Photos Courtesy of A Taste of History
Before there were farmers or resorts in northern Minnesota, there were loggers. In a world where almost everything was made of wood, there was a substantial demand for lumber. Most of the large trees east of the Mississippi River had been cut down and now the logging companies moved west.
Many logging barons made vast fortunes as they moved west on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Though the work was hard and the hours long, they had no trouble finding men to meet the task of cutting down large crops of trees. Men from all over the nation traveled to the cutting to join a life of nomads, traveling from state to state following the cutting of the nation’s forests. They took pride in the work, bragging about how many board feet they had cut, talking about how hard they had worked, how cold it had been, and then heading into town to the nearest saloon to spend some of their hard earned payroll.
Once all the timber had been cut in an area, they would move farther west and the work would start all over again. But the logging camps needed more than just lumberjacks. Cooks, dishwashers, horse wranglers, clerks, and teamsters were needed to ensure that the job of getting the logs out of the woods did not slow down in efficiency. Food was also needed, sometimes brought to the cooks by the locals in the form of either fish or animals hunted in the nearby woods.
Teamsters were needed to go back to civilization to bring in supplies and mail. Some worked for the company, but some were independent contractors. After the loggers had left an area the independent teamster kept working his team by bringing in supplies to the settlers and delivering mail to the newly founded communities.
The story of the loggers began as soon as the first settler landed on the shores of America. At first they cut the forests to build the homes and to clear the land for their crops, as the new land on the east coast was mostly forest. (It has been said that a squirrel climbing up a tree on the east coast could travel to the Mississippi River without touching the ground.) Then in the New England area, near the ocean, the tall trees were cut down to make the large sailing ships. Exporting lumber for ships was a profitable business as Europe was in much need to build up their navies.
Logging in Minnesota started after the prime trees in the east were cut down. Northern Minnesota had the tall pines that the large sawmills wanted, but there was a problem of getting the logs to the sawmills.
Crosslake, Minnesota, was chosen as an ideal area that would meet the logging barons’ needs. It was located on a large lake that emptied into the Pine River, which entered the Mississippi River on the way to a large sawmill in Brainerd. To get the logs to Crosslake the logging company built a railroad that moved north to Longville. Smaller spurs were built that would bring the logs to the main rail and proceeded down to the east side of Crosslake.
The Crosslake camp had a cookhouse, bunkhouse, office, dance hall, store, a post office and also a blacksmith shop. Over one hundred men would sit down to the meals in the mess hall.
Winter was the best time to cut down trees. Many men were needed to get the logs to Brainerd. A lumberjack would cut down the trees; another man would haul the logs out of the woods. Then men were needed to put the logs on the railroad cars. From there the logs made their way to the waterways in Crosslake.
Logs had to be marked to indicate which logging camp owned the logs. Loggers were needed to move the logs down the river in the spring. They made their way to Brainerd where three to four hundred men worked at the sawmill 24-7.
The logging camp in Crosslake was in the area of the Crosslake Fire Hall. The large Brainerd sawmill was located in northeast Brainerd in the area of the paper mill and on Rice Lake.
As farmers moved into northern Minnesota they realized that the soil was good for growing towering pines but not very conducive for raising good crops. Many farmers would leave their families and travel to the logging camps to make extra income in the winter. Some farmers located by roadways would sometimes take in travelers to make extra money.
Around 1910 the loggers moved out to Montana after clearing out all the virgin pines in northern Minnesota. Towns that used to have a good number of saloons and hotels for the loggers are today resort communities.
For more information on logging in Crosslake see: A Taste of History compiled by the Crosslake Area Historical Society. The book can be obtained at the Crosslake Area Historical Village.
Information on the Brainerd saw mill can be found in A Brief History of Early Northeast Brainerd by Ann M. Nelson of the Crow Wing Historical Society.