The Forest Around Us



Bill Moore

Steam donkeys I have known

....That lovely quiet power. No scream-ing diesel or gas exhaust drowning out a man’s voice. Just a purring power noise and the old Willamettes or Washingtons would bring in the logs from the woods. Ah—those were the days! When steam was king of the woods.
....My early logging days were spent around steam pots, a 13 x 14 Washington Roader and a couple of 11 x 13 Willamette Coaldeckers. I was a whistle punk, chokerman, woodbucker and woodsplitter for those old black monsters and looking back I wouldn’t have traded a minute of it. I’m only sorry I never worked round steam logging railroads, for the old timers tell some wonderful tales of those days. I’ll leave those stories to the railroad loggers and I’ll stick to wood hungry, steam flying, steam donkeys.
....These log pullers were mounted on great log sleds about 50 to 60 feet long. Some wooden posts held up a tin roof and on the back of the sled was mounted a wood timbered square water tank. For the old beasts were always thirsty and a good supply of creek water had to be near or no logs. We used to have a little Fairbanks-Morse steam pump that would be set up in a creek nearby—sometimes five or six hundred feet away from the coldeck tree. A half inch steam line, made up in twenty foot sections would be laid over and under the felled and bucked timber to the creekside pump. A return one inch water line also in twenty foot sections would return up to the water tank of the donkey. It was always a miserable job to pack and lay the pipe out. Oh, to have had plastic hose in those days!
....The woodyard of the donkey engine was always a place of action. Before setting the donkey in place below the wooden spar, a good clean area had to

be cleared out alongside the machine to ensure that a wood-log could be laid handy for bucking, splitting and stacking up. Four men actually looked after the needs of the steam pots. A hand wood bucker, a woodsplitter, a fireman to stoke the firebox and of course the donkey engineer.
....I remember some great characters who followed this work and occa-sionally when you got a good foursome together this work was enlightened by their jokes and profes-sionalism. I bucked wood as a teenager one fall and can attest that it was a damn hard job. It meant pulling on a six foot bucking saw all day, cutting into three foot blocks of wood a thousand to fifteen hundred board feet of log for the woodsplitter. When fire season was over and there was no need for the wire screen to be on the exhaust the big cinders used to belch out of the stack and lord help the woodyard crew if the wind blew them your way. Our bone drys and Stanfields always had big burn holes in them, a fellow would holler loud with the surprise of being burned by a hot cinder.
....It was law that the very best of wood was used for wood logs. Generally a clean second cut with
straight grain was used, for in order to keep steam up and gain the power only the best of wood would suffice. Those logs would make a good sawmill man green with envy today. But nothing but the best for the steam-pots.
....As I said, the people around some of those old time machines were characters. One I shall never forget was Tom Burnett. Tom was typical of so many men that were professional firemen. He took great pride in stoking his firebox and keeping stream up. In hemlock country, as we were in, with no fir logs available, it was no simple task to always find real dry hemlock—and Tom would soon bring his wrath down on the world about him if there wasn’t enough dry wood to keep a good fire going.
....Once a year, the boiler inspector made his rounds of the logging camps to test the pressure a boiler would hold. This was done by drawing the fire the night before, and on the day of inspection, pump up the boiler with cold water. The smoke stack had to be tipped over on its hinge so that the inspector could test the over two hundred boiler tubes. It was always Tom’s job to accompany the hear this question from year to year, at logging
British Columbia Lumberman, May, 1974

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conventions, and through the media. Let’s phrase it a little differently and see what we get. How about “Can inspector around to the three machines we had and to assist him in his inspection. There was never a prouder man in camp than old Tom on inspection day, for he would carry the visitor’s little black bag of tools to each machine and always without fail would plead his cause to get an engineer’s permit to “run donkey.” Because of his age and for reasons of their own the inspectors would never give Tom a permit. They liked him though and would always leave with a promise for next year. I think that was all that Tom wanted so he’d be back at his fireman’s job the next day telling the woodyard crew that next year he’d be an engineer—then look out. By god those firemen would catch hell if they didn’t keep his steam up.!
....Moving the brutes from coldeck spar to coldeck spar was a job for pro-fessionals. They were heavy, they always needed water and wood on the move, and a good pathway was essen-tial. Pulling themselves from stump to stump required a hard working crew of loggers and a pretty steady nerved engineer when the ground became steep. I recall one six day move up a hillside about two thousand feet, that would tire any good hiker.
....They were professionals, the men around those steam-pots, pros with muscle for it was no place for the weak and amateur. When looking at the same procedure of a mobile steel tower on a logging road today it makes one wonder how the loggers of the past accomplished it all.
....It’s a far more mechanical matter to-day - then it was brute strength and savvy.
....On leaving the machine in the woods at work’s end it was the fireman’s job to ‘bank the firebox,’ that is stoke it up with wet, heavy wood that would keep the fire going till morning. The engineers would always have breakfast an hour before the regular crew and proceed to work ahead of the crew to get the donkey fired up for the coming working day. When the changeover came to diesel and gas fired donkeys most of those old timers still insisted on going out the extra hour early to “get the machine ready.” The habits of many years were so strong that they could not get over the idea that now all they had to do was to press a button and check the oil level.
....Joe Charleston was a big man with a great set of teeth and a wonderful smile. Joe was engineer for years on our A-frame steam donkey and he knew how to handle a throttle. Joe loved crows and mice and they would come to him for scraps of food through

out the day when he had an off minute. I remember on stormy Sundays when there would of course be no logging —Joe would take a rowboat and row a mile from the float-camp down the inlet to feed his birds and mice.
....Harold Gerrish got his stream ticket in the early 20’s and he was an opposite of Joe in stature. Skinny would hardly be a word for it—but what an engineer. Harold was what was known as ‘log hungry’ and the day never passed when he figured he had pulled in to the spar enough logs. He was as professional as any man could ever be in any trade and he devoted a lifetime of trying to get one more log. When we changed to diesel Harold left his beloved steam and took over the first noisemaker. It had a five speed transmission and the only thing about that machine that Hal would admit was better than the old pot was that fifth gear — high. Then he could make the logs dangle down a skyline road.
....Stan Buchanan was a small man — and a quiet one. Hardly a word from Stan all day - just a darn good natured quiet steam donkey engineer. The only time Stan said a word was on the trip back from town after the Christmas or summer holiday. Then, with the aid of a bottle of “friendly” he turned into a human gramaphone.
....And then there was Chris the wood-splitter on the A-frame. A fine wood-splitter — a man who knew exactly where to put a steel wedge in a block of wood to make the first split. One day a piece of steel flew off the wedge and lodged in his eye. We rushed him by boat to the hospital fifty miles away and he lost his eye. But a tough guy, that Chris. He was back on the job in two weeks with a little box of glass eyes. He finally picked out the one the crew liked the best, sent the others back, and kept on splitting those big blocks of tough hemlock.
....The stories are legend of those steam donkeys and the men who worked them. Hard tough loggers who never asked a favour but just put their heads down in the morning and laid into her. At lunch hour they would gather in behind the boiler and dry themselves off with the nice warmth of the fire. No such luck for the loggers of today with the noisemaker diesels. Ha, you can’t beat them there old timers!
....The forest around us is full of memories of those big, black, stream belching donkeys and the crews of men that bucked, split, fired and ran them. It’s nice to remember those loggers and their steam-pots…
Keep out of the bight,
British Columbia Lumberman, May, 1974