A Labor Day story: the cost of a finger lost

A South Sound resident recalls a story passed down from the time when workers were radical and for good reason: It was damned dangerous toiling in the woods and the mills.
Crosscut archive image.

Inside a Washington shingle mill in the early 20th century. This is in Aloha, Wash. (University of Washington)

A South Sound resident recalls a story passed down from the time when workers were radical and for good reason: It was damned dangerous toiling in the woods and the mills.

When I see old mill pilings along the Tacoma waterfront, near Old Town (where the city's downtown stood before officials of the Northern Pacific Railroad decided it should move farther up the bay, and where the homes of Chinese immigrants stood on pilings before the Chinese were driven from Tacoma — and from other communities all along the Pacific Coast — in 1885), I think of a story that my old landlord, Wayne Bruner, once told. It's the kind of story that reminds me Labor Day could be about more than a three-day weekend.

When we first rented our house from Wayne Bruner in 1973, it was a dirt-cheap month-to-month rental that gave us the use of almost 20 acres but also gave us a home with broken windows covered by duct tape, a canning cellar that flooded seasonally, and blackberry vines growing up into the second-story eaves. Mr. Bruner was in his 60s, a very large, blunt man with huge hands who welded in a Tacoma shipyard. He liked to come out and pick blackberries in the late summer. He liked being able to say that he had never crossed a picket line.

The property we rented had been in his family for three generations. His grandfather, a doctor who had allegedly once been chief of surgery at a hospital in Lake Forest Park, near Chicago, had quit medicine, moved to Vashon Island, Wash., in 1907, planted the apple and pear trees we found growing there, built an elegant barn, and added substantially to the two-story cabin that already stood on the land. (His barn collapsed under the heavy snow of late 1995. His oak ceiling still adorns our second living room, which he added to the house in 1920.) After he died, the property passed to his daughter and son-in-law, Wayne Bruner's parents, who had been living on a stump ranch near Anacortes, Wash. Bruner was then in his teens. He found his first job working on the old steamboat dock at Cove, a half-mile downhill walk from the house.

A lot of goods still arrived at Vashon Island by steamboat — flour was milled in a building on the Cove dock — and Bruner worked loading and unloading the boats.

The steamboats of the old "mosquito fleet" tied the communities around Puget Sound together from the 1860s until World War II. Old pilings standing in the shallows of bays and coves — perches for herons and cormorants — all around the perimeter of Puget Sound, serve as reminders.

Modern residents, if they think of the old steamboat fleet at all, tend to think that its heyday was the period between World War I and World War II. Actually, the period between the world wars was the twilight of the mosquito fleet. Automobile travel took hold during World War I, communities started paving roads, and blunt-nosed ferries started hauling cars across the Sound. Trucks hauled supplies to coastal communities. Steamboats grew increasingly irrelevant.

But they kept running. Wayne Bruner loaded and unloaded them down at Cove. Then he worked on the last of the Puget Sound steamers, the Virginia V. (The minister's teenaged daughter he was secretly courting sometimes addressed letters to him there care of the "greaseball.") He held a number of classic blue-collar jobs around the Sound.

Bruner even worked at the Tacoma copper smelter, whose giant smokestack once towered over the Tacoma waterfront and whose arsenic-laden slag still forms the breakwater of the nearby Tacoma Yacht Club. (On Jan. 17, 1993 — nearly eight years after the smelter shut down — at 35 minutes past noon, while a crowd estimated by the Tacoma police at 70,000 people watched from boats and sidewalks and back yards and parked cars, the 562-foot-tall smokestack was imploded, blasted into a huge pile of 2.5 million bricks.) As late as the 1970s, people riding the ferry between Tacoma and Vashon Island at night could see the smelter dump rail car loads of molten slag directly into the cold salt water of Commencement Bay, sending up great showers of sparks and steam.

As a very young man, Mr. Bruner also worked at a shake mill on the Tacoma waterfront. The old shingle and shake mills, which ripped old-growth red cedar into thin slabs for roofing, were nightmares of spinning blades and injured workers. Norman Clark, in his classic history of Everett titled Mill Town, described the scene:

The sawyer on the upright machine faced two whirling blades. To his left, one saw sliced the blocks that came automatically from the bolter. The carriage could be set to rip off fifty to sixty slices a minute. With almost incredible dexterity, the sawyer cleared this saw with his left hand, then passed the slices of wood over to his right hand, with which he then shaped the shingle on the trimmer saw and passed it down a chute to the packer. While his hands moved faster than the eye could follow, sawdust clouded his vision and clogged his throat and nose. Driven by the bosses until he took a sullen pride in his speed, a good sawyer could cut and trim thirty thousand shingles in a ten-hour shift. This meant thirty thousand chances to feed the steel with flesh and bone. Sooner or later, the sawyer reached too far or not far enough. ... A sawyer who had lost four or five fingers was not uncommon. There were men around not yet thirty years old who had lost as many as eight fingers in that many accidents.

When young Wayne Bruner went to work in the mill, he marveled that so many older workers were missing so many of their fingers. Men worked in pairs at the machines, and Bruner was paired with an older man who had not a single finger left intact. "You sold your fingers pretty cheap," he told the older man. The older worker held up one stump. "All except this one," he said. Then, he told Wayne Bruner this story:

Years before — it must have been the very early 20th century — the older man had worked in a logging camp somewhere near Puget Sound. The camp was accessible only by rail. I do not think it is just coincidence that the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the radical "Wobblies" of the early 20th century, whose credo was that "the working class and the employing class have nothing in common," found most of its support in the logging camps and mining camps of the West.

In cities and even in factory towns, working conditions may have been difficult and dangerous, and inequalities of wealth may have been obvious, but in fact, workers and employers did have something in common; they might walk the same streets and attend the same churches, and workers might aspire to attain higher rungs on the economic ladder, climbing maybe a little closer to the top, a little farther from other laboring groups stuck close to the bottom.

Out in a labor camp, cut off from the rest of society, sleeping in a bunkhouse, eating in a mess hall, separated physically from one's employer and from all social amenities, it was evidently a lot easier to believe that workers and employers had nothing in common — and that the common interests of workers outweighed their differences, so that it made sense for the Wobblies to advocate "one big industrial union."

I don't know what the old shingle weaver did out there in the woods. He may have been a faller or a bucker or a choker-setter, or who knows? At any rate, he must have been working near the southern end of the Sound, because the rail line led ultimately to Tacoma.

One day, he had an accident — Mr. Bruner didn't know what had happened, but working around the weight of old growth fir logs and the sharp steel of axes and cross-cut saws, accidents were inevitable. Whatever happened, it cut or smashed one of the old shingle weaver's fingers. He couldn't work any more. But he couldn't leave. The only way out was by rail, and the next train wouldn't come until tomorrow. He would have to eat another meal in the mess hall, spend another night in the bunk house. But he was no longer an employee. When he walked into the mess hall for dinner, someone made him pay for his meal.

That was too much. Losing his finger was the kind of risk a man took. Getting charged for his dinner was an outrage. The company had literally added insult to injury.

The next day, when he climbed off the train in Tacoma, he walked up to a cop and asked, is there a lawyer who can do something for a working man?

The cop pointed to a two-story building just down the street. Right there, on the second floor, the injured man could find a lawyer — "a smart Jew lawyer" is the way Mr. Bruner recounted the story and, no doubt, that's exactly what the cop said. — who could help him.

The injured worker climbed the stairs to the lawyer's office. No one was there. But the door was open, so the worker went in. He looked at some of the papers on the lawyer's desk. It looked as if this lawyer didn't lose many cases. The worker decided to wait. Eventually, the lawyer came back. He took the case. They sued the company. They won. The worker got damages in the low four figures — pretty big money for those days.

So, the old shingle weaver told Wayne Bruner, brandishing one of his stubs, he hadn't sold this finger cheaply.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.