with his left hand. With his right he splashed water over us and the creek bank. I went under as the water sizzled with the rain of firebrands. That warmed the water and killed the fish in seconds. I breathed through my wet shirt when I came up for air.

The Hinckley fire killed 413 people. It was front-page news nationwide and in Europe, where articles appeared with grim pencil drawings depicting oxidized bodies amid smoking ruins. It also helped arouse a national debate over how forests should be managed. Early conservationists, including Sierra Club founder John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, began to argue for federal regulation of timber. Some, like General Andrews and Gifford Pinchot, lobbied for replanting and rotation cutting - old ideas in Europe, but revolutionary in America. Char Miller is a historian with Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

Miller: We can see the transfer of ideas. The late-19th and early-20th centuries were a really fertile moment in which many, many of these ideas were pouring across the North Atlantic and transforming the way Americans understood the world.

So began the environmental debate that endures to this day: How much of the forest should be used? And how much left alone? In 1892, John Muir founded the Sierra Club to proclaim the aesthetic values of pristine woods. His friend Gifford Pinchot thought pristine was well and good, but didn't put bread on the table. Pinchot, a skillful politician, lobbied for controlled logging, mining, and grazing in national forests. Teddy Roosevelt named him head of the brand-new U.S. Forest Service. And while he did push for reforestation, Minnesota white pines continued to be cut at unsustainable rates.

Lynn Rogers: There was no way, with the economic value of the white pines that people could stop that locomotive.

Lynn Rogers is a former Forest Service biologist and founder of the Ely-based White Pine Society. In the 1920s, concerns over the loss of the giant trees led to a massive replanting program. But there was a problem: American nurseries didn't have enough space to raise the seedlings.

Rogers: So they sent seed over to Europe, the European nurseries. And when they brought those seedlings back over for planting, they carried European white-pine blister rust.

When some replanted, seedlings died of blister rust, Rogers says; the whole effort was dropped. Sometimes red pines were planted in their place - sometimes, nothing at all. In many cases, white pine clear-cuts came up in aspen and other aggressive species.

By the mid-1930s, Minnesota's white pine sawlog era was finished. While the pulp and paper industry remained, most lumber companies moved on to the next El Dorado - the Pacific Northwest. They left behind mill towns they'd brought to existence, hundreds of marginal farms, and thousands of unemployed loggers.

They also left behind a forest changing over to aspen and other fast-growing species, trees that would become the focus for Minnesota's second great wave of logging, a century after the first.