The ABCs of Lowell History: L is for Logging

The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. The ABCs of Lowell History continues with a look at the log runs that used to occur annually in the late 19th Century. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.

Logging in Michigan has been common since the native people first cut down trees for their agricultural purposes, but the logging era really flourished between 1870 and 1890. Lumberjack camps were set up near rivers throughout the state. They cut down the trees, dragged them to the river bank and marked them. When the thaw of spring came rivers were used to run logs downstream to sawmills. It is said that Michigan pine not only largely rebuilt Chicago after the great fire in 1871, but it also supplied the nation as it expanded westward across the treeless plains.

Log marks were how the various companies knew which logs belonged to them. They marked the end of the logs with brand marks, just like the cattle branding process. This also created an opportunity for pirating. Thieves would slice off one end of the log where the company’s log mark was, and remark the log with their company’s mark. When the logs were sorted at the destination, these logs were stolen. In the years since, the slices that had been cut off have been found in rivers, even here in the Flat River. Deadheads are a term used for the logs that sank along the way. Today the remainders of these in the Flat River give boaters trouble as they navigate shallow areas.

The annual log drive down the Flat River and into the Grand River was watched carefully by the newspapers that reported the progress. The Lowell Journal for example noted on April 30, 1879 that “On the 15th day of April, logs from the main drive were running the entire length of Flat River, from Six Lakes to Lowell, a distance by river of over 100 miles”. Other reports noted the end of the drive or the total feet of logs. In May of 1884 the report was that “the rear of the Flat River Log Drive is expected to drive into Grand River at this place this week. This season’s float is about 110,000,000 feet!”

Saw mills were located at various locations along the river and logs bound for that sawmill would then be fished out of the river. Locally the Flat River boasted sawmills at Fallasburg and Lowell. The first sawmill on the Flat was built at Fallasburg in 1839. Fallasburg also had a loggers hotel. The building still stands and the old floor that is now covered is punched with holes from the cleats on the loggers’ boots.

The first sawmill in Lowell was built by Seth Cogswell in 1856 on the creek south of the Grand River on land formerly belonging to Daniel Marsac. In the mid 1860’s, a water-powered mill was built by Reuben Quick and Cornelius Powlison on the east bank of the Flat River north of Main St. In 1871, they replaced it with a steam-powered mill. They then sold their interests to King, Quick, & King. Logs were floated down the Flat, entered the log run, were piled and later put on an elevator to enter the mill where they were sawn into lumber. The lumber exited by a second story tramway which returned it to the island in the middle of the Flat River to be stacked and dried. A shingle mill, located on the island, was added in 1879.They also purchased Mr. Dodge’s lumberyard (established in 1864) for the operation of their retail trade and offices in 1872.

This mill employed 100 men between this mill and one other. It processed 50,000-60,000 board feet of lumber per day and 5 to 6 million board feet of pine per year. King, Quick, King was a huge complex which included the east bank of the Flat as well as two islands in the middle of the river.

Hazards abounded along the way as logging was a dangerous life. Log filled rivers and the constant log jams created unpredictable and dangerous situations. One newspaper report stated, “A flat river log driver came near making bubbles three times and out the other day. He got in below the shute and needed help very soon after. His comrades were near and fished him out.”

The loggers were known for their bottle tipping. One newspaper description from The Lowell Journal from May 15, 1878 states, “The logs are floating swiftly by and the log runners are not all pilgrim strangers to the little brown jug” The last log run down the Flat River happened in 1892. The logging men were part of a short period of history but left their mark. Their stories remain; we see their boot marks in the Logger’s Hotel floor and their deadheads in the river. The greatest reminders though of the logging days are the many structures standing today, not only in Lowell, but in Chicago and the western states.

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