VMC LogoFrom Camp to Community: Cowichan Forest Life


Steam donkey with man in front

Steam donkey with man in front
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During the height of the Cowichan logging industry, the woods would be filled with the buzz of machinery. The clank of the steam donkey or the whir of the chainsaw would accompany the loggers as they worked in the forests. Below are a few of the significant machines that assisted loggers.

Steam Donkey

The steam donkey brought in logging's industrial revolution. The donkey was a machine that had a wire or cable up to 150 metres long that could be attached to a log. When the hooktender had set the cable to the log and the whistle punk had blown the whistle, the donkey puncher engaged the donkey and the machine would reel in the logs. The first donkeys were wood-fired steam engines requiring stacks of logs to keep them operating. Later in the 1920's the donkeys were fueled with crude oil.

The first donkey, a Dolbeer, appeared in the Cowichan in 1897. It was small compared to the work expected of it and many old timers scoffed at it. It was a change from the oxen team and the men who had to coax the animals patiently along with logs straining behind them.

It wasn't only old timers who scoffed; many loggers were skeptical of the machines. The donkeys increased the speed of work but were also fraught with danger. Speed allowed the loggers less time to be careful.

Cherry picker

The cherry picker was a small-specialized donkey. It was mounted on skids on a flatcar and was specially designed to collect the marketable logs felled by the grading crew that had cleared the right of way of the railroad. The donkey would reel the logs into place and special tongs were used to place the logs on a flatcar. On average, a cherry picker would collect 6-8 flatcars of lumber per day.


Skidders, which appeared in the camps around 1915 in the form of the Lidgerwood Skidder, were a more complicated rigging system than the donkeys. They used an overhead system of lines and blocks stationed on top of a spar tree, usually a Douglas fir. The skidder hauled the timber by partially suspending it above the ground. With this practice, logging operations began to resemble giant roofless factories.

Because the logs moved in the air, skidders were especially useful on terrain with rough ground and ravines and moved logging to the mountain sides. The 75-ton machines were belted on a railway car and would bring the logs straight to adjoining cars. This type of logging went hand in hand with the railway.

In the days before hardhats, many accidents occurred with the skidders. Logs would fall or lines would snap when stuck on saplings and become deadly steel whips.

Chainsaw Manual

Chainsaw Manual
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In the late 30's, a growing wartime market for lumber coupled with a shortage of fallers caused an explosive rise in the use of chainsaws in the forests. The first saws were awkward two-men contraptions; noisy, smelly and occasionally cantankerous. They were heavy machines, weighing up to 55 kilograms, however, once in place, they cut at incredible speeds with relatively little effort.

In the 1940's wartime development of lighter metals lowered the weight and size of chainsaws, allowing one person to operate them. Fallers and buckers now could work alone.

The first saws vibrated so much that after a few years of using them, fallers had impaired blood circulation and in severe cases developed gangrene. In the late 1960's anti-vibration handles came into use and were very welcome by the loggers.

The chainsaw altered the nature of the roles of the camp. Prior to the chainsaw, a faller attracted a special breed of man, men who were patient with enormous strength and endurance. Falling was an art, and often the fallers had their own bunkhouses. The chainsaw changed this and the dynamics of the camps changed soon after.