Great Pineries of Wisconsin

Logging in Wisconsin
(USGenWeb Archives)

The logging industry in Wisconsin lasted nearly 62 years after it had exhausted nearly all of the White and Norwegian Pines trees of northern half of Wisconsin.  The industry left behind a legacy of abundant prosperity and ecological devastation. This once important industry propelled the state of Wisconsin forward as serious economic lumber hub in the Midwest.

In the 1840s, loggers and other businessmen recognized the possibilities and profit there was to be made in logging the vast pineries of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula. These men, usually from the New England area, made their way out to Wisconsin and established some of the first logging camps and mills. These early camps and mills were often very small and had low output. In the early years of the industry, the importance of a good river was to serve as a highway to get the logs from camp to mill and to power the lumber mills using a water wheel to run equipment.

The post Civil War years brought great changes to the logging industry. Technology was transforming the way pine was extracted changed rapidly. The once small mills driven by waterwheel adopted the steam engine that was for more powerful and increased productivity.  The demand for finished products was rising as settlers moved out to the treeless plains. Wisconsin lumber made its way to these settlers to build homes, barns and other buildings and provide other consumer goods.  Railroads were being laid at an incredible rate, and lumber for railroad ties was a key component to its expansion.

Wisconsin was divided up into 7 logging districts. These districts utilized a major river that served as the log highway for transporting logs to mills. These 7 districts were: The Wolf River, Menominee River, Black River, Wisconsin River, Chippewa River, St Croix River, and Lake Superior Districts. The Wolf River District was one of the first in the state and had a historical impact on the city I currently call home.

I attend college in Oshkosh, which was a major lumber city in its day in the Wolf River District. Remnants of the prominent Paine Lumber Company still exist today along the Fox River near the university. Logs were floated down the Wolf River and then made their way into the Fox River before reaching the lumber mills in Oshkosh. The logs would be processed at some 47 mills in the city and made into everything from doors and sashes to shingles and lumber.

As technology improved and railroads crisscrossed the country, the logging industry found a niche in Wisconsin life. It was a very profitable venture that brought wealth into the state. Logging would be Wisconsin’s largest employer for a number of years until industrialization in Milwaukee took off.  By the turn of the century the pineries were becoming exhausted and logging was shifting to the Pacific Northwest.

Working in the logging camps was done during the winter months. The frozen ground was easier for moving the heavy payload without getting stuck. The logs would be piled by the river banks until spring when they would be pushed in the river and transported to the mills.  The men that worked in the camps consisted mostly of farmers who sought out extra money during the lull of winter. It was good seasonal work for these men that put extra money in their family’s pocket.

The men who worked in the logging camps faced danger every day. There was danger from the cutting of the trees to transporting them. An Axe man could be killed if a tree kicked back or fell in the wrong direction.  Teamsters hauling the logs out of the woods to the rivers or railroads could be crushed to death if chains broke that held the logs together during transport. Drivers or River Rats, the men who saw the logs down the rivers to the mills, were in charge of breaking up jams on the rivers and keeping the logs moving, one slip and they would be trapped or crushed under the logs and drown.

Working in the camps was not an easy job and was not always the best paying job for the work these men did. However, they were the men that were a key component that made this industry prosperous in Wisconsin. They created the camp life, song, and jargon that we associated with the lumberjack today.

Some positions in a logging camp

Axe men: Felled Trees

Markers: Mark the trees for felling

Trimmers: Trimmed branches and other undesirable debris

Sawyers: Cut the large trunks into logs

Teamsters: Hauled logs to river banks or railcar

Drivers (River Rats): Guided logs down the river

By the 1880s the industry began its decline. The pineries of Wisconsin, once thought unlimited, began to disappear because of rapid logging. An area known as the cut over district began to emerge. It was a land littered with dead tree debris and stumps of the once thick pine forests. Alarmed by the rapid logging rate Wisconsin lawmakers established a Forrest Commission in 1903 to oversee conservation and reforestation measures. By 1910, the chapter of the Wisconsin logging industry was closed.

After many years of cutting trees, the devastation became apparent.  It’s estimated that around 130 billion board feet of trees were harvested, but only half ever made it to mills and made into finished products. There was an attempt to turn the cut over district into farmland, but the soil and economic factors worked against the farmers. Instead there were projects to replant and reforest the cut over district. Once again the northern part of Wisconsin is returned back, although not as it was before, to forest land.

The great Wisconsin pineries left behind a legacy of barren land and ecological devastation that only recently has been restored. However, it also created jobs, built up an industry, and created a cultural image of the lumberjacks of the North Woods. It really has had a significant historical impact on the state of Wisconsin.

For more info visit the Wisconsin State Historical Society.
Information for post gathered from:
Wisconsin A History-Robert C. Nesbit http://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/0465.htm
In class lecture from Dr. Thomas J. Rowland- UW-Oshkosh History Dept.

2 thoughts on “Great Pineries of Wisconsin”

  1. HI, Austin,

    I’m searching for historic (as well as current) photos of lumber mills and logging camps that are “open source” and not subject to the fee that the State Hisotrical Society charges. (They’ve repeatedly told us we’d have to pay $10 per image and we have no budget for photos).

    Do you have any such photos you’d be willing to share?

    I am helping to complete a major public document, “The Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin,” for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. This document summarizes the major ecological features of the state and also discusses their importance in Wisconsin’s socio-economic development and economic health. It surveys Wisconsin’s pre-EuroAmerican settlement ecological conditions, agents of change, and current evolving conditions and the spatial extent of all of Wisconsin’s major ecological communities. For this purpose, ecologists from various state and federal agencies have divided the state into 16 ecological landscapes.

    Here is a link to our map of Wisconsin’s ecological landscapes: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/landscapes/documents/StateMaps/Map_S1_ELs.pdf, to help you get a very general idea of the context within which the desired images would be used.

    The purpose of this special publication is to provide natural resource managers with an ecological context in which to conduct property-level and regional scale natural resources planning – including planning for public forest blocks, groups of wildlife management areas, river basins, and other geographic units and ownerships.

    We are interested in obtaining publication quality, high-resolution (at least 300 dots/inch or at least 1,000 pixels wide) .jpeg or .gif electronic files of both historic and modern-day photographs of Wisconsin’s wood products (including paper, plywood, dimension lumber, and furniture making) industrial facilities. I understand NewPage controls paper production mills in both Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point, and has a research facility in Biron. If you look on the map link below, you will see these are within the “Central Sand Plains” Ecological Landscape, so that is the chapter they would appear in. Also note that while we already have a Web page for each landscape, we are completing much more extensive chapters for each landscape.

    Please let me know if any such images are available, or if you know of free sources for such images. We could acquire images via:

    • a photo sharing site that we could download them from,
    • a CD sent to me at the WDNR office in Madison, or
    • via e-mail (one photo file per e-mail message, to avoid a system overload)

    While we have no budget for paying for such images, we will provide full credit to the source and acknowledgement for permission to use them.


    1. Sounds like a interesting project, but I do not have any pictures. Have you tried local historical societies in these areas? They might be willing to work with you. If I find anything I will let you know.

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