The Donkey Steam Engine, Part Two – The Loggers Best Friend

The Donkey Steam Engine, Part Two – The Loggers Best Friend

The logging industry was pushed to the limit in 1881 by the exploding demand for lumber. The forests in Maine were logged out and had been abandoned. As timber in the Great Lakes region was becoming depleted, and as the logging companies moved west, the guys in the forest were pushed harder and harder for more, more, and more; the industry struggled to keep up.

As so often happens throughout history, about the time a machine is greatly needed it, someone invents it. When the logging industry was desperately trying to dramatically increase production, along came an invention that revolutionized that industry. That invention was the Donkey Steam Engine – a steam-powered mechanical winch developed by John Dolbeer in 1881. That year was generally declared as the beginning of technological change in the industry. This machine was both the loggers best friend and his deadly enemy if he wasn’t constantly on guard. As one logger said, “There’s lots of hard work out there but if you don’t look out it’ll kill ya.”

John was a founding partner of the Dolbeer and Carson Lumber Company in Eureka, California. Eureka is a town in Humboldt County about 100 miles from the California-Oregon border and is a huge logging and lumbering area.

Dolbeer received patent number 256553 for the Donkey Steam Engine on April 18, 1882. By comparison, to date 7.5 million patents have been issued in the United States. As a point of interest, the current patent numbering system began with a patent #1 issued on July 13, 1836. No information is available about that patent but prior to that date, about 10,000 patents had been issued.

The Steam Donkeys actually acquired their name from their origin in sailing ships, where the “donkey” engine was typically a small secondary engine used to load and unload cargo, raise the larger sails with small crews, or to power pumps. Dolbeer had been a naval engineer before turning to logging which undoubtedly led to his choice of the name for his invention. It is also said that loggers gave it that humble name because the original model looked too puny to be rated in horsepower. Donkey power doesn’t have quite the image of a powerful engine, but as you will see, a Donkey Steam Engine could readily snatch a giant log out of the forest.

This wonderful engine was essentially a collection of mechanical components starting with a wood-fired steam boiler. The boiler supplied steam at anywhere from 100 to 200 PSI to a one cylinder engine that transmitted power through a connecting rod to a crank shaft on which was mounted a flywheel with some sort of brake mechanism. A lever operated clutch configuration controlled a complex of reduction gears and drive wheels that drove a winch. The winch could be either a large pulley with a horizontal shaft or a drum, or a capstan, mounted on a vertical shaft.

The Donkey Engines came in an endless variety of configurations of steam, gas, diesel, or electric power plants plus drums to hold wire rope. They had one thing in common; all were used to haul logs from the woods, load them at landings, move equipment, rig up trees, and to lower or raise wagons up and down inclines. But, the vast majority were steam-powered and most were built in the Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, area. Hard to imagine now but a hundred and fifty years ago Seattle was basically a logging town, as was Vancouver, British Columbia.

In the simplest setup, a “line horse” would drag a cable out to a log in the woods. The cable would be attached, and, on a signal from the whistle on the engine, the Donkey’s operator would open the steam valve on the boiler and engage the clutch, allowing the transmission mechanism to rotate the drum. As the cable was wound around the drum, the log was dragged to the Donkey. The log was then taken either to a mill or to a “landing” where it would be transferred for onward shipment by rail, road or river; either loaded onto boats or floated downstream directly in the water. The layout of a logging operation was no small task as terrain and river characteristics had to be carefully considered and were crucial to the successful movement of these giant logs.

The Donkey operation had a lingo all its own. There are hundreds of terms that are unique to this activity and are much too numerous to mention all of them here. The significant titles are described here.

Operating an early Donkey required the services of a minimum of three men, a boy and a horse. One man, the Choker-Setter, attached the line to a log; an engineer or Donkey Puncher, tended the steam engine; and a Spool Tender guided the whirring line over the spool with a short stick. An occasional neophyte tried using his foot instead of a stick. When he was back from the hospital, he would use his new wooden leg instead. The boy, called a Whistle Punk, manned a communicating wire running from the Choker Setter’s position out among the logs back to the steam whistle on the engine. It was said that one could tell a Whistle Punk by his style of blowing the whistles.

When the Choker Setter had secured the line running from the spool, the Whistle Punk tugged his whistle wire as a signal to the engineer that the log was ready to be hauled in. As soon as one log was in, or “yarded,” it was detached from the line. The horse then hauled the line from the Donkey Engine back to the waiting Choker Setter and the next log. Later a “haulback” drum was added, where a smaller cable could be routed around the “setting” and connected to the end of the heavier “mainline” to replace the line horse.

A more typical Donkey crew consisted of nine or ten men: a Water Tender (the water tank had to be replenished as the steam was fed to and exhausted from the engine), the Donkey Puncher, one or two Spool Tenders, two Choker Setters, two Timber Fallers (they were never called “Fellers”), a Haulback Horseman, and of course the Whistle Punk. There could be more than one Donkey Engine and crew deployed in a large timber tract so you can imagine the furious activity to get those logs to the mill. One engine might haul the logs down to the next engine, depending on the terrain and so on. These were not jobs for the faint of heart. No wimps allowed.

One might ask how could these big, heavy devices be transported around the forest over very rough and uneven terrain? They were actually kind of self-propelled. Since the engine and associated equipment were mounted on heavy skids, and since it was used for pulling, the free end of the cable was tied to a distant tree, the other end was wrapped around the winch on the engine, the gears engaged, and the whole assembly pulled itself into position over hill and dale.

When in the final position, the Donkey was lashed to the nearby trees to secure the apparatus and keep it from being pulled to the logs. That would be just the reverse of the desired effect. After all, the Donkey was mounted on skids so that it would easily slide around in the forest. As Sir Isaac Newton once said, probably more than once, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction!” That reaction had to be constrained, in this case by cables.

Once an area was logged out, the Donkey had to be moved to the next grove of trees to be cut. The hold-down cables would be removed, the pull cable attached to a distant tree, stump or other strong anchor and the machine would drag itself overland to the next location. This was very much like the winch on the front end of a jeep pulling itself out of creek or canyon or up a mountain.

Twenty-six different types of Steam Donkeys were built in the Pacific Northwest by one firm alone. In 1913, one company built 51 donkeys in a 49-day period, all sold before they left the plant to fill rush orders.

Donkey Engines kept getting bigger and bigger. There were two drum and three drum Donkeys able to haul in logs from the woods over high wires, Donkeys that loaded logs on railroad cars, and landing Donkeys that pulled logs to river or lake landings. This was big business back in those days in support of the great logging industry. In the later years of the Donkey era, some were of enormous size. For example, one was so large it had to be mounted on two railroad cars. I doubt this one was dragged around much in the forest.

In The Loggers, Chapter 3, Taming The Virgin Forest, a turn-of-the-century author, Ralph D. Paine, happened upon a logging operation in the Western Cascades and was filled with both admiration and terror at what he witnessed. He described the scene: “Stout guy ropes ran to nearby trees, mooring the Donkey as if it were an unruly kind of beast. In front of the engine was a series of drums, wound round with wire cable, which trailed off into the forest and vanished. The area was littered with windfalls, tall butts, sawed-off tops and branches, upturned roots, 15 feet in the air. Huge logs loomed amid this woodland wreckage like the backs of a school of whales in the sea.”

Paine noticed a long signal wire that led away from the engine’s whistle off into the woods. When an unseen person yanked this wire the Donkey screamed a series of intelligent blasts that could only be some sort of code. The engine clattered, the drums began to revolve and the wire cable grew taut. The Donkey surged against its mooring; its massive body began to rear and pitch as if striving to bury its nose in the earth.

He was then startled by an uproar out in the forest sounding as if trees were being pulled up by the roots. In a moment a log came hurtling out of the underbrush nearly 1,000 feet away. It burst into sight as if it had wings, smashing and tearing its own path… so fast that when it came to a stump, it pitched over it as if it were taking a hurdle. Then it became entangled with another giant a log. The two, as one, did not even hesitate, and both came lunging toward the engine.

He said it is an awesome sight to see a log six feet through and 40 feet long bounding toward you as if the devil were in it, breaking off trees as if they were twigs, leaping over obstacles, gouging a way for itself.

When the gigantic log was within 20 feet of the loading platform where he stood, Paine panicked and ran, but then he said, “the huge missile halted in its flight and the masterful Donkey had a breathing spell.”

Old timers love these old engines and enjoy restoring and demonstrating their capability in museums and parks. Just the mention of a Donkey Steam Engine will cause an old logger, or a young history buff, to stare off into the woods and remember, perhaps with a tear in their eye, the sight and sound of one of these great steam-powered engines dragging giant logs out of the forest to be transformed into lumber for building the West. San Francisco had to be rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, which represented a huge increase in the demand for lumber.

The sounds they made as they performed their duty — chug, clang, bang, whirr, hiss, tweet – were music to the ears of mechanical engineers and mechanics alike. There is nothing like the clickety, clickety, clickety of a big spur gear pinion driving a giant bull gear round and round and round as the pull cable hauls in a log.

As a mechanical engineer, I have been enthralled by watching these great old machines perform, kind of like a musician standing in front of a symphony orchestra and listening to a great composition.

The Donkey was unique in so many ways, even in terms of its own sounds. How many know what a Steam Donkey sounds like? Even among steam railroad fans, few are familiar with the powerful sound of hot, dry steam powering a 12 x 14 yarder pulling at high-speed. It is unlike any other. The power, the speed, the vibration, and the smell were all a part of it. Memories of those days are of a time of glamour, accomplishment, humor and hard work, in spite of men facing danger, pain, and sometimes death.

Now, you might ask, “How could a guy get all choked up about a dilapidated and rusty old contraption?” Well, to an old logger, mechanic, or mountain man, that several ton pile of wonderful stuff evokes memories of a bygone era, the heyday of logging in the West. I would describe them as “Steam Junkies” or “Gear Heads.” It is definitely a “guy” thing. Donkeys are, in fact, a link to the “glory days of logging.” Those who worked the “big woods” around the steamers speak of a time, now gone forever, with reverent nostalgia. There is a certain romance, if you can call it that, associated with Donkey Steam Engines.

In his book, In Search Of Steam Donkeys, Merv Johnson reminisces about his father, Lee Johnson, “warming toast over the firebox extension. I remember Lee steam cleaning his overalls with his home-made washing machine connected to a Donkey. I remember riding in a ’41 Chevy pickup between the shoulders of two loggers who were reminiscing about the old days. Both of them had spent most of their lives on and around Donkeys. Their vivid descriptions of how yarders sounded with 225 lb. of steam in a hard pull, how the firebox door used to puff after a turn of logs came in, brought tears to my eyes that day.”

Just standing next to a wonderfully restored Donkey Steam Engine listening to the signal whistle, the steam rushing in and out of the piston, the connecting rod moving up and down, the flywheel spinning, big old gears meshing and the pulleys rotating is an emotional experience – especially to those who have lovingly restored the beast.

There is the well-known saying about boys and their toys; well this is about dudes and their Donkeys.

Unfortunately, of the thousands that were built during the age of steam, only a handful remain and few are anywhere near operating condition. How could these machines have disappeared so fast? Why have the traces been almost totally erased? These steamers were central to the character of mechanized logging of the time. Each machine had its own personality, its own idiosyncrasies, unlike today. Today, the machine operator climbs into an enclosed cab, pushes an electric starter button and controls the apparatus effortlessly with a joystick, not unlike that found on a video game.

Though a few Donkeys have been preserved in museums, very few are in operating condition today. The Petry Donkey Steam Engine at the Central Sierra Historical Society Museum at Shaver Lake, California is an exception. It was discovered in 1993 Southeast of Shaver Lake on the side of a mountain by Patrick Emmert, nephew of the owner of Pine Logging Company in Dinkey Creek. Pine Logging was in operation from 1937 to 1979 and was the last lumber mill operating in the Sierra National Forest

Patrick had studied the history of sawmills in the area and followed up on a rumor that it was out there at the old Petry Sawmill site where it had rested since being abandoned in 1912. It was just a rusty pile of metal when Patrick found it – a mill fire in 1947 incinerated all the wood parts of the support structure and many of the small mechanical components were gone. Mill fires were quite common in those days and many mills had to be rebuilt several times. But, Patrick recognized that this was a treasure after all.

OK, he found it – now what? How do you remove a rusty old pile of steel (treasure) covered with many years of forest growth that weighs several tons from its hiding spot deep in the woods? As luck would have it, a helicopter company was operating on a salvage timber sale in the area and agreed to airlift the Donkey to a flat piece of land that Patrick owned nearby. It took only 5 minutes to fly it out. Imagine how long it took originally to drag that engine out to the forest work site. From there it was hauled by flatbed truck down the mountain to a shop in Tollhouse, California for the extensive restoration. Missing parts had to be replaced which were acquired from many sources in the old logging areas of California and from current catalogs for steam equipment. There are numerous steam engine enthusiasts out there.

Rebuilding this engine took a lot of TLC and five years of hard work, but when completed in 1998 the gang held a “steam up” party to celebrate. The engine was mounted on a lowbed trailer and was transported to various logging jamborees. When the Central Sierra Historical Society Museum at Shaver Lake was completed in 2007, this labor of love was donated to the museum where it is now on prominent and permanent display – with its own protective roof. The finished product weighs approximately 3 tons, including the heavy-duty timber skids.

Patrick also discovered a Donkey Engine boiler from a Sierra sawmill in 1994 in the front yard of a home in Clovis, California. The missing parts were acquired from various sources all over the West and it was also restored at the same shop in Tollhouse. It is now mounted on a trailer to be hauled to functions that desire a Donkey demo. These engines have been lovingly and painstakingly restored to near perfect operating condition by a crew of dedicated Donkey docents.

Six times a year, Memorial Day, Labor Day and for other celebrations, they (the Donkeys and the docents) are put through their paces at the museum for the enjoyment of young and old alike, to demonstrate the technique of hauling a log out of the woods. And, you can blow the steam whistles to your heart’s content. If you are musically inclined, you can even play a tune on the whistles. People come from far and wide to participate in these nostalgic events.

So, if you are inclined to take part in the fun-filled “Steam Up” festivities with the Donkey dudes, come on up.