Timber Beasts

Author Unknown

Timber is to the Northwest what wheat is to the Nebraska farmer. It has been the stable force in the economic growth of this region. Over the years many articles and books have been written about the industry and the labor movements that have helped to shape this Northwest industry. Both sides did things that were not in each other's best interests; there is evidence that the companies were not always the one wronged. An example of this is the Everett Massacre, or Bloody Sunday as it is sometimes called. November 5, 1996 will be the 89th anniversary of this shameful episode.

Even now, the majority of the books and articles usually paint the unions as radical groups, that resort to any means necessary to achieve their goals of greed. If you look at the records of the industry at the time a whole new picture emerges. In order to fully understand the events we need to look at the timber industry's history.

To understand the workers we need to look at Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Golble) which tells us that people have to meet their basic needs, such as food, housing, and safety, in order to be able to think about the higher needs, such as nationalism. To understand the companies you need to look at the "Social Darwin" theory popular at the time. They believed in the survival of the fittest. If the worker didn't survive, it was nature's way of getting rid of the weak, just like in the animal kingdom; they even nicknamed the loggers "timber beasts."

Loggers and mill workers knew that most of the owners gave little thought to the safety of the workers, the mills and logging camps. The safety rules were mostly ignored to help speed up production. Some companies were so bad that they had widespread reputations of being "killers" because of their bad equipment and uncaring attitude toward the safety of the workers. The workers understood that danger went with the job. They understood it, but that didn't mean that they liked it (Fizken pp. 78-192).

Although the forest brought enormous wealth to the timber barons it brought enormous hardship to the workers. During the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the working conditions were very dangerous.

Many men and boys were killed or maimed, with no compensation to the families. Cyrus Walker of Pope and Talbot expressed the view of the time when asked to donate to a widow whose husband had been killed on the job, "I'd like to help the poor woman and her children, but I can give nothing. If I did it would set a dangerous precedent and give the impression that an employer has responsibility to his employees" (Lucia p. 28 et seq.). There was even danger for the loggers getting to the work site. They were weighted down with heavy equipment, a stumble could result in a man being cut in two by the ax or saw.

To make the job go faster, someone figured out that if you cleared a corridor through the tall trees and felled smaller trees crosswise every few feet, you could skid the great logs along, using the power of the oxen. This process increased the danger at the work site because the logs were hurtling down slope at speeds up to 50 miles an hour. A worker didn't have a chance if he happened to be in the way; there was no stopping the log until it reached the bottom. The logger always had to be on guard because there were many things of which to beware. There was the danger of being locked in a log jam or a cable snapping and cutting off an arm, leg or head. Logging remains dangerous today even with the push-button equipment and safety regulations. But in the beginning, seldom a week went by without someone being killed or maimed. When a man did get killed the boss would more than likely blame it on the worker's carelessness or inexperience, even if the fault was the company's for using old, worn-out equipment. Deaths in lumber camps were generally not reported; who cared if another timber beast died? The only care was for the trouble of replacing him.

The mills held danger, also, from flying timbers, faulty saws, high speed, bad lighting, lack of training and few safety regulations. Circular and band saws without adequate guards could throw wood splinters with great force. They could fly through sides of buildings or take out eyes, cut scalps and even cut off heads. There were exploding boilers, slipping and fast-moving logs to watch out for. The biggest danger was the band saws; 60 feet in circumference, they could move up to 100 miles an hour if they got loose. The energy is stored inside the coiled blade, so when the blade is loose, it can travel where it wants, without any way of stopping it. Sometimes the blade seemed alive, stopping and going, backing up and going again. There have been cases where the blades have cut through the walls of the mill and traveled for miles (Fizken).

The living conditions at the camps were squalid at best. The loggers had to live with dirty sheets that bred lice, bugs and rodents. These conditions also contributed to disease, such as typhoid, from which many loggers died. The only thing that most companies felt obligated to do was to provide enough food, but some companies didn't even do that. If a logger was married, then the whole picture changed - for the worse.

The workers worked for low wages, about three dollars a day, and were charged five dollars a week for room and board (Williams p. 142 et seq.). The room and board charge went on even if the logger couldn't work because of bad weather or injury. If the worker was married, then he was allowed a house to live in, which he had to rent from the company. The charges were usually higher than his income, so that in the end the men were working for the company in what is termed debt peonage. Pope and Talbot paid in silver half-dollars, but most loggers were paid in company scrip which either was discounted by the store by 20 percent, or could be used only at the company store. Some of the lumber companies would not redeem their own scrip, making the store lose money, which resulted in the store's reluctance to accept any more scrip (Lucia).

The work day was long and hard, from 10 to 12 hours. The average logger would bum up to 8,000 calories a day, three times more than was used by the average person doing an average day's work (Williams). The need to unwind led to the creation of timber carnivals. The loggers also went to town for R and R. The areas where the loggers played were called skidroads" after the real skidroads that they used for sending logs down the hills. Loggers could get a good meal, a few drinks, and some entertainment. But danger also waited for them there. Crews were needed for the shipping of logs, which often resulted in a "shanghai" operation, which was said to be part of the lumber industry's system. To get enough men they would drug or beat unconscious a logger or any other man who happened to be in the area. When the men woke up, they would be on a ship. Ships were in pon for weeks or months waiting for the cargo. It was cheaper to let the crew go until it was time for shipping. The owners would pay "blood money" to fill the crew. Men would use whatever means they wanted to get the needed crew. At $50 a head, it was a profitable business. Many loggers would wake up after a night on the town to find a sudden change in occupations. Portland was said to be one of the leading shanghai ports on the west coast, second only to California (Williams).

Fire was always a danger, even before logging was in practice. Logging increased the fire danger because of the high humidity during the summer, as well as the fact that the friction of the logs rubbing another log or a cable could start a fire. Mills also added to the fire danger by burning the sawdust. At first, they just dumped it in the rivers or on the land. However, so much sawdust was made that it got to be a problem and they started burning it. Open fires were such a danger that someone invented the burning teepee called a "wigwam." This worked better than open fires, but it also added to the fire danger by sending burning cinders into the atmosphere. At first the general rule was to let the fire burn until it burned itself out. There were so many trees, no one cared if a few burned or if a few timber beasts died. Slowly that began to change because the major fires started costing lives and property not belonging to the timber industry (Lucia).

One that started the process of change was the "Great Conflagration" fire of 1902. It has become known as the conflagration because it was actually 1 10 fires, burning at once. Inner winds created tornadoes, and the destruction was tremendous. Fire reached from the Canadian border at Lynan to the California border. It raged through the western slopes of the Cascades to the seas near Grays Harbor and Astoria. There had always been forest fires, but this was the first time so many had started at once and lasted so long. Fires raged from summer to fall throughout the region (Lucia).

September 12, 1902, was known as "Black Friday" because of the "Yacolt Burn." Vancouver, Portland, Tacoma, and Olympia were covered in smoke. St. Helens was dark at noon. Trains attempted to keep going even though tracks were burning. Ships had to use searchlights. People had to carry lanterns and visibility was nonexistent. Everett was cut off. Ships halted on the Columbia bar. Towns and villages were destroyed, and homesteads were leveled. Some of the reported damage was a dam on the Hoquiam River, villages and towns, including 60 lost homes near Oregon City, cattle and livestock roasted alive, and an unknown number of wildlife killed.

Other fires burned that day but the worst was in Southwest Washington, north of the Columbia River and east of Woodland. The fires raged in Clark County throughout the summer and fall.

According to a newspaper account in the area, the land of Lewis River was a "hot and silent valley of death." In the Yacolt area, two families were trapped, killing five adults, six children, and one baby. Another woman and her three children were killed while trying to hide in the fruit cellar. Thirty-five lives were lost, as well as 239,000 acres valued at $12,000,000,000. The only damage to the town of Yacolt itself was house paint blistered by the heat.

Public outcry was great after this tragedy. The timber industry realized that things had to be changed and made efforts to start the process, but it took more than 50 years and two more fires before adequate legislation was enacted (Lucia).

International Workers of the World (IWW) came into the picture when the need for change was greatest. New machines were being adopted to speed up the logging and milling processes. The new machinery made the work go faster, but it also made the workers' jobs more dangerous. The leaders of the IWW saw the owners getting rich off the sweat of the working man and felt that the men deserved a better life (Fizken).

The IWW was also known as the "Wobblies." This name was born when an Oriental restaurant keeper in British Columbia blurted out, "I Wobbly Wobbly." The IWW was tagged the "radical" union by companies and other unions because they talked of unity, and of one day working people having the power to run the country. (The working people would later have a say in running the government by use of C.O.P.E.) At the time the fear was that the unions would lead a revolution. The IWW believed in one union representing all workers. Previously unions were organized around a certain skill, such as newspaper setters. Each job would have a different union, so the companies would play them against each other. The companies feared the power of a solid unit, so they were especially against the wobblies (Fizken).

The anti-union feelings ran high during this time. Woodrow Wilson said, referring to union strikes, "the mob spirit is deploying itself here and there in the country." The timber barons wrote in their own newsletter, The Timberman, "Law and order must be upheld at any cost, or civil government is a farce." This was written by the very same men who formed "deputies," mobs that beat and shot the union workers (Fizken).

When World War I started the lumber companies didn't want to supply lumber to the shipyards for use in making ships because of the red tape and prices that were below what civilians paid. Another factor was that it was hard to get the spruce that the government wanted for the airplanes since it grew inter-mixed with other kinds of trees. The cost of getting spruce to the mills outweighed the financial benefits because a railroad would have to be built in order to move most of it. Only 15 percent of the trees were usable for the airplanes. One industry leader wrote "All of this means that an immediate, quick response to the increased demands of the Government is almost an impossibility." However, the companies changed their minds when they realized that they could use the war to paint the unions in a bad light (Fizken).


At this time the IWW and the AF of 0 decided to go out on strike for better working conditions. This played right into the companies' hands, because the pressure was on for them to deliver wood to the government. The companies wisely used the strike as the reason for the delay, although most companies had not even made the effort to try to fill the government's orders. Seventy-five percent of the mills and camps were on strike. George Long, who didn't like the IWW, said, "I have been watching their capers pretty carefully ... and while there have been a lot of suggestions and threats about burning up sawmills and burning up timberland, I do not know of one authentic case where this has occurred." Nevertheless, the IWW got the blame for every forest fire, every accident in the mills and camps, and anything else that went wrong (Fizken).

There were ads criticizing the eight-hour day, saying it would cause financial ruin and the industry could not last if it was adopted. They used the argument that many men would be killed if the industry didn't go to work and get the ships and planes that the United States needed. The companies used patriotic rhetoric designed to get the public behind them and turned against the unions (Fizken).

The timbermen formed a loose association and held meetings, such as the Pacific Logging Congress, to help the owners in the fight against the unions. George M. Cornwall founded The Timberman, a publication used to keep the timbermen informed of all that was going on in their industry. At their meetings, they planned ways to keep things the way they were. Part of the group wanted to give the workers the eight-hour day, but were forced to go along with the majority when the group set a $500 a day fine for any company not working ten hours a day or more. Some honestly believed that the workers liked the way things were the dirty sheets, lice, bed bugs and rodents. After all they were "illiterate, footloose rabble, ignorant and hardly human." The biggest problem with the companies at the time was that they didn't understand the workers at all. They didn't know that the workers were longing for a better life, with better working and living conditions. That is what opened the door to unions; the workers felt they had nothing to lose (Lucia).

The government wanted lumber, so they sent Colonel Bryce P. Disque west to investigate. He was given full power to "fix" the problem. He at first felt that the unions and companies could come to agreement, but the companies wouldn't give in to any of the union's demands. Disque formed the Loyal Legion or 4L as it was called, set up to handle labor disputes, a company and workers' organization, and a "company" union. The companies gave job preference to the 4L members if they signed a paper saying that they wouldn't support or join a union (Fizken).

Disque also wanted an eight-hour day, but it was hard to sell until he promised to replace striking workers with army personnel and keep the @ from stopping production. He instituted the eight-hour day, and because army regulations would not allow the soldiers to live in the conditions of the lumber camps, he changed conditions also, with clean sheets, pillows and pillow cases, mattresses, and blankets. He set a uniform charge of $7.35 for room and board, with a weekly charge of $1.00 for change of linen (Williams).

The IWW continued to try to change things for all of the workers. Members went to Everett on November 5, 1916, on a small steamer, the Verona, with some 250 men from Seattle, to show support for the workers there. As the boat reached harbor, they were met by Donald McRay and a group of about 200 "deputies." The deputies were all armed. McRay told the IWW workers that they couldn't come into the town. The IWW argued with them, and then shots rang out. Few, if any, on the boat were armed and they were sitting targets. The boat was tied to the dock and there was no place to take cover. So many of the men ran to the other side of the boat that it became unbalanced and dropped many of the passengers in the water to drown. In the five minutes that the boat was in harbor, 50 men were shot, an unknown number were lost; five IWW members and two deputies died from gun shots. The boat was met at Seattle and all the survivors were arrested (Fizken).

The 74 survivors on the Verona were put in the Seattle jail and later moved to Snohomish County jail to await trial on first-degree murder charges for the death of two deputies. In the trial of 1918, George Vanderveer got the first IWW man acquitted. Vanderveer established that so much wild shooting had taken place it could wefl have been the deputies who had shot them (Fizken).

On September 5, 1917, 166 IWW leaders were arrested in a nationwide crackdown on the IWW that was organized in part by J. Edgar Hoover. All offices were raided and the records taken and equipment broken. The leaders were accused of obstructing the war effort and a trial was held in Chicago. A jury found them guilty, and a judge gave most the harshest sentence he could. The IWW faded until after the war (Lucia).

After the war the companies went back to lower wages and bad working conditions, so the unions resurfaced in the fight for a better life. Most of the union's protests were peaceful to help gain public support.

In the Northwest the IWW was still alive, although without strong leadership. In Centralia, Washington on November 11, 1919, a parade to celebrate the first anniversary of the end of the war ended with gunfire at the IWW hall. Who fired the first shot still is not known, but the end result was four Legionnaires were fatally wounded. The IWW leaders were arrested, and during the night the lights went out at the jail and one man, Wesley Everett, a United States Army veteran, was dragged from the jail and hanged. No one was ever charged with the hanging. When the case of the IWW leaders went to trial the court refused to accept the first verdict, so the jury went back and seven of the other IWW men were found guilty and given lengthy prison terms; two were found not guilty; and one was judged insane. The last of the IWW men were not released until 1939 (Wilson).

In Vancouver, anyone belonging to the IWW during this time could be attested and charged with "criminal syndication." Having literature from the IWW union was a crime. The sentence when found guilty, as most were, was one to ten years in jail. 'Me anti-union sentiment was reflected in the Vancouver Columbian in a December 30 article which stated that the "Northwest is an IWW resort." It went on to report that 20,000 AM members were employed in the lumber mills and camps. It concluded with the statement that "War was declared on the nm in the Northwest because the IWW [member] is so incorrigible, so palpably ignorant that he fears no law, unappreciative of the better things in life that he is death-defying" (Columbian, Dec. 29, Jan. 6 and Jan. 19).

IWW men coming into towns across the state were met at the docks or train stations, and shown that they were not welcome. In Everett a group was met and taken out to the edge of town and made to run the gauntlet, where 200 men beat them with clubs and sticks. They were then left to walk back into town. The IWW man took up a collection for a ride for the most seriously injured of the group.

In Vancouver there are no recorded instances of beating; the area seems to have used legal channels to fight the unions. When the Michigan Lumber Company was struck at Vancouver and shut down by workers who demanded a ten-hour day, the Michigan Mill picked up a new crew and resumed working the I 1 -hour day. The Lucia Mill was also struck but it re-opened when management agreed to the 10-hour day (Columbian).

The unions were not perfect, and they did do some things that were bad. However, the treatment that most of these people received was not justified. Unions are groups of people who band together to work toward a just end. In this fight for justice a lot of innocent people were hurt. Today, we owe our good working conditions in the woods and in the mills to the hard work of unions like the IWW, because if the workers hadn't started the drive for change, it probably wouldn't have happened for many more years, if ever.


Columbian. Vancouver, Washington. December 20, 1919, January 6 and January 19, 1920.

Fizken, Robert E. The Forested Land. University Press, 1987, pp. 78-192.

Golble, Frank G. The Third Force. New York: Pocket Books, 1976.

Lucia, Ellis. The Big Woods. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975, pp. 28-80.

Williams, Richard L. 'Me Loggers. New York: Time Life Books, 1976.

Wilson, Scott. Fifty Years Later: The Everett Massacre, 1986.

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