Idaho History: Idaho’s lumber industry boomed in the 1870s and ’80s

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANDecember 1, 2013 

The usual procedure in the early days of lumbering was to haul, or float, the logs to the sawmill, but a letter to the editor of the Idaho Statesman, published in May 1877, reminds us that it was sometimes necessary to move the mill to the logs.

“The sawmill, owned and now run by Rossi & Karcher, was moved during the past winter, on contract by Messrs. S.J. Johnson and Henry Vinson, two gentlemen well known to the community; the former as machinist and millwright, and the latter as an expert sawyer. The mill was moved about two miles up Shaffer Creek to the junction of its two principal branches, into a fine body of timber, easy of access. The moving was a necessity, as the timber about the old location was entirely sawed out.

“The difficulties of moving will be easily understood when we take into consideration that new roads had to be built and streams bridged to the new mill site, with roads extending in every direction into the timber to reach the logs, but by perseverance and energy the work has been accomplished. Well-graded roads are built, streams well bridged, and the mill, 34 by 80 feet, has been moved and put up on the new site in a good substantial manner, ready to run. They have a fifty-horse power engine in perfect order which furnishes driving power for a top circular of 36 inches and a bottom circular of 54 inches; Spaulding’s patent saws, running with cone feed, which can be regulated at will by the sawyer; also edger, slab, shingle and slitting saws. They have a Woodward patent planer that dresses lumber from four to one-half inches in thickness and from twelve to four inches in width, with tongued and grooved heads for flooring.”

The author of this informative and detailed letter to the editor signed himself simply “W.W. Mc.” He was equally enthusiastic about Rossi & Karcher’s provisions for its employees. “They have also a nice house for the sawyer and the machinist and a comfortable and commodious mess and lodging house for the men. They set a good table, pay good wages, and treat their employees with courtesy and respect.”

There were sawmills along the Payette River in the 1880s, and the Statesman reported in February 1884 that a new mill was being built about two miles above Falk’s Store. A boom was constructed across the river to trap an estimated 1,500,000 feet of logs in Garden Valley as soon as the spring thaw raised the level of the river enough to float them down to the new mill.

We occasionally find references to the sources of the machinery used to power pioneer sawmills, as in April 1884, when John Lamb “received from the manufacturer at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a fine new engine with boiler, trucks, etc. all complete. The entire outfit weighs 17,000 lbs. and cost laid down here about $3,000. The engine is about 40-horse power and is destined for use in sawing lumber in the mountains between this place and Idaho City.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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