CLATSKANIE, Ore. — In the spring of 1996 my wife, Lois, and I were digging a ditch from the utility boxes in the corner of our newly-purchased lot in the wooded hills near Clatskanie, Ore. The previous November we had cleared part of the 2-and-1/3 acres of alder trees for our retirement home site.

About 20 feet in from the road we began to dig up a few rusted railroad spikes. Curious as to how they got there, we set them aside. After a couple of days of digging our neighbor to the south of us came over to introduce himself. He said he had lived there for 17 years. During the conversation we asked him about the railroad spikes.

“Oh, yes,” he replied, “just after the turn of the century a logging outfit came in here and logged off the area. They built a railroad to take out the logs.”

Then he paused and added, “The Mormons did it.”

“Really?” We were all ears.

“Yeah, there’s some guy in town knows all about it,” he went on. “Some kind of local historian.”

A few years later, I met Charles Morby, the local historian, on a home teaching visit with my son-in-law, Jim. It turns out that Morby was the son, grandson and nephew of some of the men who had worked in this logging operation, so he knew what he was talking about. He has since passed away.

I wanted to know more, so, over time I wrote letters and went to the local library. In my research I learned from the writings of Kate Carter, author of "Treasures of Pioneer History," about David Eccles, the man who began this logging venture.

The Eccles contribution

It turns out that wood was an important trade in the Eccles family. His father, William Eccles, brought his foot-powered wood lathe with him when the family immigrated from Scotland with the Mormon pioneers and settled in the Ogden, Utah, area.

In 1867, the Eccles family came to Oregon for two years. Somewhere between Scotland and Oregon, William had become blind. His son, David, at age 18, was the sole support of the family. He split cord wood for those two years and found himself seriously interested in the lumber business.

When the family returned to Utah, David became involved more deeply in logging and sawmill operations. Over time he also got into the sugar beet business in Utah and Idaho, and eventually into banking and local politics.

Oregon and the lumber industry

In 1889, David started the Oregon Lumber Company near Hood River, Ore., and other locations in Oregon and Washington. In 1902, he created the W. H. Eccles Lumber Company at Inglis, Ore., where he bought a tract of timber land. Inglis (a misspelling of Ingles) was located just a few miles to the northeast of Clatskanie. This Mormon logging community was named after John Ingles, a cousin to David. The only evidence of the community now is a green road sign that reads, “Inglis Road,” and the same name on a 1993 road map of the area.

Clatskanie was right in the middle of several large and small logging businesses as the whole of the Northwest was supplying lumber to the rest of the country, much of it on a newly completed rail line. Prior to that it was shipped by water up the Columbia River to Portland, or down the river by ship. Today, the Port of Longview, Wash. (across from Rainier, Ore.), ships out logs to a world market.

An article in the April 19, 2001, issue of the Clatskanie Chief tells of Morby’s efforts to track down the history of the Oregon Lumber Company. According to this article, the logs were brought from the hills to a mill located at Beaver Falls. From the mill, the lumber was hauled by wagon to Inglis where a planer mill finished the wood. From Inglis the lumber was shipped to Utah.

Backyard artifacts

Getting back to digging up rusty spikes: Over the years we have dug up several railroad artifacts, either by accident or on purpose. One winter while irrigating snow melt I struck the rusty head of a peavey, a tool for rolling logs. Another year while doing the same activity I struck a rail gauge, an iron bar used to set the crucial distance between rails.

Other artifacts we have found with a metal detector. By following what seemed to be the rail bed we would push a small stake into the ground for each metal reading, then go back later and dig in those spots, about 8 inches down, coming up with some item, including more spikes, sections of steel cable, a joining plate to hold sections of rail together and other odd metal pieces.

The neighbor who told us about the railroad had found actual rails on his property. They came from a ditch-like area where it was obvious the workers had to dig into a high spot to lay the road bed.

Behind our property and to the south are two rusty, steel log bins. They were used to hold logs until they could be hauled out.

Logging, then and now

The present owner of the forested land behind us came in our backyard one day this spring, introduced himself and told us he was checking the property markers and that he would be logging off all the alder on his 85 acres. This would be the third time the area had been logged since 1902. In the late 1970s, the fir forest had been logged and the prolific alder was left to fend for itself. It grew fast, thick and tall.

That’s how it was when we came. Even though we had cleared enough for a home site we found ourselves surrounded by that thick forest. Since the new owner came, we have enjoyed the activity of modern logging equipment and now are thrilled with an open view of the world to the east and the wonderful sun shining earlier in the day.

Speaking of equipment, if, as the saying goes, those old timers could see these new machines, they would surely be amazed. In their time trees were cut down by two men (sawyers) on each end of a crosscut saw. Once down, the limbs were removed by loggers with double-bitted, sharp axes. Then the trees would have to be sawed into sections to be snaked out of the woods by either oxen, mules or horses, or by a machine called a “donkey” and loaded onto flat rail cars.

The donkey was a very sturdy engine that literally skidded huge logs from the forest with heavy cables over a road of small logs laid down like railroad ties. Some of these huge logs could reach diameters of up to 18 feet.

These past few months we have watched as a feller-buncher (a machine that looks similar to a back-hoe on tracks) moves up to a tree and, with its two sets of high and low claws, hugs the tree while a saw blade cuts off the tree at the base. The operator then lays the tree down on a bunch of others, awaiting the skidder to come along and grapple as many logs as its claws will hold and drag them off to be sorted into either log diameters or smaller ones for the “chipper.”

The chipper feeds the trees (plus limbs and leaves) into blades that chip the wood and shoots it into a large, enclosed semi-truck called a “chip truck.” These chips will be used for making cardboard boxes.

For logs that are large enough to mill for lumber, they are run through a de-limber to remove the limbs and cut off the small ends, leaving them the right size for the log loader to place on the logging trucks.

5 comments on this story

All of the alder is gone, now, but, the owner will plant new conifers in the autumn when the rains are steady.

Logging has been of interest to me for, as a boy of 14, I worked with my dad and brothers in a logging operation in southern Idaho. Years later I worked in the Red Cloud forest north of Vernal, Utah, where I earned money for college at Brigham Young University.

Since Lois and I have lived here for 16 years, we have worked as a team keeping warm by working on our land. Someone has said, by cutting your own wood, you warm yourself twice: once at the cutting and once at the fireside. We enjoy our little home in the woods, but are also warmed by the knowledge that others of our faith walked and worked these woods long before we came.

Glenn Alma Butterfield is a husband, dad and grandfather and is a graduate of BYU and Russell Sage College. Email: gab@clatskanie.com