The timber cruisers

The timber cruisers who hiked through northern Minnesota brought back glowing reports of the forests to be found on the Mesabi. The lumber companies depended on the accuracy of the cruisers in order to send the loggers, such as the men in this picture from around 1905, into the correct areas for the type of timber in demand.

In the grand entrance foyer of Hibbing High School are six original murals painted by David Ericson who was born in Sweden, grew up in Duluth, studied painting in New York and Europe, and soon became a highly-regarded artist. The 1924 oil paintings in the high school depict, on the east wall, significant events in America’s history and, on the west wall, significant events in Minnesota’s history.

The first major industry in Minnesota is recalled in one of the murals – the lumbering industry. A team of sturdy horses hauls a load of massive logs across a snow-covered landscape. Minnesota’s forests would be cut down to be milled into lumber to build the great cities of America, with some of that lumber even transported across the ocean for use in Europe. Rugged, hard-working men and some women, along with horses and oxen, were the residents of the lumber camps located deep within the forests.

But before the lumber camps were built, the quality of an area’s timber needed to be evaluated. Where, in other words, would it be worthwhile to cut down stands of trees?

So among the earliest of white men to investigate the forests were the timber cruisers. This job entailed (and is a job still done today, though with modernized equipment and methods) evaluating stands of timber for quality and potential for harvesting. The job of the timber cruiser in northern Minnesota in the 1800s was often lonely and the living conditions harsh, even by the standards of the time, much less by our standards today.

Some of the early timber cruisers in the Arrowhead region were also prospectors for minerals. Since they were going to be tramping through the forests in their job of investigating the quality of the trees, they might as well spend some of their time investigating what was in the earth, too. The Merritt brothers and Frank Hibbing are examples of men who worked as timber cruisers while also prospecting.

Of course, the First Nations people who had lived, raised families, and built communities in these forests were displaced by the activity of the lumbering companies. Their lives would never be the same as their home lands were completely disrupted. It is important to recognize that as a new world was built, it was usually built with little regard for the people who lived here first.

Lumbering was most often done in the winter months, when the swamps froze over and the mosquitoes and flies were not around to bedevil the humans and animals working in the woods. So, periodically during the coming cold months of 2021-22, here on the Years of Yore page, the stories of the early lumbering years will be recounted. Especially highlighted will be some of the lesser known jobs – like the timber cruiser, log loader, and road monkeys.

The following is part of an article is taken from a collection of carefully researched essays originally printed in the 1970s by the Minnesota Timber Producers’ Association. The author, J.C. Ryan, grew up near Bemidji in the first decades of the 20th Century. His father worked in the logging industry and the son followed, working nearly every job within the forests and sawmills. He would go on to serve as the long-time president of the State Forestry Employees Association and was active in the Society of American Foresters and the St. Louis County Historical Society. Articles he researched and wrote about the early logging industry in Minnesota were widely published.

With modern transportation into the woods and the use of aerial photography today, it is difficult for foresters and others to realize the great hardships the old-time timber cruiser endured or the role he played in harvesting our vast virgin timber stands.

Before timber could be logged, men had to be sent into the woods to locate and appraise timber. In the very early days, this consisted of more or less exploring by canoe upstream or across lakes and swamps to locate the timber stands. All transportation away from the water was made on foot.

Most companies or outfits that bought and sold standing timber, as well as those who logged, had timber cruisers on their regular payroll. Some timber cruisers also took on short jobs for any companies or independent land owner looking to hire them.

In the early days, Stillwater, Minnesota, was headquarters for many of the cruisers; but by the 1890s, Duluth became timber cruiser headquarters for all of Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, Michigan and Canada. The St. Louis Hotel in downtown Duluth became the rendezvous for cruisers, and there were always 10 or 12 of them staying there between jobs or resting after a hard tip.

In the early days, a cruiser would go on short jobs alone. But it eventually became an unwritten law that no man should be sent out without a small crew. Timber crews generally included an appraiser, compass man, and a cook. There were usually jobs available for good cruisers, so a fine reputation was worth a great deal. These men were paid from the day they left town until they returned. During the winter months in the forests, they might stay in trapper cabins, homesteader shacks, or any shelter they could find near the land to be evaluated.

When no cabin was available, tents were used. Cruisers could rent silkaline (a soft light cotton fabric, tightly woven, with a smooth finish which felt like silk) tents. These and all their other needs – compact and lightweight cooking utensils, additional tents, and other equipment – were packed into a No. 2 packsack, often from Poirer Tent & Awning Company in Duluth which specialized in outfitting crews. Properly set up, these double tents with the air space in between could keep men warm in the coldest months.

In winter, crews would try to work a week or more without moving the tent; but in summer, tents were moved every day to cut the walking distance to the jobs. Cooks attended to the crew’s general comforts. They set up the tents, made beds of birch poles and balsam boughs, split wood and cooked food. The cooks that worked with the cruisers were a special breed of men. They could prepare some fine meals over an open fire. The best cooks were always in demand, just like the best cruisers.

Timber cruisers were not only rugged individuals, they were honorable, honest men who took great pride in their ability to determine how much timber there was on a given tract. For a three-week’s job, a cruiser’s crew would be paid less than $200, but a company would not hesitate to invest up to $50,000 on the cruiser’s report. Millions of dollars’ worth of timber was purchased, traded, and sold by firms on nothing more than the cruiser’s report. Surely no group held the destiny of a lumber company in their hands more than the cruisers did.

Yet the history of the logging industry makes little mention of these rugged, noble men.

When logging was at its peak, and the early railroad lines were built, every train leaving Duluth on a Monday morning had several cruisers heading for the woods. Cruisers were recognized by the little black leather bags they carried over their shoulders containing a compass, maps, books, and writing utensils. In the winter, they also carried snowshoes. Trains often stopped and dropped cruisers at mile posts nearest the timber they were to look at. The men would be picked up at other stopping points along the railroad. Many railroads had large tracts of timber they obtained through land grants and had cruisers check on these holdings. Mining companies, too, had large blocks of forest and kept cruisers on their payrolls. The federal and state government also had cruisers.

In those days there were no snowmobiles and helicopters to take people into the woods. The only way the cruisers could find out the amount and kind of timber that grew on the land was to get there by foot. This meant many miles of “running the compass” and pacing along old trails, section lines, or even deer paths on snowshoes in winter and around mosquito-infested bogs in the summer.

There were timber cruisers who became legendary for their work. Among these was the veteran Weyerhauser timber cruiser, the great Dan Cameron with his white flowing beard, who cruised until he was well past 80 years old and put many a younger man to shame when it came to traveling through the woods on snowshoes. Many early State timber cruisers were well known and respected for their ability to look after the State of Minnesota’s interests.

These hard-working timber cruisers from the old days are all passed away now, but their names should be a part of the history of the State of Minnesota.

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