The First Donkey Engine

Part 11 of 14: Memories of Long Ago

by Hiram Ellsworth Pearsall

My memories return to the logging woods of 1888. Many changes have taken place in those 56 years. The men that follow the logging industry are of a new generation, not many today know the way of logging 56 years ago.

Many changes have been made in the terms used in the different branches of the business. Fifty-six years ago, they were called loggers, now they are lumberjacks. The man who sawed the trees that were felled into long lengths was a sawyer, now he is a bucker. The man who drove the oxen to haul the logs out of the woods was a teamster or bullpuncher; today he is a donkey engineer or donkey puncher.

Old time loggers had a swamper to cut the brush so they could get in with the oxen; today the donkey needs no swamper. Then they had a hook tender, now he is a hooker. Today there is no sniper, no barker, or skid greaser. The sniper’s job was to snipe the end of the log so it would ride over the skids. The barkers had to bark what they called the side. All logs have one side that will slide on a skid road without turning over. The barker had to find that side and remove the bark. The skid greaser usually had a five-gallon coal oil can filled with dogfish oil and a stick about three feet long with a swab on the end. He would walk along with the log and hit each skid with a swipe of dogfish oil. Now I will have to take a day off and find out what the lumberjacks who do the work today call themselves.

In 1888 about the only work to be had was in the logging camps. Sometimes money was hard to get when they did work. Sometimes if a man had a good string of oxen and could get hold of a bunch of timber, the stores would back him for supplies. Then he was a boss logger. Then he could get men to do the logging. The logs were branded and rolled in the river and when the fall rains came, they were floated to market. The men would put a lien on the brand, then when the logs were sold they got their pay. If there was anything left, it belonged to the boss logger.

Jack Stretch, the first settler in what is now Monroe, came with his family and settled on a homestead that later became Tye City, now a part of Monroe. Jack told me the experience of his uncle, Ben Stretch.

Ben Stretch, in 1882, logged off what is now the main part of Monroe. he started in early spring with a crew of men. They cut and hauled the logs with four yoke of oxen and rolled them in the water at the mouth of Woods Creek. The men kept working until near the fourth of July. Then they asked Stretch what chances there were for a Fourth of July stake. Stretch said they had understood they were to wait until the logs were driven down in the fall, but he would go down below and see. Maybe one of the mill companies would advance a little money. He was gone three days and on returning the men asked, “Well, how about the money?” Stretch said, “Money, what is h___ is that, there is no money. We will have to wait until fall.”

In the fall, the rains came and the river was up. Those logs from Monroe townsite went down into the boom at the mouth of the river. There they were put in a boom and towed across the Sound to the Port Gamble mill.

In 1888, Blackman Brothers were the leading lumber men in Snohomish County. The three brothers worked together. One operated the sawmill at Snohomish City, one a general store and Cap Blackman, as they called him, had charge of three logging camps in the county, of which the bog hole was one. The bog hole, as it was called, was located at a little lake on the Skykomish bottom near the forks. That year they logged off a part of what is now the state reformatory and that flat between there and the big hill to the west. (George Tate, now living in Monroe, and I are all that are left of that crew of twenty men.)

They had three yoke of oxen to yard the logs into the main road. There they were dogged together, three or four in a turn according to size. Then hauled over the main skid road with four yoke of oxen and rolled into the little lake, then poled down a slough one-fourth of a mile. They were hauled out again onto the skid road and hauled again one-fourth mile with three yoke of oxen, then rolled into the Skykomish River.

Early in the summer, we saw Cap Blackman was visiting the bog hole camp quite often. He spent a great deal of his time down at the river awatching the logs being hauled out of the slough to the river. One morning he came to the camp and asked the camp boss for a man to help him for a few days. I was detailed to go with him. As we walked that half mile to the river, I found out Cap never talked unless he had something to say, as he said nothing until we arrived at the landing. Then he said he was going to haul the logs from the slough with cable powered by steam.

But how? There was nothing in sight but a pile of junk that had come upriver by boat. The junk consisted of a little portable engine and boiler, a few cog wheels of different sizes, a few castings, a coil of steel cable and a couple of logs by the skid road.

We got busy at once. We split the little cedar log that was about two feet in diameter and bedded one half in the ground on each side and parallel to the skid road. A post seven feet high was mortared in the center of the sills and well braced. The fir log, about two and one half feet in diameter and sixteen feet long should be called the drum, as the cable to haul the logs was wound up on the log. That log or drum with castings attached to the ends was raised up and the dudgeons were entered into the bearings on the posts. The little engine was set up and attached to the drum by cog wheels, then the little boiler was ready for steam.

We had worked more than a week to complete the job, when the engineer came on the job. He was a tall, red-whiskered man but we soon found out he could swear as well as any bullpuncher. The engineer was getting up steam as Cap and I were stretching the cable to the slough. We attached the cable to an average-sized log. Soon we heard the little boiler blowing off steam. Cap gave the signal to go and the log began to move out of the water. Cap stood by the roadside, hat in hand, anxiously watching. Would it go when it struck the skid road? As we watched, the log struck the road and moved on to the landing, where it slipped into the water. Cap was very much pleased with what he had done. He said that it was the first logging to be done with steam and cable in Snohomish County, and he believed anywhere.

I cut and split the wood and fired that little boiler and packed water from the river in two coal oil cans to keep a barrel filled to furnish steam. I said that red-whiskered engineer sure knew how to swear. One day, they hooked onto an unusually large log. When it got on the skid road, it stopped. All the little engine could do was to blow off steam. The engineer shoved the weight out on the lever to the steam gauge, and again it only blew off steam. He put the weight to the end of the lever, but it was no go. Then he grabbed a small axe I used to split wood and hung it on the lever, saying “I’ll hold that steam if it blows to h_____.” At that time I was on my way to the river with two coal oil cans for water. I went pretty fast expecting the little boiler would blow up, but it didn’t and soon that great log came over the skid road and slipped into the river.

That little engine had put three yoke of oxen out of a job. It was several years later the logging engine came into the woods. then the oxen were all retired from their labor. When I saw that logging engine in the woods and saw it work, they called it a donkey, then I wondered if that little animal I helped put up down on the riverbank of the Skykomish River wasn’t its ancestor. But such is progress.

–transcribed from the 1944 Monroe Monitors by Nellie Robertson

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