Logging Railroad Lines in General and the Weyerhaeuser Company in Particular

Hi everyone! We're back after another long hiatus, and a bit of a directional change to some of our content is coming, as we are going to focus primarily on lands moving forward. The railroad industry and public roads have plenty in common with opening up vast swaths of land in this country for development, so there will certainly be a lot of things to talk about regarding transportation and its intersections with land development, but with that in mind, I wanted to discussing logging railroads, and one of the most successful land developers across the 20th century, that being the Weyerhaeuser Company. 

The Weyerhaeuser Company's history intertwines with the development of the American West. Founded in 1900 by Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the company began with a massive land purchase from the Northern Pacific Railway, acquiring 900,000 acres of Washington state timberland. This marked the beginning of what would become one of the largest sustainable forest products companies in the world, and one that still exists to this day.

Johnson, Philip C. (Philip Cornwell), 1907-1990. Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, 2-6-6-2 locomotive 5, Bly, Oregon. 12 July 1945. Montana State Library

Probably the best summary of the Weyerhaeuser company's founding comes from Greg Lange:

"While the current Weyerhaeuser company dates back to the eve of the 20th century, Weyerhaeuser had been a timber industrialist well before then. With the old growth forests in the Great Lakes area depleted, Weyerhaeuser sought new sources in the Southern and Western states . In 1891, he moved to St. Paul, and two years later, to Summit Street, becoming neighbors with James J. Hill, President of the Great Northern Railway. Hill, completing a railroad from St. Paul to Seattle, became friends with Weyerhaeuser, and they often discussed the Pacific Northwest.

By 1900, Hill controlled the Northern Pacific Railroad, which owned 44 million acres from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, granted by the federal government in the 1870s and 1880s for constructing the transcontinental railroad. One evening, Hill and Weyerhaeuser discussed the Northern Pacific's timberlands in Washington. On January 3, 1900, the deal was finalized. This was one of the largest land transfers in American history, and the NP also provided Weyerhaeuser with low eastbound shipping rates for timber.

Many thought the purchase was speculative, but it proved to be a bargain. By 1912, it was determined that Weyerhaeuser had paid only 10 cents per 1,000 board feet of timber. Shortly after the purchase, Weyerhaeuser and other investors formed the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. By 1903, the company's holdings had increased by 67 percent to 1.5 million acres. Although they established a sawmill in Everett in 1903, manufacturing lumber remained secondary until 1915. From 1900 to 1915, the firm managed its holdings, sold timber to other sawmills, and continued acquiring more timberland." (Lange, 2003)

Weyerhaeuser’s growth was not just through the acquisition of land but also through the development of an extensive network of railways to transport timber. 

These railways were the lifelines that connected the remote timberlands to the sawmills and markets. Over the years, Weyerhaeuser built and operated numerous railroad lines, such as the Chehalis Western Railroad, which played a crucial role in the company’s logging operations. One of these lines, the Oregon California and Eastern Railway, is one we've previously discussed.

"Four years after the diesel arrived in Washington Weyerhaeuser consolidated its operations with trackage purchased from the abandoning Milwaukee Road into the Chehalis Western. The company relettered the #776 to match the name change. J.M. Seidl image, Western Junction, Washington, 26 May 1983." (Via Trainweb)

Logging lines are notoriously difficult to map for a number of reasons, and our abandoned railroad map only lists selected logging lines. Tony Howe of MSRailroads has a more extensive collection of logging railroad lines, and we're okay with that, as some of the networks that these railroads had were incredibly complex. 

These are the logging operations of the Scotch Lumber Company in southern Alabama. An incredibly large amount of branches were used to harvest as much timber as possible.

Logging lines were primarily operated in the Northwest and Southeastern US, Canada, and to a lesser extent, the Upper Midwest and parts of Northern New England, but were almost completely nonexistent in the Central Midwest and Northeast, and I believe not a single logging line ran in Illinois, so for me, they were never of much interest. Showing just how non-homogenous the distribution of logging lines were, despite none existing in my home state, every Oregon county had at least one logging railroad at one point in its history. (Brauner, 2007)

A logging railroad track runs through a forest in the Silverton, Oregon area in 1912. A tree stump and a tree trunk with part of its bark peeled off are visible nearby. June Drake photograph, Oregon History Project.

I continue to speak primarily about the State of Oregon's logging lines, since there is a project to map the entirety of their logging roads, which itself is a monumental task, to say nothing about logging railroads in other states. The Oregon Historical Railroads Project is trying to do just that, but part of the problem is just how short some of these lines, especially tiny branches, were in operation, with some being in service for mere days before being moved. 

The brainchild of this project is Edward Kamholz. He said, "Logging railroads were expedient affairs," A line would be constructed into forest, everything would be logged, and once that was done, every piece of track infrastructure would be taken apart and moved onto the next play. To understand the difficulty of this project, he said "consider the fact that the Oregon Department of Transportation today looks after 8,000 miles of roads. By comparison, Oregon – over time – has had  6,000 miles of logging trackage, most of which came and went with few written records, as compared to commercial and public systems."

I know firsthand the difficulty of mapping even traditional lines and interurban lines, which usually aren't within extremely forested areas, and so leave a bit of scarchitecture in their wake. Not so for many logging lines! However, technologies such as LiDAR and advanced remote sensing, both of which I have used to discover some lines on our map, do offer help with this monumental task.

The remnants of these lines, such as the Vail main line and the Chehalis Western Railroad, are a testament to the company’s once vast railway network that stretched across the Pacific Northwest.

Crew with Weyerhaeuser Timber Company's 2-6-6-2 split-saddle tank Baldwin locomotive no. 110 and log train, Vail, Thurston County, Washington, between 1890 and 1945. University of Washington Library.

Today, Weyerhaeuser is one of the largest private landholders in the United States, owning nearly 12.4 million acres of timberlands in the U.S. and managing an additional 14 million acres under long-term licenses in Canada. This land is not only used for timber and forest products but also for responsible development, minerals, and real estate. 

Weyerhaeuser lists a commitment to sustainability on their website, and note that they were one of the first companies to regrow their timberlands to continue a revenue stream. The company’s philosophy of land management emphasizes sustainability and responsible stewardship, ensuring that the vast tracts of land continue to provide value not just economically but also ecologically. It is my hope that as land, a scarce resource, becomes even more scarce over time, and thus more valuable, that Weyerhaeuser does not sacrifice long term financial and ecological stability for short term "growth" in a mindset that has taken over too much of our companies today.

But without further editorializing, the abandoned railways of Weyerhaeuser are more than just forgotten tracks; they are echoes of a bygone era of the timber industry. That said, some logging lines survived much longer than you might think, as the Englewood Railway operated in British Columbia all the way until 2017. Most timber harvests today, however, use trucking as the method for transportation. The remnants of these lines remind us of the times when trains carrying giant logs were a common sight in the Pacific Northwest. These railways, now reclaimed by nature or repurposed for other uses, are an integral part of the history of Weyerhaeuser and the regions they once served.

OC&E Woods Line Trail Trestle. Oregon Parks.

As we reflect on the legacy of Weyerhaeuser, we see a company that has evolved with time, shifting from rail to road, from logging to land management, all while (hopefully) maintaining a commitment to sustainability and responsible use of natural resources. 

Thanks as always for reading!


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