29 South Main
Lewiston, Utah 84320
Historical Report #8
THE LUMBER BOOM AND BUST IN CACHE VALLEY
View of the Temple Fork Sawmill in 1880
In 1859, when Esias Edwards and Leroy Kent erected the first sawmill in what would become Cache Valley's Millville, dense stands of timber covered the slopes of the Bear River Range of the Wasatch Mountains and grew along the moist meadowland and stream banks skirting its foothills.
The settlers entering the valley at that time would be weary with travel through a mostly arid landscape and desperate to light some place and settle down. Moreover, they'd be in need of everything from shelter for themselves and their animals to bedsteads and wooden utensils for preparing a meal. In their newly adopted valley, they'd not only have rich soil, clear mountain streams, and lush grassland for their livestock, but a veritable Mother of a Woodlot as well. It's no wonder Peter Maughan's wife, Mary, entering Cache Valley with her husband in 1857, looked at her new home from the mouth of what was then Sardine Canyon and breathed, "O, what a beautiful valley!"
The tall Cottonwoods and sprawling Box Elders the newcomers found near stream banks at the base of the mountains were easy to get to, and this timber was among the first utilized for temporary shelter and fuel. Later, after the settlers planted crops and caught their breaths, they began the arduous work of cutting roads up into the canyons. From the west-facing slopes they soon harvested various species of juniper and called this fragrant wood "cedar." From the more moist, north-facing slopes they harvested the taller conifers, most extensively the abundant stands of towering, lance-like Douglas Fir. "Red pine" the settlers called these trees, because of their reddish heartwood and, sometimes, "White Fir." Many houses, granaries, and barns still standing in the valley today have been built of this robust wood.
Throughout these more somber conifers were groves of brilliant quaking aspen. The wood of aspen is too weak for heavy structural work, but its clear, greenish-white wood did well enough for lathe work--turned wooden kitchen tools and chair and table legs--and for the backs, sides, and drawers of furniture. The brushy thickets of Mountain Mahogany, various species of maple, and the masses of willows found on the banks of canyon streams were useful, too--for lath under plastered walls and mud roofs, and for baskets and fuel.
The settlers, after suffering through those first, bitterly cold winters, became at length self-sufficient in their green valley. They made their own clothes, butchered their own animals, and ran their own creameries. And, since money was nonexistent, the medium of exchange was scrip. Not an easy life, certainly not an affluent one, but satisfying, peaceful.
Then gold was discovered in Montana and northern Idaho.
The early Cache Valley settlers had assumed that their long trek across the plains and up through arid and semi-arid Utah to this quiet northern valley had isolated them from the world outside--or, more specifically, from "The States." Now Cache Valley settlers found themselves sitting square on the principal route through Salt Lake City and Ogden to the Idaho and Montana mining camps. Foreigners from "The States" were soon passing back and forth, right in front of their doorsteps.
Early wagon and freight routes through Cache Valley
Well, the peace of isolation and self-sufficiency is all very good, but pragmatism will do a better job of buying a length of flowered calico or a more sophisticated plow. So there began a lively freighting activity between Cache Valley men with wagons and the miners in the camps farther north (see map, above). And among the bewildering variety of goods these miners needed were unlimited supplies of timber. They needed this timber for wagons, boardwalks, ties, and fuel, for shoring up tunnels, and for building things--bunkhouses, general stores, saloons. The road between Cache Valley and Montana saw columns of oxen and mules pulling loaded wagons night and day, headed north. Then, in 1868, at a point when the more enterprising lumbermen in the valley thought it couldn't get any better than it was, the Union Pacific railroad reached the borders of Utah and the demand for railroad ties reached epic proportions.
Thousands upon thousands of miles of railroad track in the West were laid on Douglas Fir. Tough, light-weight, and often beautifully figured, this monarch among trees soon took the place of eastern White Pine as the first among tall timber trees on the continent. Today, one fourth of all the standing saw timber in the United States is Douglas Fir, but in the early 1800s it was not even known outside the largely uninhabited West. Then, in 1825, an explorer and botanist, David Douglas, gathered 250 pounds of seed in the Northwest from his newly discovered tree. From that small cache, the tree that bears his name spread as a premier industrial tree all over the rest of the United States and Europe.
The canyons of Cache Valley had plenty of Douglas Fir in the 1860s and 1870s, and inside of a decade, dozens of canyon sawmills would be supplying ties for the railroad. Sawmills in Logan Canyon alone sent 75,000 to the Union Pacific on one contract and in 1881 supplied 53,000 for the Oregon Short Line. The smaller sawmills, such as one in Blacksmith Fork Canyon run by the United Order of Hyrum, would be exporting during its peak years something like 6,000 ties a year, many of them for the Utah Northern line built through Cache Valley.
Railroad ties could be cut from second growth and younger trees that were ten inches in diameter, while saw timber for construction, for both domestic and export use, came mostly from virgin stands of Douglas Fir--an elegant situation which took advantage of practically all sizes of timber. But there was plenty of everything in the canyons--as long as roads could be cut farther and farther into the upper reaches--and business continued to boom, coloring the economic picture of Cache Valley rosy indeed. For the boom, fueled to a white heat by the coming of the railroad to Cache Valley and the West, had washed over into other areas.
Agricultural products, for instance, were bringing record prices in the Montana and Idaho mining fields and from railroad construction gangs. Manufacturers in the valley--most of them by the late 1870s run by the United Order--were turning out furniture, metal tools, wagons, agricultural implements, even boilers for steam powered machinery. And these items, though bought also by local people, were exported in large numbers, bringing much-appreciated "greenbacks" and gold coin into the economy. In addition, there were at least two tanning operations in the canyons, using ground Douglas Fir bark as a tanning agent; there were grist mills throughout the valley, too, a couple of woolen mills, and many smaller furniture and cabinet shops. Moreover, Cache Valley farmers were bringing in extra cash through off-season work on railroad construction.
The valley's economy was bound to bottom out, as economies tend to do. And there are usually a number of reasons behind the type of sudden, shuddering downswing that Cache Valley experienced in the latter half of 1883. One reason was the winding-down of railroad building which depressed agricultural prices and spelled the end to off-season income. Another reason was the decimation of Cache Valley's virgin forest.
Yes, there were some misshapen trees left here and there, and some inaccessible stands on the high ridges, but there wasn't enough of anything left to make a full-scale lumbering operation viable, and one after another of the saw mills and logging companies shut down and dismantled their machinery. Some of them left the valley for virgin forests in Oregon or Idaho. In June of 1882, the Logan Leader mourned the passing of this "cheap and plentiful commodity." It had been, the newspaper said, "one of the valley's chief articles of export."
But settlers were still coming into the valley and homes and barns needed to be built for them. Cabinet makers needed wood for furniture. And, in spite of the coal and coal stoves coming into the valley on newly constructed railroads, the demand for fuel wood never went away entirely until the mid 1930s. Prominent businessmen in the valley like Charles Nibley and David Eccles looked to lumber resources out of the state as a solution to the problem, and from that time forward, Cache Valley became a major importer of forest products.
At the same time, Leonard Arrington writes, "far-sighted citizens of the valley became alarmed over the abuse of the canyon resources." And, since the tendency to wear out resources was a more or less nationwide epidemic at that time, the movement toward conservation became inexorable. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Forest Reserves, among them, the Logan Forest Reserve which became the Cache National Forest in 1908. This legislation not only regulated the cutting of timber, but instituted both range and forest improvement, including fire protection--an excellent move at the time, since wildfires did almost as much damage to the Cache forest as logging.
Ted Daniel, the grand old man of USU's Forestry program, reports that most of the Cache National Forest has by now regenerated. Those misshapen specimens, and the inaccessible stands on the high ridges managed to drop their seed on the bare, sunny slopes below and around them and, after nearly a hundred years of protection, the forest is almost back where it was when the settlers first entered the valley. There's still some virgin growth there on the ridges; Ted says there are trees up there that are 200 to 300 years old.
Studying a topographical map from the early 1900s, or listening to one of Cache Valley's older citizens recall events decades ago is so often like riffling back the pages of a book: one becomes absorbed in no time by the old photographs, the old journal entries, the old griefs and joys. And listening to stories about the Cache forest is no exception. Arbon Christensen's Richmond ranch, for instance, was at the mouth of Oxkiller Hollow--the name a grim reminder of enormous runaway logs sliding pell-mell over these valuable draft animals. Logan Canyon, especially, is full of logging history. Take a look at the names of its sites and trails--Temple Fork, where most of the timber was felled for the building of the Logan Temple; Stump Hollow, that was filled with trees just the right size for ties; and Steam Mill Hollow, where hikers can still find the shell of the old boiler that helped power the saw mill located there.
These areas, lush with trees, are by now mapped for hiking and ski tours along with scores of others, most equipped with interpretive signs and many with camping facilities. Attempting to imagine today what these trails looked like back at the turn of the century, raw and rough with stumps, virtually stripped of trees--that's a feat beyond most of us. Easier for me is to draw breath at the mouth of Wellsville canyon after a trip to Brigham City and points south and say, with Mary Maughan in 1857, "O, what a beautiful valley!"
Mary Ann Weston Maughan in the
View of the Temple Fork Sawmilll in 1880 courtesy of USU
Early wagon and freight routes through Cache Valley, History of a Valley, Ricks
Photo of Mary Ann Weston Maughan, 1880s, courtesy of USU Special Collections