Steel Donkey Chases Oxen from Mountain

Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 3/1990

Environmentalism was a thing our earliest Mountain settlers neither envisioned, nor wanted. It is impossible to put ourselves in their shoes emotionally and mentally. There were no cries to save these redwoods. This world was before that which allowed John Muir to flourish. As we can’t recall a world without mass industrialism they couldn’t envision the industrial revolution soon to come. To them the idea of decimating the forests was absurd. There wasn’t the technology for it. And trees were an obstacle, an un-good. Yes, they were good as wood, if cut down. But standing they blocked sunlight and took space that was always best suited to corn or cows. Agriculture was always and everywhere the final end goal. Our entire western movement was tied to primitive technology cutting down forests, burning the slash and stumps–and planting. It was heritage. It was right.

It was felt stronger here because of the size of the trees relative to primitive pre-industrial revolution technology. Early logging and milling gear, such as it was, was hand-me-down technology from smaller eastern milling and was totally unsuited to our 12-20 foot diameter redwood monsters. As an example of this, originally they had to blast the logs apart with dynamite into segments small enough cut up with the puny three foot eastern saw blades. It took two to seven days just to fell one of our giants. Several more to “buck” it into maneuverable length logs. And maybe another day to get it down to the mill. Most mills, run by steam power, were along creek beds. Logs would be hitched to a team of six to ten oxen who would pull them downhill, led by the “bullwhacker“–which was sort of a misnomer since he never actually whacked bulls. The bullwhacker was by far the highest paid mill hand, and he trained and commanded them, much like a circus ringmaster does his animals, with individual love and attention, and as a group that acted together. Each bull had a name and personality and was voice commandable. While the commands were often gruff and profane, these were crude men in a rough world. Their curses and vulgarity were terms of endearment to the oxen. Possessing no whip, the Bullwhacker’s only tool was a “goading” stick with which he touched the oxen to get their attention when the noise and confusion was too high for them to hear their names called.

The ground was often rough and uneven and the bullwhacker tried to keep the log from lurching downhill onto the these highly trained, hard to replace and valuable oxen. The bullwhacker led the oxen and log to the closest “skid road.” A skid road, a little like railroad line, consisted of small “cross-logs”  embedded in the ground perpendicular to the path of direction (like railroad ties). The oxen stepped between the cross-logs. The log they were dragging skidded over the top of the cross-logs. Behind the oxen and in front of the log walked a “sugler” or “grease monkey””. He was the lowest paid mill hand and his job was to apply grease from a bucket to the top of the cross-logs for easier skidding. Life was cheap! To that point was the legend that it was OK for the bullwhacker to let his log become a “runaway”l as long as it stopped short of the bulls – no mention of the poor and often smashed sugler. When he died he was said to have applied the ultimate grease job. This whole process of getting the log down to the mill site was called “yarding” the log – getting it to the mill yard. During the last 25 years of the 1800s technology from the industrial revolution swept over the west like wild fire. In milling the single biggest revolution came from the “donkey engine.”

Invented in Eureka in 1881 by John Dolbeer, the “Dolbeer donkey” combined a stearn engine with gears and cable, all mounted on ski-like skids, to create a machine capable of replacing the oxen. Lashed in place by cable to multiple trees, it was more powerful than dozens of oxen, never got sick, didn’t need a bullwhacker and never killed a sugler. A simple”running” cable would extend up a canyon, or even down a canyon, as far as 1,000 feet, and attach to the log to be pulled. It would then pull the log in, wrapping the running cable around a spool. When you wanted to move the donkey engine you simply unhitched the multiple cables that attached it in place, attached its running cable to a tree 1,000 feet away, even uphill and the donkey engine would pull itself on its skids to its destination. Within a few years oxen had vanished, and with them the trees, because a donkey engine could be used to pull a tree down, haul bigger sections, and move wood quickly. At the same time other new technology made saws that could handle a 12 foot tree in one pass–and automated the sawing of shingles, replacing the prior tedious “shaking” process.

A classic Kings Mountain eight oxen team. (Photo courtesy of The San Mateo County Historical Association)
Close-up of a typical donkey engine, marked where its “chain” is.
Rusted donkey engine chain I extracted from Alvin Hatch’s Virginia Mill site in Purisima canyon. It’s like a bicycle chain, except each link is two and a half by four inches.
A Donkey Engine