Step back to the days when lumber was king

ESCANABA – Step back about 100 years in time.

But watch out for the mud puddles and the horse apples.

Steam and wood smoke temporarily blur your vision, and then the snow and ice come into view. The smell of sawdust spices the air. The sound of horses, the ringing of axes, train whistles, yells and yodels echo up and down the river.

The north woods were a busy place back around 1913. In the fresh new clearings of Upper Michigan, towns are bustling and growing. There’s work. The logging and mining, fishing and farming have folks anticipating happy days.

The snow has reached the cabin windows. Now the icicles hang down like swords on the cabin roof to meet the crusted snow.

Long underwear itches. Wet woolen clothes are heavy with a stale smell. Black creosote decorates all the chimneys, telling the story of a long, cold winter.

It’s late March by the banks of the Escanaba River. Snow fleas pepper the snow and an early robin sings his song.

There is a great excitement in the air. The flat rock, ice-covered river lets out a groan like a woman in childbirth.

Ice roads and skid ways, horse power and man power filled the river ice for miles with logs sawed, marked and ready to ride with the spring runoff to the mill.

In the heyday of Upper Michigan’s logging boom, melting ice and snow meant payday was coming in. After months in lumber camps, sawing, skidding and sleeping by the wood-stove, it was time to leave to wilderness.

Peavies, cant hooks and pike poles and courageous men known as river drivers helped steer the logs downstream. They battled ice, the rapids and cold water to break up log jams and keep the trees tumbling downstream.

Before the days of the dams and the highways, Isaac Stephenson owned the mouth of the Escanaba River and he put our town on the map as a producer of lumber.

Spring break-up meant a lot to people 100 years ago. It meant the first hot bath in months, delousing, a shave, new socks and the sounds of the city. To some lumberjacks, spring break-up and payday meant party time with alcohol and women.

To others, they were just happy to be home with the wife and babies. They were happy to survive another river break-up. It was time to sharpen tools and fix up around the house and farm.

The great logging days of the U.P. are over, but if you put on your boots and hike up along the river, you can almost hear the lumbermen of old. As the ice shoves and breaks, ghosts of the white pine and the river drivers appear in the moonlight.

In the icy waters, rusty axe blades and cant hooks can still be found as artifacts of the spring break-ups of yesterday.

Karen (Rose) Wills is a lifelong resident of north Escanaba. Her folksy columns are published each Friday in Lifestyles.