Forests fueled homes and the economy

Idaho’s forests had a towering impact on early history

Well before Idaho became a state in 1890, indigenous and emigrant people were taking advantage of the many benefits of the forest.  Prior to European settlement, the Shoshoni, Kootenai and Nez Perce people used small pine trees for tipi poles and larger trees for canoes. These native Idahoans were also active land managers, often setting fires to regenerate the forest floor with fresh forage for their horses.  In 1805, explorers Lewis and Clark made canoes from trees near Orofino and road the dugouts down the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean. In 1840, missionary Henry Spalding built a water-powered sawmill near Lapwai to provide lumber for his burgeoning settlement.

Nez Perce holding war poles in a smoky Idaho forest. Photo courtesy of Idaho State Historical Society digital archives. Item ID: 63-221.18

During the mid 1800’s small water-powered sawmills sprang up in the Idaho Territory to serve the needs of the mining and farming towns and the inhabitants’ never-ending demand for lumber.

During the 1800s, lumbermen thought only of cutting down all the big trees in the forest, then moving on to a new forest. They gave no thought to saving the younger trees for later harvests, or to planting young trees for future forests. After the lumbermen moved on, other people burned the stumps and trash. Much of the trash was crushed trees which were too small for lumber. The cleared land was then plowed for farming.

Early laws regulated the use of lumber.  People could use trees for home and farm use and a  man could buy as much as 160 acres of forest land. Sustainable forestry was an unknown concept at the time, so when the trees were gone, he was out of the lumbering business.

Large lumber companies were not allowed to cut Idaho timber until 1892. Even when the railroads came through Idaho, they could not cut Idaho’s trees.  Wooden ties for the tracks came from as far away as the Black Hills of South Dakota.

During the 1880s and 1890s, most of the lumber that was building America was being cut in the Great Lakes states. By 1900, the forests of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota were depleted. Lumbermen turned their eyes to the abundant forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Once the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed across Idaho’s northern panhandle in 1882, lumber was easy to ship. Idaho’s white pine was a special prize which sold for high prices.

A load of white pine timber, harvested in North Idaho, heads by rail to a mill.  Photo courtesy of Idaho State Historical Society digital archive. 

By 1890, Idaho had achieved statehood and lumbermen from the Great Lakes country began buying Idaho forest land. At least one company had a mill at Coeur d’Alene as early as 1890, though it was against the law until 1892.

Watch incredible archive footage of logging in Idaho on the Clearwater here.