What the Heck Is a Donkey Steam Engine?

What the heck is a Donkey Steam Engine? Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral? Is it a gray animal with big ears or a steam snorting machine? I will answer these questions in due time, but first it is important to understand logging operations in the West prior to 1880.

Logging as an industry has been taken for granted by the vast majority of the population for many, many years. We just assumed that as we needed lumber, it would be readily available. We never thought about the loggers that endured backbreaking and extremely dangerous work to bring us whatever type of lumber we needed. As the demand for lumber to build the West grew, the industry struggled to keep up. This article describes that struggle to bring more and more timber out of the western forests.

In the Time-Life book, The Loggers, the history of logging in the West is described: “As Eastern logging company people moved West seeking more and more timber resources, they were amazed at the abundance of vast forests with giant trees and superb lumber. The exploitation of those colossal Western forests began in the late 1820’s. The pioneer period of Western logging lasted for about 90 years, gaining momentum year by year. The men who filled the logging gangs, and ran the sawmills of the Far West, were a diverse group and originally came from all over the globe. But, they had one thing in common: great muscles, insatiable appetites, and the daring and drive to do dangerous labor for as little as $1 a day. They were a tough, hard working, hard drinking, rowdy bunch that faced death or serious injury every day on the job.” Yet, these tough characters took great delight in telling stories in the bunk house at night about the mythical exploits of their woodsman hero, Paul Bunyan, and his blue ox, Babe.

For many years logging operations were limited to areas close to water where logs could be floated to mills, or to reasonably flat ground where animal power (horses and oxen) could be used to drag the logs along roads paved with smaller diameter logs arranged across the path. This kept the path from becoming too muddy and made the logs slide more easily. These were known as “Skid Roads” and were first used in Washington’s Puget Sound area in the early 1850’s.

Lumbermen could now take trees growing a mile or more into the woods and get them to a staging area, or to a stream, to be sent on their way to the lumber mill. But a Skid Road had to be carefully and meticulously designed and built. It had to lead downhill, of course, but not too steeply. Its curves had to be gentle and banked. Swampers cleared the route with axes and shovels and Buckers prepared the skids. A man walked in front of the logs as they were dragged along and spread grease on the skids to make the logs glide more smoothly. This man was known as the Grease Monkey, hence the term “Greasing The Skids.”

By the way, the official definition of Skid Road is, “the district of a town frequented by loggers.” It has come to mean those brightly lit blocks in any logging town that were lined with saloons and honky tonks, cheap restaurants and lodging houses. The term has subsequently morphed into Skid Row, “a squalid district inhabited chiefly by derelicts and vagrants.” It owes its creation to the logging industry.

Oxen were preferred to horses for pulling the logs out of the forest as they were easier to keep and possessed more pulling power. The man in charge of the ox team was the Bull Puncher and was typically the highest paid man on the logging crew. Pulling the huge logs downhill was extremely dangerous for man and beast. How do you stop a runaway log once it starts its downhill journey? The answer: you don’t — you just run like heck!

The process was slow, expensive, hard on the animals, and they could not negotiate steep terrain. There was no OSHA or SPCA in those days to enforce safety in the logging industry.

By 1880, the forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota had been heavily logged for 40 years and were becoming depleted. Lumbermen had already abandoned Maine. The problem was many-fold — the Eastern forests were diminishing as a source of timber and the demand for lumber was accelerating. There was a rush of population to the West and as new towns and cities were being created, the lumbermen were in timber heaven. As this demand for lumber skyrocketed, there had to be a better and faster way to get logs out of the forest and on to the mills. The Western mills’ appetites were becoming insatiable.

Now, to answer the question: “What the heck is a Donkey Steam Engine?” It is the common name for a steam-powered mechanical winch, or logging engine, developed by John Dolbeer in 1881. This year is generally declared as the beginning of technological change in the logging industry. Dolbeer received a patent for his engine in 1882.

The Donkey Steam Engine is really just a wood-fired steam boiler with some important attachments. The boiler supplied steam at a pressure of 80 to 100 PSI to a one cylinder engine connected through a connecting rod to a crank shaft, on which was mounted a flywheel with some sort of brake mechanism, a lever operated clutch configuration and a complex of reduction gears and drive wheels to a winch. The winch could be either a large pulley with a horizontal shaft or a drum, or a capstan mounted on a vertical shaft. In either design, the operation was basically the same; a steel cable was wound around the pulley or drum and when the clutch was engaged, the engine pulled (with great force) whatever was attached to the other end of the cable. The whole apparatus was usually mounted on a heavy-duty wooden sled which made it easier to move from one “setting” to the next.

These engines were dispersed throughout the logging operations and were used to drag logs from the mountain sides to a central location where they could be loaded onto a horse or ox-drawn wagon to be transported to a lumber mill. A Donkey Steam Engine with a half-mile long steel cable could yank immense logs to them like matchsticks. These were pretty big “matchsticks” but the Donkeys retrieved them with relative ease.

This was extremely dangerous work, as were most jobs in the logging industry back then. Handling these long steel cables while one end was attached to a Donkey Engine was frightening to contemplate. One false move, or if a cable under tension should snap, instantly releasing all that stored energy, it became a giant whip running amok and could easily cut a man in half. A slack cable just lying on the ground could suddenly be yanked taut by the engine with disastrous results if the crew was not paying attention. There is a recorded incident in which a team of Choker Setters had just connected the Donkey cable to a giant log but was not out of the way yet. A limb accidentally fell on the signal wire blowing the whistle on the engine. The engineer assumed that the signal was legitimate and engaged the clutch on the Donkey. The result was deadly.

Fortunately, logging today is a much safer industry but still requires a clear head and situational awareness of the surrounding conditions, both in the forest and in the mill. I would say that next to coal mining, logging was the most dangerous occupation in the country.

Alas, the invention of the internal combustion engine led to the development of the diesel-powered tractor in the 1920’s which put an end to the Steam Donkey and the use of animals for hauling the log laden wagons. The tractor did to the Donkey what the Donkey did to the Bull Puncher. It could go just about anywhere in the forest and haul much bigger loads than an ox drawn wagon, and do it so much safer. That’s progress.

Rather than remove the now obsolete Donkeys when their day was done, they were just abandoned where they were last used; giant piles of forest litter, most never to be seen again.

To the people who used them, Donkeys, made their livelihoods possible and easier. From its beginnings in the 19th and 20th centuries, to its heyday in the early 1900’s, to its decline and extinction in the 1950s, steam logging certainly captured the imaginations and hearts of generations of the people who were there, and of the folks who now read about the old logging days. The Donkey Steam Engine modernized logging methods when it was introduced to the industry and came along at just the right time to greatly improve productivity. It replaced the older methods such as, teams of oxen, horses, and gravity-fed water flumes, to mention a few. It was the muscle that moved the logs to a central area called a “landing” from where they could be loaded onto wagons, rail cars, or floated down a river, and out of the woods to the lumber mills. From the mills, the lumber was transported on to build the great cities of America.