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About The Brief History of Lumbering In Michigan:

When people think about Michigan, they usually think of cars, but the first big industry in Michigan was lumbering.

In the early 1800s, most of Michigan looked like one huge forest of gigantic trees. Hardwood trees were mixed together with softwood trees. Maple, elm, basswood and other deciduous kinds grew along side conifers such as Norway, yellow and white pines.

The greatest number of hardwood trees grew in the forests south of an imaginary line from Muskegon to Saginaw. More pine trees grew north of that same line. The lumber from Michigans trees played an awesome part in how the state grew.

By the 1820 Michigan had only 8,765 people who were not Native Americans, living there. Nearly all of these people made their home in what were Wayne, Monroe and Macomb counties.
Until the 1600's, the only residents in Michigan were Native Americans. The Hurons were the largest of the 6 tribes inhabiting the upper and lower peninsulas. Their population was estimated between 45,00 to 60,000. While their dietary staple was fish, the Hurons cultivated a great deal of their supplementing food supply. Most of their hunting was done for the hides more than for food. They lived primarily in the Georgian Bay area.

The Ottawa tribe lived on the northern shores of Lake Huron and among its islands. These people depended on hunting and fishing for their food and did almost no farming. They were a much smaller tribe, numbering about 3,000 people. The Ottawas and Hurons were on good terms and their histories were closely linked for nearly 200 years.

Over a vast area around Lake Superior and reaching into Canada, were the Chippewa. They were dependent on hunting, fishing and gathering for food.

To the west across the Upper Peninsula, living in the Menominee River valley, were the Menominee Indians. They numbered about 3,000. They hunted, fished and extensively harvested the wild rice that grew abundantly in their area.

The Potawatomi and Miami tribes lived in the western part of Michigans Lower Peninsula. These tribes were also between 3,000 to 4,000 people. The Miami conducted hunts that included the entire village instead of using smaller hunting parties.

There were almost no roads. People used Native Ameraican footpaths to travel through the forest wilderness. Although the roads were bumpy, narrow, often muddy and just plan hard to travel on, there were lots of really great navigable rivers and streams.
Native Americans were the first to use Michigans rivers as major routes of travel. Later, French fur traders and missionaries, the British and finally American settlers used those same rivers for ease of travel. During Michigans fur trading era, the St. Joseph was one of the most important rivers. It rises in Hillsdale County, flows southwesterly dipping into Indiana and then turns north again ending in St. Joseph. Only a short portage was needed to enter the Kankakee River, which flows into the Mississippi.

The St. Marys River connects Lake Huron with Lake Superior. The Soo Locks were built in 1850 to enable vessels to negotiate the 22 feet difference in water levels between the two lakes. Although the Soo Canal was closed to shipping from December to April, it at one time carried more tonnage per year than either the Panama or Suez canals. The St Clair River and the Detroit River, flowing into and out of Lake St. Clair, join Lake Huron to Lake Erie and form one of the busiest waterways in the world.

Michigan has 3,121 miles of shoreline ranking it second in the nation. Only the state of Alaska has a longer shoreline. Michigans longest river is the Grand, which flows for 225 miles.

The first lumbering done in Michigan was to supply wood to build homes, barns and buildings for the people moving there. The rivers were used as a cheap and easy way to get both the logs and the finished lumber where it was needed.

From 1830 to 1837 Michigan had a land boom. It was the most popular place for settlers to go who wanted to tame new lands. Land sold for as little as $1.25 per acre. Many people came to Michigan and the population grew from 31,639 to 174,543.

The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 made it easier for settlers to travel to Michigan. Prior to 1832, most pioneers did not have the finances to take advantage of the ease of travel afforded by the Erie Canal. Improvement of economic conditions in the east and the availability of easier credit (made possible by Jacksons "war on the Bank" and the establishment of more state banks) made borrowing money for travel and land purchase possible for the common man.

In 1836 the land boom peaked with sales of 4,189,823 acres. This represented approximately one ninth of Michigans total land area.

Settlers were attracted to the small prairies scattered throughout lower southwestern Michigan. There was no need to clear the land and good timber was always available in the area. Settlers were also drawn to "oak openings". Places where the oak trees were so tall and shaded the ground so completely that almost no vegetation grew beneath. It was possible to drive a wagon for miles on virgin trails kthrough these "oak openings".

Soil was judged by what grew on it. The best soil was thought to be under the hardwood forests. Soil was known to turn sandy where the pine trees grew.

By the 1840s, our nation was really growing. People needed more and more lumber to build towns and homes. The states that had been supplying most of that lumber were about to run out. Nearly all of their trees had been cut. Lumbermen from these states and others, saw Michigans timberlands as the answer to the need for more lumber.

The white pine tree had the kind of lumber people most wanted. Builders liked it best because it grew straight and tall. Michigans white pines were awesome. They were from 70 to 300 years old, measuring 2 to 8 feet in diameter. Although pine trees made up only a small part of the states total forest area, there were still millions of acres of them at the start of Michigans lumber boom. So many in fact, that lumbermen thought they would last for a hundred years.

The Saginaw Bay area had 1,500 miles of navigable rivers and streams, white pine forests growing along their banks and an entryway to shipping on the Great Lakes. It was the perfect spot for the first large lumbering industry to start.
Six rivers come together forming the Saginaw River, which empties into Saginaw Bay and from there into Lake Huron. These rivers are the Chippewa, Tittabawassee, Cass, Bad, Shiawassee and Flint.

By 1847, logging crews had replaced the lone lumberjacks of Michigan. Canadians, Germans, Irish, English, Scots and Swedes came to Michigan to join the American lumberjacks. These crews changed the way the logs were taken from the land. Instead of selective cutting, they were now clear-cut.
The number of immigrants moving to the lumbering camps of Michigan increased during the Civil War. Many of the American jacks went to fight in the war creating a labor shortage. The greatest influx of immigrants occurred when the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed aliens who intended to become citizens to claim 160 acre parcels. In 1864 Congress passed a contract labor law. This permitted immigrants to be brought to the United States under contract to work for the person who paid for their passage.

By 1850 the lumber boom was taking off like a rocket. Michigan was supplying 456.7 million board feet of lumber per year to the Chicago lumber market. More and more mills were built and more crews came to cut trees. They did not work together to keep the amount of lumber they cut the same as the amount people wanted to buy. Each crew cut as much as they could, sometimes leaving stacks and stacks of unwanted lumber on the mill docks. The most lumber cut for one year was in 1889 with a total of 5,478 million board feet.

The Homestead Act of 1862 made it easier to get more timberlands to clear-cut. Some lumbermen cheated and hired men to pretend they wanted to settle the 162 acres parcels they could get from the government. These men only stayed until the timber was cut and then moved on.
The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed anyone who was either 21 years old, the head of a family, had served 14 days in the U.S. armed forces, and who was a citizen or filed an intent to become a citizen, to pay a small filing fee to acquire 160 acres of government land for free. These settlers were required to reside on the land for five years. More than 3 million acres of land in northern Michigan were homesteaded under this law.

In 1876, lumbermen started using narrow gauge railroads to haul logs on flat cars. They could go deeper into the woods and cut the trees that were farther from the rivers. The state gave huge tracts of timberlands to companies to get them to improved roads and build new rail lines.
Winfield Scott Gerrish built the first narrow gauge railroad after visiting the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia in 1876. He saw a small Baldwin locomotive on exhibit there and got the idea of using the smaller scale engine and track to haul logs out of the woods.
He built a six-mile rail line from his timber holdings to the Muskegon River. Until it proved to be successful, his peers laughed at his endeavor. Soon other men were copying his idea. By 1889 there were a total of 89 narrow gauge rail lines in operation.

Dry conditions and carelessness caused many fires. The two most destructive fires occurred in 1871 and in 1881. These fires burn sawmills, towns, forest and farms. Many people and animals died. The fire of 1881 brought the first disaster relief project of the American Red Cross to Michigan.
The great Chicago Fire and the Peshitgo Fire in Wisconsin overshadowed the first catastrophic fire that swept the state of Michigan. The summer of 1871 had been one of the driest on record. No rain had fallen from early August until October 8th when the fires began. The flames were fanned by tornado-like winds and continued to burn for almost a month. The piles of cut brush and limbs left behind in the cleared forests provided fuel or the rampaging flames. More than 2 million acres of Michigan timber was consumed. 15,000 Michigan citizens were left homeless, 200 or more were dead.

Almost one decade after Michigan's first great fire, she experienced her next great disaster. The first fires began to burn on September 3rd, 1881. Before long the entire thumb area of the state had been devastated. Again, the country was full of slash from logging and land clearing. Sawmills had piles of sawdust and waste in their yards, as well as stacks of dried lumber on their docks. All of the waste of the lumbering industry was strewn about in reckless abandon in city and country alike. This ready, dry fuel made the fires burn hotter and faster than can be imagined. Fire prevention was unheard of. As the fire raged across the thumb, 282 were left dead, 2.5 million in property was burned.

The first year Michigan made more lumber than any other state was 1869. Michigan continued making the most lumber for the next 30 years. But by the beginning of the 1900's, most of the timber had been cut and Michigan's great lumber boom had ended.

Michigan's lumber boom was more than a story about trees. It was a story of men and women and change. Many men took great risks to make their fortune in lumbering. Some of these men failed. Others became very rich lumber barons. Lumberjacks did hard and dangerous work. Many were injured and others died. Folklore grew from stories of their lives. Stories like Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox, were often based on real people. As the stories were retold, each storyteller made the adventure bigger and bigger until the people seemed like superheroes.

As the trees ran out, some of the sawdust cities that had grown up around the mills stayed healthy. Entrepreneurs and civic leaders brought in manufacturing industries. They used the roads, rail lines, ships and workers that were already there. Farms replaced the cleared timberlands. Michigan grew from a wilderness state with a handful of people, to a land of farms, towns and industrialized cities. The giant forests were gone, but their lumber had helped the state to grow.


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