Timber Glory Years in Minnesota

You've read in this blog about the westward movement of logging and the unique way of classifying wood products that evolved during this migration. But we've not really touched on the stories of the lumber kingdoms created and lost during this migration. In state after state, region after region, timber fortunes were made and then moved westward with the remaining timber.

The tall timber stands of virgin Eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) in Minnesota in the last part of the nineteenth century were the last such stands in the country. As pine stands in Michigan and Wisconsin were harvested to build the booming cities of the Great Lakes, the timber barons looked even further afield for the majestic white pines with their strong, straight, and light lumber...and found it in the largely unpopulated state of Minnesota.

A load of lumber being transported by horses in early 20th century Minnesota. Source: 
CREDIT: Halvorson, Lewis H., photographer. "Banner load, Blackduck, Minnesota : biggest load of logs ever hauled / by Lewis H. Halvorson." 1909. The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920: Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collections, Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo. 

From the Minnesota DNR:

"By 1875 logging was big business, due to the abundance of trees, expanding rail system, and network of waterways extending all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The rails provided a secondary means to transport logs and lumber elsewhere in Minnesota as well as to the southern states, where demand was especially high. The appetite for white pine was insatiable, particularly in St Louis. 
Minneapolis, Stillwater, and towns along the St. Croix River became beehives of logging activity due to the close proximity of white pine to navigable waterways and newly constructed railways. In just one week in 1875, one railroad company shipped 141 railcars of lumber through Stillwater to points south. In three short years, another railroad company more than doubled its shipment of lumber from 25 million feet to 54 million feet, while log rafts on the Mississippi River annually exceeded 89 million feet. 
By 1900 Minnesota produced 2.3 billion feet of lumber, of which 2.1 billion was listed as white pine. That same year, three of the four largest mills in the United States were located in Minnesota, of which two were in Minneapolis. In addition, 11 other Minnesota mills processed more than 100 million feet annually. This pace could not and did not last. After a hard winter in 1901-02, the state was not able to regain its momentum in lumbering, and production began to fall, albeit slowly at first. 
While trees were becoming scarcer near Minneapolis, Duluth could still find and cut a substantial volume, but it too peaked before 1905. With demand for white pine still rampant, Duluth grew rapidly. Its population increased by 80 percent in five years, which was the highest increase anywhere in Minnesota. With the increase came a big local demand for lumber. That meant more sawmills, more workers, and more demand for homes, schools, businesses, and lumber. 
Duluth's growth also created more demand for ships, elevators, and docks to move lumber, wheat, and iron ore. By the time the additional elevators were built, 100 million feet of lumber had been consumed. With this new network, even more employees were needed because each piece of lumber was loaded onto ships by hand."
And, just as it had done in other parts of the country, the timber boom in Minnesota produced some of the nicest old Victorian homes ever built in the country, by timber barons who had a ready supply of the best lumber at their disposal. One of those built was the William Sauntry mansion in Stillwater, Minnesota, which you can stay at today if you're passing that way.
Sauntry Mansion in 1921, Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Inside the gymnasium in 1919, Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

As the money began to flow, trading interests grew and money men congregated to help spread the wealth around. One of the remnants of their efforts is the Lumberman's Exchange building in downtown Stillwater. In one of the better stories of reclamation and restoration to evolve from the era, the old building has been returned to at least a semblance of its past glory.

As we come to the end of another year, in another era, we ponder again that saying of the old Minnesota timber baron as the industry's glory days came to a close...

"...and like the sands in the hourglass that keep running, ever running on, its day will soon come. And then what?"

Whatever may come, we're pretty sure wood will still be around...and being utilized for man's comfort.  So, Go Wood in comfort and confidence of even better times to come.

Tip Amount


Jerry Finch said…
Chuck, I liked the picture of the large load of logs. I grew up in Iola, WI. My central Wis hometown of 800 had 3 sawmills at that time, on the Little Wolf River. My great-grandfather was a commercial photographer. He took many photos like that of PIne logs on snow skids. One picture I remember was taken from a hilltop near Wittenberg, looking Northwest. It showed nothing but Pine stumps all the way to the horizon. Today that area is farming country but fairly well covered in hardwood forest, as is much of the former pine land in northern WI and MINN. As you sai, wood will always be with us. Merry Christmas!
Chuck Ray said…
Thanks for sharing the memories, Jerry. Hope you have an awesome 2019.
Unknown said…
Your memories are amazing
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