Want to talk like an old-time logger? Part II

If you read the original article regarding the recipe for jargon/vocabulary development in the old-time logging camps….you will recall that the recipe was:

Start with a mixture of immigrants from around the globe — some experienced loggers and others new to the forest. Mix in miles of forest filled with several-hundred-year-old trees that stood 200 feet tall. Add in steep hills, fast-flowing rivers and streams plus ponds filled with 40- to 50-foot-long logs. Then stir in sharp instruments, wires and cables, explosives and horses, mules and oxen.

Then if you really want to make something spicy, add a fire-spitting steam engine that sends sparks out into a tinderbox of pine needles and cones, sawdust and other combustible material.

Take all of these ingredients and then sequester this mixture for months at a time away from civilization. Let it simmer and then add in a few liquor and tobacco products occasionally for good measure.

In this Part II examination of old-time logging vocabulary, I am going to add one more ingredient: words derived from Native Americans (Chinook tribe) who traveled, lived and worked along the coastal waters of the Northwest and up the tributaries.

Let’s see how much you know about the terminology regarding trees or logs:

Muley: A log or piece of wood that is hard to work with.

Lodged or hung tree: A tree that is caught up in another tree, as it begins to fall after being cut.

Deck: A stack of logs waiting to be loaded.

A cold deck

Cold deck: A stack of logs left over from last year. These stacks or piles were notoriously unstable and dangerous to work on or around.

OK, let’s see how many of these logging equipment terms you know:

Go – devil: Dependent upon the region you were working in, a Go-devil referred to a heavy maul for splitting wood or a sled used to lift up the front end of a fallen tree.

Go – devil sled being placed under a fallen log. (Photo courtesy Port Gamble Historical Museum)

Branding Ax: A tool used to mark ownership of a log. First a spot was cleared away on the log using the ax part of the tool. Then the hammer part, on the other end of the ax, was used to strike the log in that spot. A raised die on the end of the hammer created a stamp marking the ownership of the log.

Snubber: A device attached to the front end of a sled for braking sleds as they descended down steep hills.

Corks or caulks or calks: Sharp spikes on the bottom of shoes or boots used to help loggers walk on logs or climb trees. The etymology of the various spellings goes back the 1600s with the word “calk,” meaning: a cleat on the shoe of a horse to prevent slipping; also: a similar device worn on the sole of a shoe.

Logger repairing corks/calks on logging boots. (Photo courtesy University of Idaho Digital Collections)

Choker: A chain or cable that went around a log to lift it up or to drag it along a skid road. Attaching or “setting” chokers was an extremely dangerous job, leading to the deaths or dismemberment of a large number of loggers.

A choker cable being used to lift a heavy log.
(Photo courtesy University of Washington Library/Digital Collections)

Hayburner: A horse or donkey.

Cayose: A horse (Chinook tribal word)

Springboard: Planks that were used in old-time logging to get above the tree’s buttress. The base or buttress of the huge trees was filled with sap and was almost impossible to cut through.

Springboards in use. (Photo courtesy University of Washington Library Digital Collections)

OK — how about some descriptive job titles?

Bull of the woods: The person in charge of a logging operation.

Sawyer: A person on the logging crew who cleans out the underbrush so that the rest of the crew has better access to the trees. This person’s job was primarily one of cutting down the low-growing vegetation beneath and around the trees.

Swamper: A person whose job is to move the cut debris out of the way of the loggers. Typically, crews had a five-to-one ratio of swamper to sawyers.

Note: Both swamper and sawyer are still terms used on firefighting crews today.

High rigger: A logger who specializes in climbing trees, cutting limbs off as they climb, and then topping the tree.

High rigger at work. (Photo courtesy Port Gamble Historical Museum)

Knot bumper: A person who was responsible for removing large external knots from fallen trees, so they could be loaded easier.

De-knotted tree on skidroad. (Photo courtesy Port Ludlow Historical Museum)

Bull cook or crumb buster: Typically a boy who did chores around the camp including sweeping out the bunkhouses, feeding the animals and chopping wood.

Hashers: Cookhouse servers. Typically they were women…also called “queens.”

Finally, some miscellaneous words and phrases:

Potlatch: Party, celebration or feast (Chinook term)

Jack: A man.

Hijack: Derived from the greeting/command of bandits to a man, “Hi, Jack…stick them up.” The original use of the phrase is unknown.  Some texts say that it originated in prohibition days. Others say its origin was earlier, when robbers stole from people after saying “Hi, Jack.” Jack was a term often used in the early logging days in reference to a man, and robbery was a common occurrence.

Tin pants: Waterproof rain gear worn by loggers in the northwest.

Stump house or stump barn: A house or barn cut out of the buttress of a large tree. In the rainy and cold Northwest forests, large stumps were often hollowed out to provide shelter for the loggers and animals.

Stump house and stump barn near Fort Lawton circa 1900. (Photos courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

Jailbird: A logger who cut across property lines.

Tillicum: Friend (Chinook tribal word).

Sougan: A heavy woolen blanket. Loggers had to provide their own bedding and blankets.

Falling off a log. (Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society)

As easy as falling off a log: An easy task to do. If you have ever tried to walk on a log suspended in the air or floating in the water, you know how difficult a task it can be. However, falling off a log is definitely an easy thing to do.

Packing a card: A phrase used to identify a logger who was a union member. There were many labor disputes between the loggers who performed the dangerous logging work and the logging company’s management and owners. Union members were also known as “Wobblies.”

Pie-in-the-sky: Terminology used by the “Wobblies” to describe benefits promised by the owner.

As referenced in the first article — Want to talk like an old-time logger? — I became interested in this topic while working as a first responder on the 2022 Bolt Creek wildfire that burned above Index and Skykomish last fall. I hope that you found the two parts both entertaining and educational.

— This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes. Thanks to the University of Washington’s Digital Collections, The University of Idaho’s Digital Collection, The University of Wisconsin’s Digital Collection, Port Gamble Historical Museum, Edmonds Historical Museum and several old time loggers for their assistance in verifying and clarifying some of the terms and phrases.

  1. Many of these terms are very familiar to me. My father in law, who is now 91, was a logger as a young man, as were all his brothers. All at Camp Grisdal, in the Olympic National Forest.

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