Michigan's Lumber Boom
|During the 19th century,
Michigan’s forests yielded more money and created more millionaires
than did all the gold mined during California’s Gold Rush. In turn,
this wealth fueled the great financial and industrial rise of the state
at the beginning of the 20th century.
Before the lumber boom, most of Michigan was densely forested wilderness. Though Native Americans were the first to fell trees in Michigan, their modest needs had little impact upon the forests. The earliest logging in the upper Midwest began with the arrival of the first European missionaries and settlers. The French built missions, forts, and fur-trading posts out of pine.
White pine, the most common tree, was preferred because it was easy to work and grew straight and tall. The largest specimens were 300 years old, 200 feet tall and up to 8 feet in diameter. Other abundant species were maple, elm, basswood and yellow pine.
The French followed a tradition that had already proved disastrous to
the forests of Europe—clear-cutting. When the British arrived, they
cut many hardwoods to build their warships and merchant vessels.
Initially the areas that were clear-cut were relatively small, but as
the demand for lumber increased, so did the practice of clear-cutting.
Most of the lumber was cut during winter because the best way to transport the large logs to the rivers was by horse-drawn sleds. The logs were hauled to the banks of the frozen rivers where they were stacked and held until the spring thaw. After the spring thaw, they were floated down river to retention ponds, where they were sorted by company and then sent to their respective sawmills for cutting.
No Axes to Grind
A major advance was achieved with the introduction of the circular
saw into mill operations around 1850. Logging expanded rapidly, and by
the end of the Civil War, Michigan was the top lumber-producing state in
the Union, producing more than 500 million board feet of lumber per
In 1876, the first narrow gauge railroads were built to haul logs and they opened up immense new areas to logging that were previously inaccessible. The state granted huge tracts of timberlands to logging companies to get them to improve roads and build new rail lines and by 1889, at least eighty-nine narrow gauge railroads were in operation.
Measure Once, Cut Twice?
Logging companies often did not confine their cutting to the area
they had purchased. There was the practice of "logging a round
forty," which meant buying forty acres and then cutting the timber
around it in all directions far beyond the boundaries of the area to
which title had been secured. By 1900 most of the pine in the Lower
Peninsula was gone. Pine logging in the Upper Peninsula began to assume
greater importance in the 1880s, and the virgin stands lasted until
about 1920. The peak of Michigan’s great timber harvest was reached in
1889-1890 when mills cut a total of 5.5 billion board feet of lumber,
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