A History of Idaho Logging

Key U.S. Logging History Facts

Logging arrived in America with the early settlers of Jamestown in 1607. It was an essential staple for life and survival in during this time, not only as a job, but as a way to build and heat homes.

By the end of the 18th century, New England was exporting 36 million feet of pine boards each year. And it wasn’t long after that, that Bangor, Maine, became the world’s biggest lumber shipping port (1830s). In the latter part of the 19th century, the Great Lakes region was the primary lumber market in the United States. However, logging company owners knew that the area would be cut out by the beginning of the new century, so they started looking to the south and the northwest. Some loggers believed they would deplete the woods in the southern United States in 25 years and have to move on to Northern Idaho. (This was not to be the case; however, as tree stands in the south grew back faster than loggers could harvest. Many logging companies stayed in the south.)

Less than a hundred years later, the logging center of the United States shifted from the East Coast to the Northwest because forests were being depleted in the east. By 1910, Idaho was producing and distributing 745 million board feet annually.

The United States is still the leading producer of lumber in the world, although the lumber business has become more controversial. Logging is still considered one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.

Lumberjacks go to World War I

The United States joined World War I in April 1917. Upon arriving in France, General John Pershing realized that troops had a need for timber and lumber in order to build barracks, railroads, make-shift hospitals, bunkers, and trench support. However, the military could not spare any of their troops to construct these essentials, and many of the troops they had had no knowledge of logging.

Because of this predicament, General Pershing decided to put together “a regiment of experienced loggers and sawmill men”; this regiment would produce the lumber the military needed to perform effectively. The U.S. Forest Service went to work recruiting men for the 20th Engineer Regiment, which at its largest had 20,000 men working 107 sawmills across France.

Northern Idaho supplied a large portion of the men in the 20th Regiment. The response to newspaper ads was overwhelming. By June 1919, the men of the 20th regiment had returned home to resume work in the forests, including the men of Northern Idaho.

General Idaho Logging

At the turn of the 20th century, forest resources surpassed mining in economic importance, but Idaho’s timber statute made it difficult for companies to acquire land for logging farms. The statute had been created to help individuals acquire family-sized farms; the general theory was that a family would have a 640-acre forest to harvest and process. These 640 acres were supposed to last a generation, with new growth for the next generation. But this didn’t pan out; a stand of trees was harvested long before another stand could mature.

To solve this problem, some creative attorneys figured out a way to consolidate these farms in order to make a commercial forest products industry around Boise. The attorneys were successful, and large sawmill operations sprang up around Boise and Coeur d’Alene anticipating a demand for high quality white pine in millions of board feet. Unfortunately, when the Panama Canal opened, lumber on the Pacific Coast had easier transportation to the east, and North Idaho’s lumber potential was not easily realized. Pacific Coast lumber arrived on the east coast and traveled as far inland as Cleveland, leaving a small market for Idaho lumber.

Another hit for the Idaho logging market came with the establishment of the Boise National Forest (1906), which protected these forested lands from commercial logging. Personal use fuelwood permits can be purchased to cut wood in this area.

Boise Logging

The city of Boise was founded in 1863, one and half years later (December 1864) there were two sawmills operating near Boise. Sawmills were considered an economic asset to the Boise community, even before the end of the mining era (lumber was required for sluice boxes, flumes, and mine support).

One early sawmill was located across from the Old Penitentiary on Warm Springs Ave. It was operated under various owners from the early 1870s to 1924.

The mining towns around Boise supported a large lumber market, particularly in towns like Idaho City, Placerville, Centerville, Atlanta, etc, but the mountainous terrain, and lack of railroads made lumber transportation outside of the mountains difficult.

Lumber companies soon realized that commercial lumbering couldn’t develop in the Boise forests without adequate rail transportation. The Barber Mill, located six miles north of Boise, played a huge role in the development of a lumber railroad.

Intermountain Railway and Barber Mill

Frank Steunenberg, former Idaho governor started a project at the turn of the century to bring Wisconsin and Minnesota lumbermen over to Boise forests. Steunenberg attracted the attention of Barber Lumber Company (Wisconsin) bought 25,000 acres north of Boise, along Grime’s and More’s creeks, in 1902. Construction on Barber Dam and Sawmill began in 1904 and was completed in 1905. But only a year later, in 1906, Barber realized they would need a railroad to transport logs.

The company had originally intended to transport the logs with log drives down More’s and Grime’s creeks, but they soon realized the creeks would not support log drives. Silt from earlier upstream mining threatened to fill and clog the log pond during high water, the only practical time to have a log drive.

Another obstacle for the Barber Lumber Company came when the company attempted to buy more forest acreage to supplement the land they already owned. The State Land Board wouldn’t sell the land for less than $150,000 per 12,000 acres (an outrageous price at the time).

A combination of issues contributed to Barber Mill shutting its doors in 1908, but the Barber Lumber Company didn’t give up. They kept pushing for the construction of the Intermountain Railway and a lower price on the land they wanted to purchase.

Four years later, in 1912, the Barber litigation was solved, and the United States Reclamation Service started construction on a rail line (a third of the way to Centerville from Boise). Around the same time, the State Land Board offered to sell Barber the timber they wanted for $100,000 (but not the land). Further arguments took the case to the Idaho Supreme Court, where the sale of timber AND land was upheld, as long as the Barber Company would build a rail line, enhancing the value of the other state lands. Barber Mill reopened in 1912.

In 1914, plans to construct the Intermountain Railway began and the Barber Lumber Company merged with the Payette Lumber and Manufacturing Company becoming the Boise Payette Lumber Co.

The Intermountain Railway was built from just north of Boise to New Centerville, following the Boise River, Grime’s Creek, and More’s Creek. The total cost of construction was $1,037,499, equal to $24,725,261 today. During construction of the rail line, four logging spurs (dirt roads) were built to assist lumber companies in log transportation.

With the completion of the Intermountain Railway, the Boise Payette Company saw a huge boost in profits and remained profitable throughout the 1920s. However, early in the 1930s, as the market became depressed, the company started taking huge losses, which led to the closing of Barber Mill in 1934, it was never reopened. The Intermountain Railway service was suspended in the 30s as well and later was replaced by Highway 21 (Boise to Idaho City).

The Boise Payette company saw many ups and downs in the market and went through a series of mergers, becoming Boise-Cascade in 1957. Boise-Cascade is one of the largest lumber corporations in Idaho today.

Northern Idaho Logging

The history of logging in Northern Idaho stretches back to 1880, when Robert Weeks opened a general store. He had several other business ventures, one being a sawmill that failed financially. Around the same time (early 1880s), other small mills sprang up around Rathdrum, just north of Coeur d’Alene. In the next twenty years, the industry grew dramatically in the North, with 20 mills between Harrison and Bonners Ferry by the early 1900s.

Lumber production rose and fell during the early 20th century. At its highest point, in 1926, the ten counties of Northern Idaho produced 950,000,000 board feet of timber, dipping down to 200,000,000 in 1932.

Even today, many of the men working in the woods are following in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers. In the first half of the 20th century, logging was one of the few ways to make a decent living in North Idaho.

Humbird Lumber Company

Humbird Lumber Company bought the Sandpoint Lumber Company on December 21, 1900. The North was plagued by enormous fires in the early 20th century, including one in 1907, that forced the Humbird Mill to close down for seven months. When it reopened, the mill employed 500 men and had a cutting capacity of 180,000 board feet every 24 hours. (A board foot is “a specialized unit of measure” referring to the “volume of a one foot length of board: one foot wide and one inch thick.” (Wikipedia))

Kootenai was also developed because of Humbird Lumber Company. The company bought a sawmill in Kootenai in 1903. This was the first year that the forest became known as “the greatest source of wealth” for the area (History of Bonner County) - the forest is still considered the greatest source of wealth in the area. The Kootenai and Sandpoint Mill were connected by railroad.

The Humbird Lumber Co. possessed 200,000 acres of timberland across Boundary and Kootenai counties. The company constructed railways up several creeks to transport logs into town. Rapid Lightning Road (Sandpoint) was one of the former railroad beds used by Humbird.

By 1925, Humbird employed an average of 1,300 men, providing a big chunk of employment for the area. However, the Sandpoint Mill was forced to close its doors in the early 30s due to the widespread depression.

Laclede and Dover Mills

In Laclede (1909), Albert C. White arrived from Michigan where the forests had been depleted. He bought the Laclede Mill from Andrew Christianson. The mill burned down in 1922, so White bought the Dover Lumber Co. Mill and moved the standing buildings from Laclede to the Dover Mill. The Dover Mill closed in 1928.


Sandpoint was known as the largest shipper of cedar poles and pilings in the Northwest, and North Idaho provided much of the central United States with lumber. Even with the major fires of 1910 and 1919 - which destroyed tons of timber acreage - there was still an abundant supply of timber to harvest and sell. (The 1910 fire was known as the largest conflagration in U.S. history.)

Visitors to Sandpoint could tell immediately that it was a timber town. Lumberjacks were picked out from the crowd by the way they dressed: wearing flannel over long underwear with logging jeans and suspenders. Logging trucks pulling two-wheel, single axle trailers loaded with logs drove through the town or stopped at the landing site where logs were loaded onto boxcars.

Coeur d’Alene

This region is very steep, so loggers had to cut down trees and transport logs up the hill to a log deck and load them onto some type of transporter: river/road/railway.

By the 1920s, there were more than 20 logging railroad systems in the mountains around Coeur d’Alene, the largest was Burnt Cabin Creek Railroad.

Coeur d’Alene was also a major site for flumes. There were 35 flume projects in the area adding up to 150 miles of transport.


The Clearwater Timber Company - now known as Potlatch Corporation - opened a mill in 1927. It was the largest white pine mill in the world.

The Clearwater River Log Drive began a year later and ran from 1928 to 1971. The Log Drive incorporated a 90 mile stretch from North Fork to Lewiston - where the Clearwater River joins the Snake River.

The Lewiston Mill received half of its timber through rail lines and half by river until 1971 when the Dworshak Dam was completed, cutting off access from North Fork to Lewiston.

The Clearwater Log Drives lasted around 21 days from the time the crew went to work chopping trees to the time the logs were unloaded in Lewiston. Drives usually took place in the early spring when melting snows began filling the rivers.

Rivermen followed the logs downstream un-snagging them from river banks and sandbars. The first year, men camped along river edges. After that year, the rivermen used cedar rafts with a cookhouse and bunkhouse on top to follow the logs down the river. Later still rubber pontoons were used to carry a cookhouse and two bunkhouses. These floating camps were called wanigans.

These workers would have to jump onto log jams to split them up. They used special shoes called caulk (“cork”) boots that had thick rubber soles and spikes called caulks that helped them keep their balance on the logs.

Each log drive had millions of board feet and workers worked 15 hours a day to keep logs flowing down the river. Twelve foot pike poles were used to prod and pull the logs out of snags and sometimes dynamite was used to break up jams.

Bateaus, river boats, were also used to carry men down the river to break up log jams. Motorized metal boats were later used as bateaus. Men on the boats were known as river pigs.

St. Maries

The St. Maries area was an important white pine logging area. Extensive settlement began in the 1880s with homesteading and sawmill building. The lumber industry is still an important part of this area.

Boundary County

Back in 1957, nearly 38 percent of the county workforce worked in the timber industry. Today, 15 to 20 percent of the county workforce is employed by sawmills and other forestry jobs.

Logging Equipment/Transportation

In the early days of the logging industry, trees were cut near waterways, so the logs could be transported downstream to the mill (log drives). For inland harvesting, horses and oxen were used to haul lumber, dragging logs through the woods. Chutes were particularly useful during the time of horse/oxen transportation. These were made by creating grooves in snow, ice or dirt; logs were placed in the grooves for smoother transportation (especially helpful if at a slight decline).

Another method used to transport logs from the hills to the nearest waterway, were log flumes. These were water filled V-shaped troughs that relied on gravity and the swiftness of water to carry the logs from one place to another. Destination was often a river or pond but could also empty onto metal rollers that moved the logs to a loading platform for railroad cars.

A flume had three stations: the first required logging crew fed logs onto the flume, the second was at various stages along the flume where jams could occur (runners watched for jams), and the third stations required laborers to unload logs at the end of the flume. Jams on the flume could be very dangerous and costly to fix, especially if the flumes broke. One way to avoid jams was to open the flume dam (top of flume usually fed from a pond) and let water run through for half an hour at least.

The number one thing that caused problems with flumes was not having enough water or fast enough water running down. Logs that outran the water could cause overflows and severe jams.

Axes and handsaws were used to chop down trees, while wood or iron wedges were used to help guide the tree as it fell. Two man hand saws were used to cut down thick trees, often taking the loggers all day to saw through, fell, and split into transportable logs. They also had to look out for pitch seams on the tree; pitch would dull the saw and slow down the felling process dramatically. Diesel or kerosene was used to dissolve the pitch on the saw.

Loggers had to be very aware of their surroundings to avoid getting smashed by a falling tree.

Logging technology advanced, giving way to chainsaws and harvesting machines that made the process go much faster. The first motorized saws entered the logging world in the 1940s but these machines were heavy and less efficient than the crosscut. The first one-man saw arrived in 1948, it weighed 60 pounds, whereas professional-size chainsaws today weigh between 15 and 25 pounds.

The invention of the feller-buncher sped up the process even more. A feller-buncher can reach into a stand, grip a tree and fell it in one motion. A forwarder cuts the tree down and de-limbs it right there.

Fun Flume Fact: There are accounts of fugitives using log flumes to outrun officials. These daredevils would either ride logs down the flume or try to hide beneath the rushing water to escape notice.

Lumbermen/Lumberjacks and the Industrial Workers of the World

Lumbermen, AKA Lumberjacks, were made up of a range of men (and women). There were orphaned teenage boys, married men, aging men without families, and a whole host of others. These men made the logging camps, sometimes called “rag camps,” their homes, and their fellow loggers became family. Even the loggers who had families spent Sunday night through Saturday evening at the camps from April to October.

These camps were often located along a river where logs could be transported by log drive. The lumber industry was thriving at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, but some men still needed to travel to find work - they would carry their bedrolls, called bindles, with them as they hopped freight trains between Northern Idaho and Spokane, Washington. It was a tough business; traveling men would “buy” jobs from an employment agency and show up at a work camp with their job slip only to find that the same job had been sold to a handful of other men.

To help combat the issues individual workers faced, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union was formed in 1905. Its purpose was to organize workers into a big union by industry (ie. logging) instead of by specific craft or trade. The leather-bound booklet of the IWW was a ticket for loggers; they could get a free meal in a hobo camp and a freight ride, as well as instant friendship with other members of the IWW. But management in the logging camps and companies weren’t fond of the union, and being a known member of the IWW could get a man blacklisted in a camp.

Members of the IWW were known as “wobblies”. They would organize meetings with other workers in the camps, listening to grievances and voting to elect representatives. Representatives would present the grievances to the bosses, and if they were ignored strikes would be organized. One of the biggest complaints was the bed-bug ridden bunks; some strikes included burning of bedrolls to make a point. If a company was really terrible, workers would slow their work on site and ruin equipment.

Perspective on life in the logging camps: Lumbermen slept in crowded bunk houses often with three-tired “shot gun” beds, entered feet first. These were made with rough boards and no mattresses (workers had to supply their own bed rolls). Work days lasted for 10+ hours and workers were paid $3.25 for a 10-hour day. Workers had to pay $1.25 a day for board and $.50 for oil to douse bunks and bunk walls, in an attempt to get rid of lice, bed bugs, and other filth. Some camps had good food, but others gave people food poisoning and dysentery. Add this to a lack of bathing and laundry facilities and you can imagine how quickly disease spread.

The IWW played a large role in the logging industry of Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington in the early 20th century. In the spring of 1917, the lumberjacks and millworkers in Northern Idaho, joined a strike of 50,000 Pacific Northwest woods-workers led by IWW. They demanded 8-hour work days, Sundays off, clean bunks and cook shacks, toilets and laundry rooms, medical care, and no blacklisting of union men. This strike paralyzed the timber industry for several months. Many who were involved in the strike got arrested and there was a movement to shut down the IWW. However, Idaho Senator Borah, a notable figure known for his oratorical skills and isolationist views, said, “You cannot destroy the organization ... It is something you cannot get at. You cannot reach it. You do not know where it is. It is not in writing. It is not in anything else. It is a simple understanding between men.”

In 1919, one in every five workers nationwide went on strike. In 1922, Spokane police raided IWW halls and seized lists of all union members in Washington and Idaho (names of these lists became blacklisted). Only a year later, in May 1923, a committee in Northern Idaho rounded up 28 IWW members in Bonners Ferry and illegally deported them to Montana. Later that same month, 1800 lumbermen went on strike at Marble Creek.

Some demands were met in the Northern Idaho camps, but others were not. Pay was increased to $4.00 a day by 1928, but food quality was still poor and bed bugs were still a major issue in bunk houses.

In the spring of 1936, union members demanded $5.00 a day for lumberjacks, a $25.00 a month raise for all monthly men, time and a half for overtime, board not to exceed $1.20 a day, and a string of other reasonable accommodations for the logging camps. These demands raged through the Northern Idaho camps placed along the Coeur d’Alene River. These camps were pretty primitive with 25-30 men per bunkhouse.

Lumbermen worked six days a week, 10 to 15 hours a day until the 40-hour week became law in 1938 - Fair Labor Standards. There are no sources to say that the IWW affected the Fair Labor Standards, although it is probably safe to say the national strikes had some effect on the passing of these standards.

Women Lumberjacks: During World War II, the lumber industry had a dramatic decrease in workers (able-bodied men were shipped off to fight), so women started entering the industry. The Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union attempted to get women the same wages as men in the industry (equal wages for equal work), employers didn’t want to pay equal wages, but ended up complying. However, State Industrial guidelines forbade women from lifting more than 60 pounds on a job, which prevented women from earning higher pay (unequal work).

By 1950, logging camps had mostly died out.

Museums to Visit Resources to View
J. Howard Bradbury Memorial Logging Museum (Pierce, Idaho) Idaho Forest Products Commission
Museum of North Idaho (Coeur d'Alene, Idaho) The Idaho Forest: From Lumberjacks to Lasersaws
Clearwater Historical Museum (Orofino, Idaho) The Guide to North Idaho
Priest Lake Museum (Priest Lake, Idaho) Outdoor Idaho: St. Joe River Country
Boundary County Historical Society and Museum (Bonners Ferry, Idaho)
Idaho State Historical Museum (Boise, Idaho)
Nez Perce County Historical Society and Luna House Museum (Lewiston, Idaho)