A Day in a Michigan Lumber Camp – B. Catton


The big day was the day Father took us out to a lumber camp.

We rode out in the caboose of a freight train, which by itself was enough  to make this a great occasion; past Boyne Falls, and off on some temporary branch line that led to the lumber camp, where our engine was to drop its empty flatcars and collect loaded cars for the return trip. While the train crew did this, Father took us up to the cook shack for a midday meal. …I got my first look at an old-time Michigan lumber camp. I did not actually see a great deal, and anyway a scene remembered from early childhood is glimpsed as through a glass darkly, with the real and unreal looking much alike. Looking back now I can recall little more than a set of log-and-tarpaper buildings in a clearing on rising ground, a wilderness of stumps and unwanted saplings all around, and somewhere in the distance a swampy plain where spiky trees without leaves or needles stood bleak and lonely against the snow – tamaracks, undoubtedly, although I could not have identified them at the time.

The camp was singularly quiet, and hardly any men were in sight. The men, of course, were off in the woods, hard at work; from first to last, the lumberjack never saw his camp in daylight except on Sundays – he went off into the forest before sunrise and he came back after dusk, and he knew his home place only as a warm spot in the cold darkness, where he ate and slept and on Sunday boiled his socks and long johns and waged ineffective war on the bedbugs that infested the bunkhouse.

Taken from chapter 5, “The Ax, the Log and the River,” in Bruce Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train (Wayne State University Press, 1987). Though I can only quote a small portion of Catton’s history of the logging industry in Michigan, it is fascinating and sad. Next time I will give you some statistics he provides on how quickly the beautiful northern forests were stripped and how the promise of an inexhaustible supply of lumber was quickly shown to be utterly foolish.

If you want to read a little more about the logging industry, visit this Michigan history page. And if you want to see some more pictures of the logging camps, check out this Detroit News gallery.

Published in: on January 18, 2018 at 10:51 PM  Leave a Comment