You might remember the TV show ‘Monty Python’, with it’s razor sharp satire and wit – they did a funny song called ‘I’m A Lumberjack’ in which they took the mickey with a vengeance, but the skit was based on the universally held belief that working as a lumberjack is a job only real men can do, and history supports that belief. Being a lumberjack was a truly gruelling profession, and when men were men, the manliest of them felled trees for a living.
Logging in America began in the early 1600s. Settlers landed in Jamestown in 1607, and lumber was essential for any number of things. As populations grew, more timber was required, and by the early 1830s, Bangor, Maine, was shipping more timber than anywhere else in the world.
As the process of making paper from wood pulp was established, in the 1850s, William Rittenhouse founded America’s first paper mill in Germantown, Pennsylvania. The future of the timber industry was assured.
In the early days, trees were cut near to water for ease of transport to mills and overseas, and it was here that the sport of logrolling, seeing who can remain standing longest on a rolling log for the longest, was born. However, as the tree fellers moved farther inland, they had to find new ways of moving the ungainly trunks. Horses and oxen were used to drag logs through the woods, and many log flumes, which are manmade channels, sprang up for moving logs to the nearest river.
Upon getting there, logs would be tied together in rafts, to be floated to the sawmill. Sometimes they even built crude railway systems made from timber, to get the logs on their way. As the people spread out toward the American west, during the 1800s, looking for land and natural resources, the lumberjacks followed closely, chasing the lumber supply.
When the Homestead Act became law in 1862, settlers were soon headed west with the promise of 160 acres per family. Often heavily wooded, settlers needed to clear the land before using it for farming, and the lumber industry boomed.
From the early 1800s through to the 1940s, when manual lumberjacking went into decline, these men lived in remote camps for months on end. Hours were very long and the work hard. Camps were often rife with disease and lice, because lumberjacks often wore the same gear, unwashed, for months. As word of this spread, it can come as no surprise that these hard men started to acquire fearsome reputations. Eventually things improved enough that wives and families could move to the camps as well, paving the way for schools and other community features.
Pictured above are three so-called arks for a log drive in Pennsylvania, USA. The left ark was for cooking and dining, the middle ark was the sleeping quarters, and the right ark was for the horses. These were built for just the one log drive and then sold for their lumber.
Being a lumberjack was a dangerous occupation, as logging still is today. Consistently one of the most hazardous industries in the USA and the world since its very beginning. Even in 2008 the American logging industry had a fatality rate of 108.1 deaths per 100,000 workers, thirty times higher than any other industry overall. Lumberjacks have truly always risked life and limb in their working days.
In every way you can imagine, these incredibly hard and strong men earned their place in history, and their reputations, with the unrelentingly tough lives they were obliged to lead. I believe that these really were the ‘tough guys’ that every man since has wanted to model himself upon. If you could survive life as a lumberjack, you could get through anything. I have nothing but the utmost respect for these amazing characters. They defined forever what being hard was all about.