The present day town of Elsie is little more than a small clutch of buildings surrounded by a majestic forest of towering Douglas fir and cedar in northwest Oregon. What gives it honorable mention in my travel journal and photo log is an adjacent tourist attraction known as “Camp 18”, a veritable treasure trove of lumbering history, lovingly assembled over a period of years from old timber camps all over the Northwest by a handful of motivated history buffs dedicated to outfitting and preserving an open-air “museum” recalling an industry and a way of life long departed.
“Camp 18” strikes a familial chord for me, since my own father – also long departed – grew up in just such a working environment in the years bridging the 19th and 20th centuries and preceding World War I which took him out of the tall timber he loved. Even before he was old enough to draw a pay check from the logging companies of the day, he and his twin brother spent their boyhood summers cutting cedar shakes while living “hardscrabble” in a trapper’s cabin deep in the still-primal forests of Washington. I grew up listening to his stories of timber camp life, log jams and train wrecks, where his world was made up of “tree-toppers”, “whistle punks”, mule “skidders” and “river pigs”. By the time I and my three brothers were 9 or 10, we each had our own axe – which we were expected to keep sharp and free of dings – and knew how to hold down one end of a two-man cross cut saw. Once we were ensconced on our own heavily-wooded country place, we also learned how to build a “corduroy” road of split limbs to facilitate the skidding of logs from the hillside to the roadside, a construct known in old loggers’ terms as a “skid row”. (By happenstance, just such a name was given to an early street in Seattle in honor of its origins but as the class of inhabitants on that thoroughfare went downhill over the years, the denomination “skid row” took on a far different meaning.)
At the center of the Camp 18 complex stands a 180-foot tall rigging “spar” which immediately calls to mind my father’s deep respect reserved for the “toppers” of his day; a special breed of lumber jacks whose job it was to climb tall trees, trimming off all the branches as they ascended, finally – and courageously – cutting off the very top of the tree as they stood in their climbing stirrups hoping they would not fall with it. The “spar” would then become the derrick and anchor for the hoisting, dragging and loading of logs skidded to within its reach.
Thinking of all this, I am not convinced that the fact that I live in a home built by hand from squared-off cedar logs harvested from America’s great Northwest is entirely a matter of coincidence.
Photo No. 1 By the time this photo was made in 1905, more than 500,000 men were tied to a culture which both emphasized masculinity and resisted modernization. (Oregon Historical Society)
Photo No. 2 At the center of “Camp 18” and the activities which once took place around it, a hand-trimmed-and-topped spar reaches 180 feet into the Oregon sky. (Al Cooper)
Photo No. 3 In the years before gasoline and diesel engines, and long before chain saws revolutionized the logging industry, “Steam Donkeys” such as this one at Camp “18” were an important source of power. This one, built on skids, could be moved from place to place. (Al Cooper)
Photo No. 4 Whether to feed thirsty “Steam Donkeys” or even locomotives at the end of a rail spur, large quantities of water had to be stored in laboriously-filled gravity-flow reservoirs such as this one. (Al Cooper)
Photo No. 5 With hand-cut notches still intact, an old tool shed/shelter still stands at “Camp 18”.