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Interpreting the Evidence

Felling a Red Spruce

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    North Country
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Felling a Red Spruce, c. 1900 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Two men cut down a red spruce tree with a saw in the Adirondack Mountains, c. 1900.
Historical Context
Since the early 1800s, logging has been a major industry in the Adirondack region of New York. As early as the 1850s, logging camps had been established in the inner regions of the Adirondack forests. The Adirondacks' forests are full of Northern hardwoods such as sugar maples, yellow birch and beech. These hardwoods are ideal for lumber production.

By 1870, paper-making from wood pulp became an industry in the United States, making all of the trees in the region valuable, regardless of size or species. In addition to hardwoods, softwoods such as hemlocks, poplar, balsam, and spruce could also be cut down for pulp.

Logging was a three-season business despite the Adirondacks' harsh weather and the inherent dangers of felling and transporting the large trees. In the spring and summer, the loggers would begin to fell the trees. This continued into the fall. Lumber camps, roads, and skidways were also built during the summer.  A skidway is a framework on which logs are piled for storage until they are shipped.

In the fall, loggers would remove the bark from the cut trees and transport the logs to yards for export. Then the production would slow to a crawl between the late fall and January. However, by late January enough snow would have fallen to haul the logs on sleds to banking grounds, where they would be stored to await further transportation by sled or river driving.

From the banking ground, the trees could be transported in one of two ways. They could be loaded onto a sled and hauled down the mountain on roads cleared the previous spring and summer, or the logs could be pushed into the river and floated down the mountain, a method known as river driving. Both methods were dangerous, hard work.

Log sleds could carry thousands of pounds of logs downhill. The sled drivers would sit on top of the logs on the sled, while a few other men would help guide the horses. Although hauling logs over snow was considerably easier than hauling them overland, an even more efficient system, the use of sprinkler wagons, began around 1890.  First, a sled carrying a light load of logs would go down the road in order to make tracks in the snow. Then the sprinkler wagon would follow, sprinkling water through rear vents onto the tracks. The water would freeze in the sled tracks, making ice. This made the trip easier for the heavier log sled to follow.
The men who worked on the sprinkler wagons went to work as early as 2:00 am! They worked by the light of kerosene torches or lanterns. The water tank on the wagon held approximately forty barrels of water, enough to ice only one-third of a mile at a time.
Essential Question
How does geography impact local economies?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and evaluate the impact of geography on the local economy.
Historical Challenges
Peripheral industries, such as tanning, sprouted around logging centers. How and why were tanning and logging connected? Locate Tannersville, New York, on a map. Research its local history in connection with the logging industry.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: One egg has approximately 80 calories, one pancake 120 calories, and one sausage 95 calories. If a lumberjack eats 10 eggs, 7 pancakes, and 8 pieces of sausage, how many calories does he eat?
Science: Research the environment impact of deforestation and conservation efforts. Experiment with recycling paper in your classroom.
English Language Arts: Compare the tales of Tony Beaver (Appalachia) and Paul Bunyan (Northern states). What similarities and differences do you find? What do these tales say about the life of a lumberjack?