Use the smaller-sized text Use the larger-sized text Use the very large text

Logging and Forest Products

The 19th-century logging industry reshaped the landscape of central and northern Wisconsin, provided a livelihood for thousands of workers, and formed the roots of today's thriving paper industry. By the late nineteenth century, Wisconsin was one of the premier lumber producing states in the U.S., and from 1890 to 1910 forest products led Wisconsin's developing industrial economy.

Despite its obvious potential, logging was only a minor activity for the first white settlers, who actually brought lumber with them from the East at great expense. Throughout most of the 1830s, logging was carried out on a small scale around Prairie du Chien, Portage, and Green Bay, but after 1836, when the Menominees were forced to cede much of central and eastern Wisconsin to the U.S., white settlers began to actively develop the lumber industry. Although facing obstacles such as long distances from supplies and markets, limited transportation, and unimproved waterways and roads, the lumber industry grew steadily to form the backbone of the state's economy by the middle of the century.

Because of its greater accessibility to early settlements, forests along the Wisconsin River were the first to fall before the lumberjack's ax on a large scale. Rivers provided a convenient way to transport pine logs from the forests to the mills. The mills then used the same rivers to power water wheels and huge saws that cut the logs into boards. Entire cities such as Stevens Point and Wausau grew up around these mills as general stores, banks, grocers, and other businesses opened to support growing populations of loggers and mill workers. Most of the major cities in central and northern Wisconsin were consequently built on rivers.

The region around the Wolf River in northeastern Wisconsin was another major lumbering district by the late 1840s. Because the river ran through the center of their reservation, the Menominee developed a successful logging business in the mid-nineteenth century. Menominee men stayed in lumber camps all winter cutting timber and hauling it by sleigh to the riverbank, so it could be floated downstream when the ice broke in the spring.

The watersheds of the Black and Chippewa Rivers in the northwest constituted a third major lumbering region in Wisconsin. Dozens of small independent companies there gradually combined into a conglomerate led by Frederick Weyerhaeuser that shipped logs and boards down river to St. Louis, creating towns such as Eau Claire and Black River Falls in the process. Enough pine was harvested from the Black River Valley alone to build a boardwalk nine feet wide and four inches thick around the entire world.

Railroads transformed Wisconsin's lumber industry in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. Transporting lumber by train allowed loggers to work year-round and to cut lumber that had previously been impossible to float down rivers. Lumber camps could be moved deeper into the woods, which caused them to increase in size to meet the needs of the men. Bunkhouses, a kitchen and dining hall, a company store, a blacksmith, and a carpentry shop became typical features of lumber camps.

The soft pine forests of northern and central Wisconsin provided a seemingly endless supply of raw material to urban markets. Products manufactured from Wisconsin trees included doors, window sashes, furniture, beams, and shipping boxes built in lakefront industrial cities such as Sheboygan, Manitowoc, and Milwaukee. Much of the lumber was also used to construct housing and other buildings for booming population centers of the Midwest. The forest trees of 19th-century Wisconsin still surround us, transformed into the houses, schools, and churches in older neighborhoods from St. Louis to Superior.

Lumbering had a permanent effect on Wisconsin's economy. The location of mills led to the growth of cities and towns and influenced the routes followed by railroads. Thousands of workers were employed in cutting trees, hauling and transporting logs, cutting logs into lumber, and shipping boards to markets. The industry was essential to the economic well-being not just of urban "lumber barons" but also of the Menominee, who used capital from log drives on the Wolf River to develop a sawmill that provided jobs and income for many decades.

At the start of the twentieth century, the fate of the lumber industry in Wisconsin was uncertain. Earlier logging operations had gone into forests to select only the most suitable and profitable timber, but new methods completely cleared forests of almost all useable trees, even revisiting areas already cut over. The demands of the state's furniture, paper, and tanning industries led to an increase in the harvesting of hardwoods, which had been spared when the industry had earlier focused on pine reserves. Moreover, the virgin forests of the Pacific Northwest drew the capital of large lumber corporations away from Wisconsin in the early twentieth century.

As logging declined, northern Wisconsin's lands were increasingly promoted for agricultural use by logging companies seeking to sell their land and towns hoping to halt the exodus of people from the region. New waves of immigrants, mostly from northern Europe, attempted to turn acres of pine stumps into family farms with little success. Some towns survived as retail and distribution centers, or as centers of paper manufacturing as mills shifted from the production of lumber. But many northern towns simply shrank into small rural communities that struggled to cope with the Great Depression. Not until the forests recovered their growth and the tourist industry boomed after World War II would the economy of the Northwoods revive.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol 2 and 3 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Nesbit, Robert C. Wisconsin: A History. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: The development of the lumber industry in Western Wisconsin  The development of the lumber industry in Western Wisconsin
Link to article: More than 100 articles on logging and the lumber industry  More than 100 articles on logging and the lumber industry
Link to article: Recollections of logging the Chippewa Valley, 1844-1916.  Recollections of logging the Chippewa Valley, 1844-1916.
Link to article: An 1886 visit to the Menominee community of Keshena  An 1886 visit to the Menominee community of Keshena
Link to article: A Made-to-Order Farm to lure settlers northward, 1921  A Made-to-Order Farm to lure settlers northward, 1921
Link to article: Recollections of Old Superior  Recollections of Old Superior
Link to article: Lumberjack tales of Paul Bunyan  Lumberjack tales of Paul Bunyan
Link to article: Peshtigo's priest recalls surviving the fire  Peshtigo's priest recalls surviving the fire
Link to article: Community-building in the northern forest in the 1880s.  Community-building in the northern forest in the 1880s.
Link to article: A lumberjack recalls an 1898 forest fire  A lumberjack recalls an 1898 forest fire
Link to article: A rafting trip down the Wisconsin River in 1868  A rafting trip down the Wisconsin River in 1868
Link to article: Rafting lumber down the Wisconsin River in 1849  Rafting lumber down the Wisconsin River in 1849
Link to article: Peshtigo residents look back, 50 years after the Great Fire  Peshtigo residents look back, 50 years after the Great Fire
Link to article: A lumberjack describes living conditions in lumber camps in the 1850s  A lumberjack describes living conditions in lumber camps in the 1850s
Link to artifacts: A mid-1800s birchbark maple sugar container  A mid-1800s birchbark maple sugar container
Link to book: The wild animals of Paul Bunyan's Northwoods  The wild animals of Paul Bunyan's Northwoods
Link to book: Wisconsin's earliest forest conservation plea, 1867  Wisconsin's earliest forest conservation plea, 1867
Link to book: Proceedings of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin (1996-2006)  Proceedings of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin (1996-2006)
Link to book: A guide to the Great Lakes lumber industry, 1886  A guide to the Great Lakes lumber industry, 1886
Link to book: Proceedings of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin (1986-1995)  Proceedings of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin (1986-1995)
Link to book: The marvelous exploits of Paul Bunyan  The marvelous exploits of Paul Bunyan
Link to book: Report on the Menominee at Termination, 1958  Report on the Menominee at Termination, 1958
Link to book: Memoirs of an Interpreter among the Ojibwe, 1840-1900  Memoirs of an Interpreter among the Ojibwe, 1840-1900
Link to book: Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown  Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown
Link to book: A Guide to CCC Camps in Wisconsin, 1937  A Guide to CCC Camps in Wisconsin, 1937
Link to book: Descriptions of Wisconsin disasters and catastrophes, 1848-1948  Descriptions of Wisconsin disasters and catastrophes, 1848-1948
Link to book: The history and traditions of the Chippewa Valley  The history and traditions of the Chippewa Valley
Link to book: Stockbridge and Munsee Testimony, 1892  Stockbridge and Munsee Testimony, 1892
Link to book: Proceedings of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin (1976-1985)  Proceedings of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin (1976-1985)
Link to book: An 1875 history of the Chippewa Valley  An 1875 history of the Chippewa Valley
Link to images: Pictures of the cutover lands in northern Wisconsin  Pictures of the cutover lands in northern Wisconsin
Link to images: An advertisement tries to attract settlers to the cutover region.  An advertisement tries to attract settlers to the cutover region.
Link to images: Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868  Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868
Link to images: Prairie du Chien merchant and judge James H. Lockwood, 1856.  Prairie du Chien merchant and judge James H. Lockwood, 1856.
Link to images: Life in the logging camps, as shown in historic photographs.  Life in the logging camps, as shown in historic photographs.
Link to manuscript: The lumber company makes its case against Deitz, 1906  The lumber company makes its case against Deitz, 1906
Link to manuscript: John Deitz makes his case, 1906  John Deitz makes his case, 1906
Link to places: "The Island of Happy Days" in Cedar Lake  "The Island of Happy Days" in Cedar Lake
Link to places: Lumber riches fund a Menomonie theater  Lumber riches fund a Menomonie theater
Link to places: A model community takes shape in the cutover  A model community takes shape in the cutover
Link to places: Paine Lumber Company in Oshkosh  Paine Lumber Company in Oshkosh
Link to places: Four-star accommodations in 19th century Sheboygan County  Four-star accommodations in 19th century Sheboygan County
Link to places: Forest Lodge in Namekagon  Forest Lodge in Namekagon

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: The Earliest Paul Bunyan Stories  The Earliest Paul Bunyan Stories
Link to book: Early Days in the Chippewa Valley.  Early Days in the Chippewa Valley.
Link to book: A Republican politician describes changes in government regulating powers  A Republican politician describes changes in government regulating powers
Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to book: Recollections of a Republican politician, 1915  Recollections of a Republican politician, 1915
Link to book: Early Lumbering on the Chippewa by Bruno Vinette  Early Lumbering on the Chippewa by Bruno Vinette

Related Links

Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights
The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 web site
A history of industrial development in Wisconsin
Arrange a tour on this topic at our Museum
A historian looks at 100 years of Wisconsin forestry
Learn about and purchase a book on Wisconsin's famous and historic trees

  • Questions about this page? Email us
  • Email this page to a friend
select text size Use the smaller-sized textUse the larger-sized textUse the very large text