Vintage photos of the old-school lumberjacks who fell giant trees with axes, 1890-1935

Vintage Wonders Dec 11, 2023

Back when there weren’t any fancy chainsaws or big machines, lumberjacks had to do the tough work of chopping trees with axes and saws. It was super hard, risky, and didn’t pay much. They lived in basic places, moving around for tree-cutting jobs.

These lumberjacks stayed in cramped bunkhouses that smelled awful—like a mix of smoke, sweat, and drying clothes—and were often full of bedbugs.

Life in those logging camps had strict rules. Some places didn’t allow alcohol, and chatting during meals was a big no-no.

Lumberjacks were mostly found in spots with lots of forests needing wood, like Scandinavia, Canada, and parts of the United States. In the U.S., many lumberjacks were from Scandinavian families, carrying on the tradition.

The folks called ‘fallers’ were the ones who cut down trees using axes and saws. After a tree fell, others would chop it into logs or move it to a railroad or river for transport.

They had this cool trick where loggers stood on springboards stuck in the tree and used saws and axes to make a wedge cut. Figuring out the right way for the tree to fall was super important.

Lumberjacks pose with a fir tree in Washington. 1902.

In those lumber camps, they had different jobs for different folks like the whistle punk, chaser, and high climber.

The whistle punk used a whistle to signal the person moving logs and watched out for safety. They had to think fast to keep everyone safe.

High climbers, aka tree toppers, climbed tall trees with special gear to cut off branches and the top part. Then, they set it up to help move logs.

Choker setters attached cables to logs so they could be dragged to the landing by the yarder, and chasers took them off.

These jobs were like starting points, and experienced workers aimed for higher jobs like yarder operator or high climber.

Not everyone chopped trees; there were specific workers called fallers and buckers for that.

With better tools, the old lumberjack thing faded, and workers are just called loggers now. This article has old pics of these workers from the 1900s, showing how they shaped America using only hand tools.

Lumberjacks pose with a 12-foot-wide fir tree. 1901.
Three lumberjacks pose by a large Douglas fir ready for felling in Oregon. 1918.
A lumberjack and two women pose in front of a tree near Seattle, Washington. 1905.
Loggers hold a cross-cut saw across a giant Sequoia tree’s trunk in California. 1917.
Lumberjacks undercut a giant sequoia tree in California. 1902.
Loggers and a 10-mule team prepare to fell a giant Sequoia tree in California. 1917.
Loggers stand in the trunk of a tree they chopped down at Camp Badger in Tulare County, California. The tree was logged for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. 1892.
Lumberjacks pose on the stump of a tree which was displayed at St. Louis World’s Fair. 1904.
A logging crew stands among cut old growth longleaf pine in Vernon Parish, Louisiana. 1904.
Loggers walk the surface of a log jam on Minnesota’s Littlefork River seeking a tall, strong log with which to build a loading boom. 1937.
Men stand on piles of cut trees in rural New York. 1907.
Lumberjacks float lumber down the Columbia River in Oregon. 1910.
Over 100 people stand with a logged giant sequoia tree in California. 1917.
A lumberjack c. 1900.
Lumberjacks among the redwoods in California.
Lumberjacks in Washington state.
Standing by a Sequioa log in California, c. 1910.
A lumberjack stands on a felled spruce tree, c. 1918.
A lumberjack with a redwood.
A felled Sequioa tree in California, c. 1900.
A lumberjack almost blends in with the cut trees.
A group in the 1930s moves a log into a river in West Virginia
The lumberjacks would often leave their families and live in camps where hundreds of their fellow workers relaxed between grueling shifts.
Lumberjacks sit on chunks of trees that they chopped down while looking around at the remaining forest surrounding them.
Three lumberjacks in 1900 stand next to a large fir log which has been cut using a sawing machine in Sedro-Woolley, Washington
Lumberjacks in Idaho clear a jam in the 1930s.
Several log rollers in the 1930s break up a log jam on the Little Fork River during the last log drive on that river in Koochiching County, Minnesota
A team of horses pulls a sled filled up with red and white pine logs in Red Lake County, Minnesota, at the beginning of the 20th century.
A crew stands among cut old growth longleaf pine near the settlement of Neame, now called Anacoco, in Vernon Parish, Louisiana.
Lumberjacks in Michigan load a series of white pine logs onto a train to be carried to a sawmill.
A crew in 1900 Washington state poses next to a donkey engine used for yarding logs, or gathering logs together after they are cut.

(Photo credit: Library of Congress / National Geographic Creative / Corbis / U.S. Government Agriculture Forest Service).