New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

How to Build a Logging Camp in Around 1850

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John S. Springer’s book Forest Life and Forest Trees, … Camp-Life Among the Loggers … on the Various Rivers of Maine and New Brunswick was published in New York in 1851. It includes the following description of preliminary arrangements in setting up a lumber camp in advance of the arrival of the main crew. It is the most detailed description that I have seen, not only of camp architecture, but of the mode of life in camp.

Log jam Tetagouche

Log jam at Tetagouche Falls, ca. 1910

Bathurst Historical Museum, via


How to Build a Logging Camp in Around 1850

Arrangements are at once made to locate and build our winter camps. To determine upon the best point is by no means an easy task, it being very difficult to fix upon the location in a strange and imperfectly-explored forest. Wood and water privileges are to be taken into the account; a central position in respect to the timber; the landing, the locating of the main roads, &c., are to be attended to. To combine all these qualities, where we can see only a few rods in advance on account of the trees and thickets, and our work must necessarily cover hundreds of acres of wild land, it must be confessed is no ordinary task. I have seldom taxed my judgment as severely on any subject as in judiciously locating a logging establishment.

These preliminaries being settled, we commence “right merrily” our camp. The top strata of leaves and turf are removed from the spot upon which the structure is to be erected; this is necessary, as we should otherwise be in great danger of fire from the dry turf. While this process is going forward, others are engaged in felling the trees on the spot, and cutting them the length determined upon for our edifice. The work commences by throwing the larger logs into a square, notching the ends together. Thus one tier after another is laid up until the walls attain the proper height, the smallest logs being used to finish out the upper tiers. In form they resemble a tin baker, rising some eight feet in front, while the roof pitches down within two or three feet of the ground in the rear. A double camp is constructed by putting two such squares face to face, with the fire in the middle. The Spruce-tree is generally selected for camp building, it being light, straight, and quite free from sap. The roof is covered with shingles from three to four feet in length. These are split from trees of straight and easy rift, such as the Pine, Spruce, and Cedar. The shingles are not nailed on, but secured in their place by laying a long heavy pole across each tier or course. The roof is finally covered with the boughs of the Fir, Spruce, and Hemlock, so that when the snow falls upon the whole, the warmth of the camp is preserved in the coldest weather. The crevices between the logs constituting the walls are tightly calked with moss gathered from surrounding trees.

The interior arrangement is very simple. One section of the area of the camp is used for the dining-room, another for the sleeping apartment, and a third is appropriated to the kitchen. These apartments are not denoted by partitioned walls, but simply by small poles some six inches in diameter, laid upon the floor of the camp (which is the pure loam), running in various directions, and thus forming square areas of different dimensions, and appropriated as above suggested. The head-board to our bed consists of one or more logs, which form also the back wall of the camp. The foot-board is a small pole, some four or six feet from the fire. Our bedstead is mother earth, upon whose cool but maternal bosom we strew a thick coating of hemlock, cedar, and fir boughs. The width of this bed is determined by the number of occupants, varying from ten to twenty feet. Bed-clothes are suited to the width of the bed by sewing quilts and blankets together. The occupants, as a general thing, throw off their outer garments only when they “turn in” for the night. These hardy sons of the forest envy not those who roll on beds of down; their sleep is sound and invigorating; they need not court the gentle spell, turning from side to side, but, quietly submitting, sink into its profound depths.

Directly over the foot-pole, running parallel with it, and in front of the fire, is the “deacon scat.” I think it would puzzle the greatest lexicographer of the age to define the word, or give its etymology as applied to a seat, which indeed it is, and nothing more nor less than a seat; but, so far as I can discover from those most deeply learned in the antiquarianism of the logging swamp, it has nothing more to do with deacons, or deacons with it, than with the pope. The seat itself, though the name be involved in a mystery, is nothing less nor more than a plank hewn from the trunk of a Spruce-tree some four inches thick by twelve inches wide, the length generally corresponding with the width of the bed, raised some eighteen inches above the foot-pole, and made stationary. This seat constitutes our sofa or settee, to which we add a few stools, which make up the principal part of our camp furniture. Should any of my readers ever be situated beyond the reach of cabinet-makers, but in the vicinity of the forest, I may introduce them into the secret of chair-making without the necessity of any tools except an ax. Split the top part of the trunk of a Spruce or Fir-tree in halves, cut a stick of the right length upon which three or four stout limbs grow; trim off the limbs of a sufficient length to suit your fancy; smooth the piece of timber to which they adhere by hewing, and your seat is completed. I can assure the reader that the instances are rare in which it becomes necessary to send them to the cabinetmaker for repairs, especially to have the legs glued in.

The luxury of a temporary table is now pretty generally enjoyed, with plates, knives and forks, tin dippers for tea and coffee, and sometimes cups and saucers. Formerly the deacon seat was used instead of a table, and a large frying-pan served for a platter for the whole crew. Around this the men would gather, each putting in his bread or potato, and salt fish, to sop in the pork fat; and never did king or courtier enjoy the luxuries of a palace more exquisitely than do our loggers this homely fare. On the St. Croix River, lumbermen generally adhere, from choice, to the original custom of eating from the frying-pan. Bread and beans are baked in a large “Duch oven,” [sic] which is placed in a hole dug in the earth by the side of the fire, and entirely covered with hot coals and embers. In this position it is allowed to remain until the contents are done, when the ashes and cover are removed. I need not presume to inform the skillful cook that this mode of baking is unequaled. Our camp-fire is made on the ground next to the front wall, which is sometimes protected by a tier of large stones, but in other instances we simply set up two short stakes, against which enormous back-logs rest. After supper, each night unfailingly a very large fire is built to sleep by. Some of the wood used is so large that it often burns twenty-four hours before being entirely consumed. The amount of fuel made use of in building one camp-fire would supply an ordinary fire a week.

It is not an infrequent occurrence, of course, for camps to take fire in this exposed situation, but some one generally discovers it in season to extinguish it by the timely application of snow or water. Instances have occurred, however, in which crews have been consumed with the camp. I recollect an instance in which a camp, on one of the tributaries of the Penobscot, took fire during the night while the inmates were asleep, and three out of four men were burned to death. In view of this liability, the roof of our camps are not so strongly fastened down but that, in the event of a retreat being cut off from the door, the united efforts of the inmates can burst it up, and thus make their escape. These things, however serious in some instances, are but little thought of or cared for.

Around this good camp-fire, “With mirth to lighten duty,” gather the crew after the toils of the day, to enjoy, as best they may, our long winter evenings; and around no fireside where there are equal responsibilities, intelligence, and many more luxuries, can be found more real contentment, or a greater degree of enjoyment.

Here rises the voice of song upon the wings of the winter night storm as it rolls past with the sublimity of an Alpine tempest. Here, also, are rehearsals of wild adventure, listened to with all the interest which isolated circumstances usually lend even to little matters.

The first night we lodged in one of our newly-erected camps, its dedication was proposed. It was moved and carried by acclamation that Hobbs should sing us a song, and that “’Nick” should give us one of his yarns,

[A lengthy poem and the yarn are deleted, for brevity]

Having thus finished his story and replenished his pipe, the old man leaned back against the camp walls and enveloped himself in a cloud of smoke, while he listened, in turn, to the various incidents in the experience of others, of which his own had been suggestive.

Finally, after some little discussion as to the precise location which each should occupy on the new bed, all hands “turned in,” to live over again the fortunes of the day in the fantastic dreams of night.

Having completed our own cabin, we precede next to construct a hovel for the oxen, which are yet behind. In erecting this, the same order in architecture is observed as in that of the camp, the timber of which it is composed, however, being much larger than that with which our own habitation is constructed. With the trunks of trees the walls are carried up nearly equal in height, leaving one side, however, enough lower than the other to give a moderate pitch to the roof, which is covered with the same kind of material as that of the camp. In the camp for the workmen there is no floor but the earth; the ox hovel, however, has a flooring made of small poles laid closely together, and hewed down with some degree of smoothness with the adz, and in the final finish the crevices in the walls are plastered with clay or ox manure. A temporary shed is thrown up in front, which serves as a depot for hay and provender.

No little pains are bestowed upon the conveniences designed for the team. With the exception of sporting horses, never have I witnessed more untiring devotion to any creature than is bestowed upon the ox when under the care of a good teamster. The last thing before “turning in,” he lights his lantern and repairs to the ox hovel. In the morning, by the peep of day, and often before, his faithful visits are repeated to hay, and provender, and card, and yoke up. No man’s berth is so hard, among all the hands, as the teamster’s. Every shoe and nail, every hoof and claw, and neck, yokes, chains, and sled, claim constant attention. While the rest of the hands are sitting or lounging around the liberal fire, shifting for their comfort, after exposure to the winter frosts through the day, he must repeatedly go out to look after the comfort of the sturdy, faithful ox. And then, for an hour or two in the morning again, while all, save the cook, are closing up the sweet and unbroken slumbers of the night, so welcome and necessary to the laborer, he is out amid the early frost with, I had almost said, the care of a mother, to see if “old Turk” is not loose, whether “Bright” favors the near fore-foot (which felt a little hot the day before), as he stands upon the hard floor, and then to inspect “Swan’s” provender-trough, to see if he has eaten his meal, for it was carefully noted that at the “watering-place” last night he drank but little; while at the further end of the “tie-up” he thinks he hears a little clattering noise, and presently “Little Star” is having his shins gently rapped, as a token of his master’s wish to raise his foot to see if some nail has not given way in the loosened shoe; and this not for once, but every day, with numberless other cares connected with his charge.

A competent hand in this profession generally calculates to do a good winter’s hauling, and bring his team out in the spring in quite as good flesh as when they commenced in the early part of the season. But as in all other matters, so in this, there are exceptions to the general rule. Some teamsters spoil their cattle, and bring them out in the spring miserably poor and nearly strained to death. Such a practice, however, can not be regarded as either merciful or economical. So far as true policy is concerned, it is much better to keep a team well. What may be gained by hard pushing during the former part of the season will be more than made up during the latter, when the teams are moderately urged and well kept, and then you have a good team still for future labor.

Having completed our winter residences, next in order comes the business of looking out and cutting the “main,” and some of the principal “branch roads.” These roads, like the veins in the human body, ramify the wilderness to all the principal “clumps” and “groves of pine” embraced in the permit.

We have here no “turnpikes” or railways, but what is often more interesting. No pencilings can excel the graceful curves found in a main road as it winds along through the forest, uniform in width of track, hard-beaten and glassy in its surface, polished by the sled and logs which are so frequently drawn over it. Each fall of snow, when well trodden, not unlike repeated coats of paint on a rough surface, serves to cover up the unevenness of the bottom, which in time becomes very smooth and even. And besides, no street in all our cities is so beautifully studded with trees, whose spreading branches affectionately interlace, forming graceful archways above. Along this road side, on the way to the landing, runs a serpentine pathway for the “knight of the goad,” whose deviations are marked now outside this tree, then behind that “windfall,” now again intercepting the main road, skipping along like a dog at one’s side. To pass along this road in mid-winter, one would hardly suspect the deformities which the dissolving snows reveal in the spring—the stumps and knolls, skids and roots, with a full share of mad-sloughs, impassable to all except man, or animals untrammeled with the harness.

In the process of making these roads, the first thing in order is to look out the best location for them. This is done by an experienced hand, who “spots” the trees where he wishes the road to be “swamped.” We usually begin at the landing, and cut back toward the principal part of the timber to be hauled.

In constructing this road, first all the underbrush is cut and thrown on one side; all trees standing in its range are cut close to the ground, and the trunks of prostrated trees cut off and thrown out, leaving a space from ten to twelve feet wide. The tops of the highest knolls are scraped off, and small poles, called skids, are laid across the road in the hollows between. Where a brook or slough occurs, a pole-bridge is thrown across it.

These preparatory arrangements are entered upon and prosecuted with a degree of interest and pleasure by lumbermen scarcely credible to those unacquainted with such a mode of life and with such business. Though not altogether unacquainted with other occupations and other sources of enjoyment, still, to such scenes my thoughts run back for the happier portions of life and experience.

I have attended to various kinds of labor, but never have I entered upon any half so pleasing as that usually performed in the “logging swamp.” Although greatly jeopardizing my reputation for taste, I will utter it. Positively, it is delightful. I have since had some years’ experience in one of the professions, in the enjoyment of some of the refinements of life, yet, if it could be done consistently, I would now with eagerness exchange my house for the logging camp, my books for the ax, and the city full for those wilderness solitudes whose delightful valleys and swelling ridges give me Nature uncontaminated—I had almost said, uncursed, fresh from the hand of the Creator. To write of those things makes the hustling city seem dull and irksome. Fain would I hie away once more to those pleasant pastime labors.

Happily, all tastes are not alike. Yet there are few who, on entering a beautiful native forest, would not experience delight; the varieties of trees set out by the hand of Nature, their graceful forms and spreading branches interlocked with neighborly affection and recognition; the harmonious confusion of undergrowth; the beautiful mosses, the ever-varying surface—old age, manhood and youth, childhood and infancy—massive trunks and little sprouts; the towering Pine and creeping Winter-green, intermingled by the artless genii of these wild retreats, all combined, serve to explain the attachment of the Aborigines to their forest abodes, and give to savage life the power of enchantment.


Written by johnwood1946

June 25, 2014 at 9:37 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Enjoyed reading this very much. Thanks!


    June 25, 2014 at 10:07 AM

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