Mechanization of the Logging Industry Since Confederation

Advances in technology during the second half of the twentieth century dramatically altered commercial logging in Newfoundland and Labrador. The industry shifted away from the manual harvesting of trees with axes, bucksaws, and horse-drawn sleds and toward a mechanized system which increasingly relied on complex equipment to fell, delimb, and transport timber from the forest to the mill site. By the 1970s, practically every piece of equipment loggers used before Confederation had been replaced with a new one.

Early Days of Commercial Logging

Commercial use of Newfoundland and Labrador's forests started in the second half of the 1800s when the government offered grants of woodlots to sawmill and pulp and paper operators. By the end of the Second World War, two companies dominated the forestry industry: Bowaters in Corner Brook and the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company (AND) in Grand Falls.

Most loggers worked for these companies on a contractual basis as seasonal employees – they fished in the summer and cut wood in the fall. Until the 1950s, loggers in Newfoundland and Labrador generally used bucksaws (hand saws set in frames) and axes to cut wood. They transported logs to a river bank or lake shore by horse-drawn sled and allowed the water to carry the wood to the mill during the spring river drive.

The introduction of the chainsaw in the mid-1950s changed that system. Instead of felling trees with bucksaws and delimbing them with axes, loggers could perform both tasks with a single tool. The chainsaw required less physical exertion than the bucksaw or axe and allowed loggers to work faster than ever before. Instead of cutting two cords of wood a day under the old system, loggers could harvest up to four cords a day.

Most loggers first learned of the chainsaw in 1954, when salesmen began visiting logging camps to demonstrate the new equipment. Although loggers had to buy the tool out of their own pockets, chainsaws were relatively inexpensive and originally cost between $200 and $250. This represented about one third of a logger's average earnings during a season in the woods. Contractors often bought the equipment for the loggers, who later paid back the purchase through monthly wage deductions.

Motorized Vehicles

Although tractors and trucks first appeared at various logging sites during the 1940s, it was not until the following decade that the vehicles replaced the horse-drawn sled and river drive as the principal method of transporting wood to the mill site. Unlike the horse and river drive, these vehicles could operate in any climate and cover long distances in a relatively short amount of time.

Initially, tractors hauled timber from the logging site to a nearby road, where workers loaded the wood onto waiting trucks. By the mid-1950s it became increasingly common for trucks to transport logs directly from the cutting site to the mill, eliminating the tractor phase. The new system saved time but required workers to build relatively high-quality roads into the logging area. This often destroyed an unacceptable amount of forest and reduced the amount of wood loggers could harvest.

To remedy this, paper companies introduced a new vehicle into the logging process in the 1960s. Known as the wheeled skidder, this machine had four-wheel drive, resembled a tractor, and used a grapple or cable to drag up to 12 full-length trees out of the forest and onto a road. It could also drive over rough terrain and operate in snow, rain, and almost any other type of weather.

Each skidder required a team of five loggers – two ‘fellers’ to cut and delimb the trees in the forest, a skidder operator to load the wood and haul it to the road, and two ‘buckers’ to chop the logs into desired lengths before loading them onto trucks. This dramatically altered the logging process. Loggers were no longer involved in all steps of the harvesting phase, and instead became divided into separate and specialized units who worked along an assembly line. Depending on the type of terrain, a skidder crew could harvest between 15 and 30 cords of wood a day, which represented between three and six cords per worker.

Increased Mechanization

In the coming years and decades, the logging industry became increasingly mechanized as companies introduced various complex and sophisticated machinery to delimb, debark, lift, load, and cut logs into segments. The slasher, for example, appeared soon after the skidder and performed the same task as the buckers – it cut logs into smaller segments and loaded them onto trucks. A single slasher, however, could work for between 10 and 15 skidders and chop up to 300 cords of wood each day during two nine-hour shifts.

Some forestry workers feel that commercial logging in Newfoundland and Labrador did not truly become mechanized until the introduction of feller forwarders in the late 1970s. These large machines, which are still in use today, resemble tractors, but have a large hinged arm that can both grip and fell trees using a grappling device and chainsaw. The arm loads the severed tree into a bunk at the machine's rear before moving on to the next tree.

The feller forwarder was followed by a variety of other harvesting equipment, including the feller buncher (similar to the feller forwarder, except it lowers cut trees onto the ground instead of into a rear bunk), the single-grip harvester (a tractor-like machine that can chop down a tree, remove its branches, and convert it to pre-determined lengths), the delimber/debarker/chipper, and the roadside processor, which can delimb and cut logs into smaller segments.

Today, workers harvest timber by both manual and mechanical means in Newfoundland and Labrador. Mechanical systems are often used in more productive sites and tend to waste less timber than manual crews (Young 1996), while manual cutting is sometimes more effective on rough or steep terrain. As of 2007, mechanical systems harvested roughly 60 per cent of all timber on Crown land and 95 per cent on company-owned land, most of which belongs to Abitibi Consolidated and Corner Brook Pulp and Paper Limited. While some machines, such as the delimber/debarker/chipper, have disappeared from the logging industry since their introduction, many others are still widely used today, including skidders, single-grip harvesters, feller forwarders, feller bunchers, and roadside processors.

Article by Jenny Higgins with additional research from Gil Shalev. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

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