Big Cut

Most of the Pacific Northwest’s ancient forests were cut by hand. With ax and saw, timber cutters bit into the tallest, oldest, hardest conifers in the deep woods of the Cascades during the last decades of the 19th Century. Here’s an odd portrait of a crosscut filer surrounded by his work and by the sharp edges of the most time saving tool in the early timber industry. Timber cutters would get above the root flare at the base of the tree and from spring boards would make a deep horizontal crosscut with the long, sharp toothed two man saws. Then with axes they would chip down to the crosscut, directing its fall by using the weight of the tree to bring it down. A good team with a sharp saw could set the crosscut in a few minutes and then spend the rest of the fall doing ax work.

In a way the filer is like a watchsmith, fine tuning the most minute parts of a an industrial tool that sliced through centuries. In the portrait he seems surrounded by precision timepieces.



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This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.


  1. The USFS says it takes 200 years for an old growth stump to completely decay. At places like Lake Quinault, you can still see them, complete with the notches for the springboards, after 100 years. In twice that time they will disappear entirely, leaving no trace of the majestic natural cathedrals that once were the norm in our surrounding forests. We have lost a lot from all that cutting – all the more reason to save what little is left. And still, I have to admire what our ancestors did with simple hand tools…..


  2. There was a pallet stacked high with springboards at the Weyerhaeuser archives. I recall reading that a filer at a mill, at least, worked in private to guard his knowledge. Thanks for posting.


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