Mossback’s Northwest: Lumberjacks, meet the Lumberjills

You’ve heard of Rosie the Riveter, but how about Rosie the Logger? During both world wars, the Northwest brought working women to the woods.

Twice in the 20th century, a Northwest wood came to the rescue in wartime. At the same time, the cutting of that wood triggered advances that changed not only how loggers worked, but also who worked in the logging business. One war brought the eight-hour workday, cut from 12 or more — and another saw a cadre of working women move into the woods. You’ve heard of Rosie the Riveter? How about Rosie the Logger?

In the early years of flight, light, durable wood was what aircraft were made of. The Wright Brothers' famous Flyer, Kitty Hawk, which first flew in 1903, was made of Appalachian red spruce and ash. Aircraft builders soon realized that spruce made an ideal material for planes, and the demand for such planes increased dramatically with the start of World War I. The Allied forces needed raw material to take the fight against Germany to the air, and it turned out that the best material was Sitka spruce. These tall trees grow in the coastal Northwest from northern California to Alaska. Even before the U.S. entered the war, demand for spruce exploded and the region’s old forests had what was needed.

The war coincided with labor strife in the Northwest woods as the radical Industrial Workers of the World — the Wobblies — and other unions sought to organize timber workers. Conditions in the camps were lousy, the hours brutal. America’s entry into the war also created a shortage of workers. The U.S. government stepped in and the military virtually took over the industry, driving out the IWW yet also improving some basic working conditions and imposing an eight-hour workday. In Vancouver, Washington, a special mill was built to process millions of board feet of Sitka spruce to keep the Allies in the air. The military formed both an army and a civilian unit, The Spruce Product Division, to make sure the supply of the wood was maximized. One hundred and eight million board feet of Sitka spruce was cut to fight the Red Baron and others of his ilk. As many as 30,000 soldiers worked in the timber division, not in Europe.

Workers building airplanes during WWI took advantage of the flexibility of Sitka spruce wood. (National Archives)

Sitka spruce was lighter than steel, flexible, buckle- and shatter-resistant. The virtues of the wood were well-known to Indigenous people, who built with it and used its pitch and resin for glue and waterproofing. When the first European explorers arrived in the region, they took tall, straight spruce trees for masts and, when Royal Navy rum rations ran out, crews brewed an alcoholic “spruce beer” in its place made by fermenting spruce needles with molasses.

The post-WWI period saw the value of spruce continue for aircraft. Sitka spruce was planted in Scotland, where soil and climate were conducive. It made sense from a national-defense standpoint in the 1920s, but by the time World War II rolled around, aluminum had mostly replaced spruce in planes, especially warplanes. That metal, though, could also be in short supply, so again, Sitka spruce was drafted.

Spruce and plywood were used in aircraft that carried troops and cargo into war zones, like the gliders used on D-Day. Britain’s de Havilland aircraft company designed a twin-engine, fast-and-light combat bomber, the Mosquito, that was made largely of wood, including Sitka spruce. It was called the “Wooden Wonder,” and some called it “Mossie.” (I wonder why that caught my attention?)

Demand for timber and Sitka spruce boomed during the war years, and as in other industries, a large chunk of the labor shortage was filled by women. If the Northwest logging business had been dominated by Bunyanesque lumberjacks, the war years saw cadres of so-called “Lumberjills” enter the woods.

Of course, they had been there for a long while. Historian Robert Walls says women have had a largely uncredited role in timber history. In WWI, some women had taken mill work and timber jobs generally held by teenage boys in logging camps — as whistle punks, for example. Whistle punks acted as signalers between those who “choked” the wood with cable and the donkey-engine operators whose machines then hauled the wood up and out of the logged zone. And women had long been cooks, bunkhouse maids and camp bookkeepers. As independent family logging operators came on the scene in the 1930s and flourished after the war, women’s roles continued — critical players much like women who run and work on family farms.

Young women working as log drivers during WWII. (National Archives)

With civilian and military demand for wood increasing with WWII, plus a shortage of men, women began to fill more roles: driving logging trucks and working in lumber mills. In the 1940s, a third of mill jobs in the region were filled by women, writes Walls. Timber historian Stewart Holbrook called it an “invasion of girls” doing “man-sized jobs.”

In Britain, women joined in timber cutting and forestry as part of the civilian Women’s Timber Corps and the Women’s Land Army, often working alongside German POW’s. Some women from Canada joined work crews in the UK.

And in British Columbia, women were also deployed. In search of more Sitka spruce, a group of lumberjills was sent to remote Haida Gwaii, then called the Queen Charlotte Islands. in northern B.C., to cut and process the trees which flourished there.

Valuable spruce stands were often tricky to access. At one point during the war, the U.S. government considered raiding Olympic National Park for spruce. The new national park managers pushed back and were able to save the park’s trees. But not wanting to obstruct the war effort, park planners gave up the Queets corridor — land which had been purchased for a parkway but was not yet part of the park. It yielded 3,000,000 board feet of Sitka spruce. But soon wood was not needed for aircraft as aluminum supplies increased and the war wound down.

But the search to cut and mill Sitka spruce played a role in major shifts in timberland labor —and helped to win two wars.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.