The Resources of the Forest
The Exploitation of Ontonagon, Part 3
By Bruce Johanson
We must now turn to the vast forest resources that the Ontonagon River country provided for the advancement of civilization in far-off places. The first sawmill was set up at Ontonagon in 1852 to produce lumber for local use. This was a small operation, very limited in duration. In 1871, the destruction of Chicago by fire created a huge need for building lumber, and the great pine forests of the Ontonagon River Valley, which until now had been virtually unnoticed by the loggers, now came into focus.
First came the Ontonagon Lumber Company, organized by the brothers Horace and Ansel Rich, Chicago lumbermen who came here to set up a large sawmill and to hire forest workers to harvest the great white pine. It should be noted that it was Ontonagon Lumber that built the large merchandise establishment on River Street that was later taken over by another company. Ontonagon Lumber set up operations in 1881 and shortly thereafter another logging/lumber operation arrived.
Relocating from Ottawa County, Michigan, George Sisson and Francis Lily erected an even larger sawmill on the west bank of the river near the lighthouse and soon, they too were contributing to the harvest of the towering white pine. Together, Ontonagon Lumber and Sisson & Lilly could produce 425,000 board feet of pine lumber per day as well as 800,000 pine shakes (shingles).
In 1884, that greatest desecrater of the pine woods, Diamond Match Co. came on the scene. Diamond Match brought a whole new dimension to the exploitation of the forest lands, as well as the exploitation of the people themselves. O. C. Barber’s Diamond Match Company (DMC) was the largest producer of sulfur matches in the world. DMC managed to obtain the options on much of the pinelands, thus starving out Ontonagon Lumber (and taking over their retail store), and Sisson & Lilly. DMC now operated two large sawmills, one on the west bank and one on Rose Island. DMC produced both matchwood and building lumber and even had a small box factory to make wooden shipping boxes.
DMC paid good wages, employed hundred of woods workers as well as mill hands, and the village prospered for a time. A new county courthouse was built (1885-86), an electric light plant was set up, and the village also had a water system. In 1891 the Ontonagon River was bridged with a steel overhead truss bridge replacing the old river ferry. Ontonagon became, for a time, a prosperous, progressive village, and in the mid-1880s, actually incorporated as a municipality.
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Back in Ohio, however, workers in the DMC match factory suffered from phosphorous necrosis, a condition caused by the inhalation of the phosphorous used in making the matches...a condition that led to the jaw cartilage deteriorating and leaving the victims badly disfigured and experiencing eating and speaking problems. In the meantime, lumberjacks who were injured on the job, or —due to age— developed arthritis or lost limbs due to accidents and were unable to work were shifted to the Ontonagon County Poor Farm. There, they joined former miners with lung problems caused by inhaling the dust in the mines following blasting or ailments from working in the cold, damp mines. DMC, along with the mining companies, was not only an exploiter of the land but of all of its people as well.
The vast pine forests of the Ontonagon, expected to provide timber for 60 years, were pretty well gone in only 16 years. The greatest river drive in the history of the area took place in 1895 as DMC went all out to save fire-damaged timber (fires caused by their own poorly managed cutting practices). The Village of Ontonagon burned to the ground on August 25, 1896, leaving behind the ashes of a once-thriving community. Left in the river was over 20,000 feet of pine logs that DMC lost little time in attempting to remove to its other sawmill locations. Ontonagon was abandoned by Diamond Match Co., leaving a huge municipal debt for the water and electrical systems. The village had to go to court to collect taxes on the logs that DMC was attempting to remove from the river without paying taxes on them but this was small compensation for the loss of the livelihood of the hundreds of local people who had been employed at this local industry.
In 1900, C.V. McMillan, another lumber operation, came on the scene and began logging operations west of Ontonagon. With most of the pine gone, the object was to harvest hemlock and some hardwoods. McMillan gave way to the Greenwood Lumber Company that operated a large sawmill at Ontonagon for a number of years.
We now can jump ahead a number of years to 1919. At that time there was a “teaser” published in the Ontonagon Herald stating that “Ontonagon is on the verge of the industrial age.” A $1 million paper mill was to be built. Months went by with no further word and the local people felt that once again, it was one of those hang-fire propositions that go nowhere, then surprise of surprises, on September 20, 1920, came the formal announcement that Northern Fibre would begin construction on a new pulp mill.
Now please understand that pulp is not paper, but it is a transition step. The trees are harvested, the wood is broken up and “cooked” to break down the wood chips that can then be pressed into paper. The original idea was to harvest the trees locally and then take the wood to pulp to another location, Green Bay, to be made into paper. Pulp was actually produced locally for a short time, and then the pulp mill, the construction of which had been largely financed by local investors, failed. This wasn’t the first time in the County’s history that local investors had lost out because of “circumstances” beyond local control.
The relatively new pulp mill was purchased in 1923 by Marathon Paper Mills of Wausau at a bargain price. The pulping process was up-dated and by 1925 a new paper-making machine was in place producing liner board. Liner board was used in the production of cardboard containers. Once again, the local wood resource was being extracted, processed, and shipped elsewhere for final use.
Greenwood Lumber Company eventually turned to producing wood feedstock for the paper mill and finally ended their own operations in 1930.
In 1934, the Northern Logging Company, from near Mellen, Wisconsin, had purchased the holdings of the Greenwood Lumber Company and now began to look at timber lands east of Ontonagon. At this time of the Great Depression, a new company bringing jobs was most welcome to the people of the village of Ontonagon. Northern Logging would later become Lake Superior Logging Company, and finally Gorman Logging Company. Logging had evolved from using oxen and horse teams to steam traction engines, and later, steel rails were laid into the forest lands to move the timber to the mill by railroad. Gorman Lumber had an especially extensive rail network east of Ontonagon. It was an efficiently managed exploitation last great stands of softwoods and the Gorman Lumber Company, having finished their work, ended operations in 1949.