Lifestyle

Tall Timber Tales

In the 1800s, logging the forest on Whidbey Island required two men working a crosscut saw to fell the monster trees. - Photo courtesy Island County Historical Society
In the 1800s, logging the forest on Whidbey Island required two men working a crosscut saw to fell the monster trees.
— image credit: Photo courtesy Island County Historical Society

While early settlers carved out their claims on Whidbey Island, the forest primeval loomed at their back door.

A new exhibit opening Friday at Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville traces the history of logging on Whidbey Island. The Historical Society display is being organized by Joan Handy, collection manager, and museum docent Betty Gewald, who said she knows “everything about logging,” after preparing this exhibit.

“The forest on Whidbey was the biggest in the world,” she said. “The trees were huge.”

Freeland octogenarian Bonnie Shoup remembers these mammoth forest timbers floating out in her back yard.

Shoup is the daughter of Ethel and Arthur Spencer, and granddaughter of Hudson “H.H.” and Sarah Spencer who in 1906 moved to the Holmes Harbor beach land where the Nichols Brothers Boat Builders now stands.

Born in 1919, Shoup remembers the frequent visitors to her grandfather’s Harbor Cash Store, the logging camps it supplied, and the huge logs that constantly floated out in Holmes Harbor waiting to depart by boat.

Her family ran the Spencer Mill through the 1920s, and her father Arthur and his brother Percy even had their own logging outfit going a few miles up Holmes Harbor to what is now known as Honeymoon Bay.

It was the thriving timber industry at the turn of the century that kept small family businesses such as the Spencer family’s saw mill, machine shop, dock and cash store alive.

“There’s a number of families on this island who got their livelihood through the forest industry,” said Fred Frei, Jr., whose father worked at pole stripping operation owned by Ray Neill.

There was so much work happening in the forests, it was difficult to keep track of, even for those in the business.

“There was a lot of logging going on and lumber mills all around. I find out about some now that I didn’t even know existed,” Shoup said.

Driving the length of the island now, it seems the tallest wooden things are the laminate-beam power poles sprouting along the highway. But at one time, the island was covered by some of the largest trees on earth. Remnants of Whidbey’s old growth forest can be seen at Ebey Reserve and Deception Pass State Park.

Rivaled only by the redwoods of Northern California, Whidbey and Camano islands bristled with hemlocks 3 to 4 feet in diameter and up to 200 feet tall and Western red cedars 4 to 6 feet in diameter and up to 200 feet tall. Sitka spruce and Douglas fir with diameters of 5 to 7 feet soared to heights up to 300 feet. It would take two grown men to reach around these trees, and cutting them down was not an easy task.

The first commercial loggers on the island in the mid- to late-1800s used axes to fell these behemoths, in the ultimate war of man against nature. According to Richard White’s account in his book “Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington,” the loggers cut the felled trees into logs using crosscut saws — also known as “misery whips” — then hitched them to a six-yoke bull ox team and dragged them to the water’s edge. From here they were either loaded onto sailing ships or rafted to mills around Puget Sound. With no rivers for rapid transport on the island, the closest body of any water was saltwater. Holmes Harbor, Penn Cove and Oak Harbor were seas of logs.

White said a good team of oxen could haul 10,000 to 12,000 board feet of timber in a trip, with up to four one-mile trips a day.

By the 1880s, loggers sped up the labor-intensive timber harvesting using crosscut saws to fell the trees. Horses, which were faster than the plodding oxen, were used to haul the timber out. Also speeding the felling of the forests was the influx of more men.

As the trees fell, logging camps spread across the island. It was easier for the loggers to live where they worked, cutting commute time considerably. In 1896, the only year for which a count is available, there were 115 men working in timber camps in Island County. One of these camps was headed by a man Shoup remembers as “One-Egg McCool.”

“His camp was one of the biggest and he was known for being pretty stingy,” she said.

In order to fell a tree, loggers first cut springboard notches in the massive trunks, then stood on planks inserted in the notches to cut the tree at the point where it became a smooth cylinder. This saved them the labor of cutting the tree at the stump, and again above the butt-swell as it lay on the ground. These notches can still be found on 10 to 20 foot tall stumps hidden in second-growth brush.

With old growth trees having long expanses of branchless — and knotless — trunks, the loggers discarded everything from the branches to the top of the tree.

If one of these giants shattered when it fell, it was left. If it showed rot, it was left. If it fell in a ravine, it was left. With the supply seeming inexhaustible, there was little thought to conserving timber.

If there is one consolation to this seemingly rampant destruction of the forest, it is that the cumbersome bull teams could not reach very far into the forest. More than a mile or two from the water, it ceased to be a profitable method.

Logging changed with the coming of the steam-driven “donkey” engine in the early 1900s. Loggers were able to haul logs farther distances with high lead logging, using a series of cables and pulleys.

The advent of steam donkeys cut the cost of timber harvesting in half, but it can be said that it also ushered in a far less romantic era. Virgin timber went fast with the advancements. Debra Waterman’s father, Bud Waterman arrived on Whidbey in 1948 and opened the Waterman Mill on South Whidbey in 1950 to cut second-growth timber. By the time the mill closed in 1990, third generation timber was being cut.

Even though the big trees are gone, the exhibit at the Island County Historical Museum will take visitors back to that tall timbered time.

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