For the Black River logging industry in the 19th century, springtime was time for a drive. This drive was not a pleasant outing in the country — it was a cold, wet and dangerous movement of logs downstream from the northern reaches of the river to the sawmills in La Crosse and Onalaska.
The lumber industry was the biggest business along the Black River from 1850 to 1900. During the winter months, thousands of trees were cut down in the forests of Jackson, Clark and Taylor counties and pulled by oxen and horses to the banks of the frozen river and its tributaries. In spring, the waiting logs were rolled into the rising streams and floated to the mills downstream.
The logs floated down with the current, assisted by log drivers, men who poked and prodded the logs away from the banks and islands, or out of shallow waters. The drivers worked from shore or from small boats, and some balanced on the floating logs, trying to keep everything freely flowing.
It was risky work, and the drivers frequently took spills. Dunks were a daily occurrence, that sometimes resulted in drowning.
Each spring, tens of thousands of trees that measured many millions of board feet were floated downstream. With so many logs crowding the river, the driver’s efforts could not always prevent a logjam.
Logjams could form quickly and sometimes piled several stories high and several miles long. Slowly, log by log, the drivers loosened key logs and got everything moving again.
Each log was stamped with its owner’s mark. When the long journey ended, logs was sorted into separate holding areas for the various mills to await the saw blade or to be made into a large raft to continue farther down the Mississippi River to a more distant mill. By late spring or early summer, most of the logs had been delivered to their destinations.
The La Crosse County Historical Society owns some of the tools used on the drive. Shown here are two variations of pikes, left, wrought iron points mounted on long handles used to steer and prod the logs. On the right is a cant hook, a tool used to grasp and roll a log. The cast iron hammer head is pounded into the end of the log, impressing it with its owner’s symbol. In this case it is an “H” inside a diamond, indicating the Holway Mill in North La Crosse.
Logging artifacts like these can be seen at Riverside Museum.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on April 15, 2017.