Life was work and whisky for early B.C. loggers

West coast loggers falling a giant Douglas fir tree, circa 1895. They have chopped an undercut with their axes. With their seven-foot crosscut saw, they will saw through the tree from the opposite side to intersect the top of the undercut. The tree will fall in the direction of the undercut. Photo, McCord Museum, MP-0000.25.864.


Work and whisky comprised the cycle of life for many loggers on the coast of British Columbia in the first decade of the twentieth century. Following is one of my early magazine pieces, published in the magazine section of the Vancouver
Sun, May 5, 1951.

The year was 1906.

“As you walk down the street (Cordova) you see how the shops are giving way to saloons and restaurants, and the price of beer decorates each building’s front. And you pass the blackboards of employment offices, and read chalked thereon: ‘50 axemen wanted at Alberni; 5 rigging slingers, $4; buckers, $3; swampers, $3’.”

Today [1951] if you walk down Vancouver’s Cordova Street, and look at the blackboards of the employment offices, you are likely to note that even the lowly “whistle punk” receives more than double $4 per day for his work, the price of beer no longer decorates the front of each building, and there are no saloons.

But Vancouver’s Cordova Street of about 1906 as described by M. Allerdale Grainger in Woodsman of the West, published by Edward Arnold in 1908, is still much the same as Cordova Street in 1951.The buildings are older, shabbier; in the store windows, where the axes, wedges, sledge-hammers and augers are still displayed, only “the great seven-foot saws with enormous shark teeth,” have been replaced, giving way to the smaller, doubly efficient power saws.

“Mert” Grainger was a young Englishman with a spirit of adventure, who arrived in Vancouver around the turn of the century, as green of the ways of the woods as an English schoolboy, and who, in 1907 set down with the hardened muscles and calloused hands of a logger to write “Woodsman of the West,” and give a few glimpses of what happened in between. The record is a story of men who worked until they dropped exhausted and, when not working, drank until they dropped exhausted. If you care to hunt around some dusty shelves you may still be able to find a well-thumbed copy of the book —you may even find it, along with axes, caulk boots, and augers, in a second-hand store along Cordova Street.

Logging in the time of “Woodsman of the West” was tough—and so were the loggers. Many were hand loggers who lived in isolated places, alone, or perhaps with one partner, for months on end, falling logs and rolling them into the “salt chuck,” laboriously with peaveys and jacks, pulling them into their crude booms with battered rowboats, rowing these same boats as far as 80 miles for supplies, and some solace from a bottle.

Let the “boss man” of today—the camp’s “push”—who must build his roads farther and farther inland to reach receding timber lines, read how one logger did it in those days, and weep with envy. “He worked close to the beach, cutting timber along the frontage of his leases… One thousand feet… was the farthest inland he ever went.”

And what a steam donkey the larger outfits used! You can talk of your diesel jobs, those colossal power plants—this “donk” performed miracles, and kept extra men employed splitting wood for fuel. When in operation, “the whole mechanism would rock and quiver upon its heavy sleigh; its different parts would seem to sway and slew, each after their own manner; steam would squirt from every joint… The engineer would keep tightening nuts and bolts that would keep loosening.”

If the steam donkey of that day bordered on the comical when compared with a modern donkey, the tugboat Sonora was not only comical but ludicrous and pathetic as well, when compared with the sleek ocean-going tugs that pull huge cigar-shaped Davis rafts into Vancouver today. She was the second tug built on the B.C. coast, constructed before the turn of the century, and was once the pride of the Westminster Steamship Company. She was 54 feet long, with a gross tonnage of 33 tons. Her decks were piled high with wood and bark, the fuel. In 1901, a government inspector, presumably as a safety measure, had placed her maximum boiler pressure at 80 pounds. Six years later, the discoloured pipes in her engine room, despite the rags tied here and there, were squirting steam from several places. The pressure was kept at 80 pounds constantly, sometimes higher.

Grainger first saw the Sonora as a “blistered, dingy, disorderly junk, slowly sighing her way through the water… the faint throb of her engine… was like that of a dying man. You kept expecting her to die away and stop.” But the Sonora’s engine never “conked out,” and she could always be relied upon to keep the ship going forward in any kind of weather for as long as the bark and wood fuel supply lasted.

In those days, newly hired men were not expected to reach camp sober. One old-timer described the first few days in camp: “ After a fellow’s got over the first two days and can begin to eat, life looks good enough to him. Of course, them first two days is tough.”

Then, as now, logging was risky business, and the camps were often a long way from medical assistance. “’You can bet it ain’t no dressmaker’s dream, getting hurt so far away from any doctor,’… without antiseptics, bandages, skill or the proper care of wounds, four to five or six days’ journey (weather permitting) from a hospital.” Fortune could be swept away by a gust of wind; a hand logger could lose a couple of thousand dollars when heavy seas would break his boom, and a year’s labour would be in vain.

And then there was always the supreme risk: “… the log had slipped and caught Pete’s boot and rolled upon him and pushed his body down before it to water; and Pete’s arm alone stuck up above the surface. ‘Squashed, he was, flat, like a squashed fruit, from his ribs down’.”

After several years of a lonely life in an isolated logging camp, years of back-breaking labour, “Mert” Grainger left the woods to live near Victoria. Despite the high wages, like most loggers when he unlaced his caulk boots for the last time, he found himself a lot richer in experience, but not much richer financially.

— Canada @ 150 —

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