I absolutely LOVE research. I had a blast digging into the history of Sierra Mountain lumber camps for the setting of my July Harlequin western recently titled THE GUNSLINGER’S BRIDE. I had an interest in logging camps long before I ever started writing. There’s quite a few old camp towns and even an old working logging camp railroad in our area. Every year we take our boys for a train ride through the tall timbers and glean new tidbits on the lives of the men who felled those giant trees–a hard and hazardous occupation.
The lumberjack lifestyle required two sets of clothes – a set of work cloths he put on in the morning and a set of dry clothes he put on in the evening, because no matter the time of year, a logger always came in from the job dripping wet. He was either wet with sweat, rain, snow–or a combination of all three. Timber crews were a rough-and-tumble lot and employed crew foreman’s called bull heads — men with fists heavy-hitting enough to enforce strict sets of rules every man was expected to follow for their safety and the safety of others. A slip of an ax or the wrong move with a saw blade could easily lead to a man’s death, as he’d often bleed out before any kind of medical attention could be sought. Check out the picture below–see the planks of wood these tree-fellers are standing on?
These thin, springy platforms were shimmed into the trees, sometimes ten to fifteen feet or MORE up a tree, creating a precarious perch as fellers swung axes, chopping away at the trunk. Many a timberman fell to their deaths, giving these planks the nickname “widow-makers“.
Most lumber camp crews were made up largely of immigrant workers–vagabonds and scamps as many were called, men without any real roots and lumber camps offered something other jobs didn’t — loggers could always count on a warm dry bed and a hot hearty meal after a grueling day of work. Mealtime was the main event in any camp. It was often said that a lumber camp was only as good as its chef. A meager crew was a sure sign of a bad cook. If a logger didn’t like the food, he’d move on to the next camp.
With camps scattered all over the Sierra’s, camps competed with one another by trying to hire the best chefs, often recruiting well-known chefs from San Francisco and other major cities. While the men were well fed and could eat until they were full, meal-time also had strict sets of rules–usually requiring the men have assigned seating, and no talking allowed–this allowed for faster service, and the last thing a man wanted was to tick off the cook and get tossed from the cook house.
As often happens, much of the research absorbed during the planning stages of a book doesn’t make it into the final version. Juniper and Lily seemed far too busy chasing bandits all over the mountain to really stop and smell the wood chips. While readers will get a glimpse into the life of a timberman, there wasn’t a ton of room to detail all the goings-on of a lumber camp that I find fascinating. But research is never wasted—and who knows, maybe there will be a lumberjack hero in my future. Although, for now, I have moved on from the Sierra’s and am knee-deep in research and snowdrift from the Wyoming blizzard of 1886 🙂