Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy, Part 3
The Great 1910 Fire, which leveled some three million acres of virgin timber in northern Idaho and western Montana, most of it in a wind-driven 48-hour firestorm that claimed the lives of 87 firefighters – most of them skid row bums recruited from the streets of Spokane, Washington.
10 MINUTE READ
This is the third part of “Felt Necessities: Engines of Forest Policy,” a series of essays tracing the history of the conservation movement in the United States, and its influence on the nation’s ever-shifting forest policy.
The series expands significantly on a half-day lecture Evergreen founder, Jim Petersen, delivered to a graduate-level forestry class at the University of Idaho in February 2017.
The term “felt necessities” is taken from The Common Law, a book of essays assembled in 1881 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in which he explains the historic underpinnings of the nation’s legal system. President Theodore Roosevelt thought so much of Holmes’ essays that nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1902.
We hope you enjoy this series and find it informative. Your comments are most welcome. “Felt Necessities” will subsequently be available in book form. Click on the number to be directed to Parts 1 and 2 of the series. Part 1 Part 2
One hundred and twelve years have passed since the National Forest System was formed and the U.S. Forest Service was established. By my count, the nation’s felt necessities have gone through four, maybe five, great transformations, each one orchestrated by visionaries from the public and private sectors whose strong personalities, visions and negotiating skills bring us to where we are today.
The Great 1910 Fire, which leveled some three million acres of virgin timber in northern Idaho and western Montana, most of it in a wind-driven 48-hour firestorm that claimed the lives of 87 firefighters – most of them skid row bums recruited from the streets of Spokane, Washington. Their firefighting tools were shovels and axes. Many didn’t even have proper shoes.
Smoke from the fire drifted all the way to New York City, touching off a public outcry of such enormity that Congress was forced to put the Forest Service in the firefighting business alongside a set of privately funded fire cooperatives that had been formed in the West in the wake of the 1902 Yacolt Burn, a 700,000-acre conflagration formed by winds that drove together a series of blazes in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon.
Weyerhaeuser Timber Company general manager, George S. Long – a gifted executive who shunned publicity – estimated his company’s virgin timber losses in southwest Washington to be north of 500 million board feet, so much that Weyerhaeuser investors were forced to build a sawmill they hadn’t planned to build in Longview, Washington. My Petersen grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant and millwright who later owned sawmills on the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, helped build the Longview mill.
But it was the irrepressible Pinchot, who had been fired from his Chief’s post in early 1910 by then President William Howard Taft – Teddy Roosevelt’s successor - for publicly interfering in the political affairs of his Interior Secretary, Richard Ballinger. Ballinger, a former Seattle mayor who had served as Commissioner of the notoriously corrupt General Land Office during the Garfield Administration. Pinchot had seen Ballinger’s appointment as an ominous sign for the conservation movement. It was to the extent that Ballinger had close ties to wealthy New York industrialists who were interested in developing Alaska’s coal deposits.
Pinchot’s never missed a beat following his firing. Indeed, he continued to act as though he was still Chief. He thus stepped into the public breech in September of 1910 with a scathing rebuke of Congress that put Foggy Bottom on notice that, while he was no longer Chief, Pinchot’s views and his influence had not been diminished by his firing. In fact, he was more frequently quoted following the 1910 Fire than was his successor, Henry Graves. Here is what Pinchot told a reporter from Everybody’s Magazine, a popular publication of the day. Note - in Pinchot’s choice of words - his exceptional flair for drama.
“For the want of a nail, the shoe was cast, the rider thrown, the battle lost. For want of trails the finest white pine forests in the United States were laid waste and scores of lives lost. It is all loss, dead irretrievable loss, due to the pique, the bias, the bullheadedness of a knot of men who have sulked and planted their hulks in the way of appropriations for the protection and improvement of these national forests.”
I would have liked to have been the reporter how nailed this Pinchot exclusive, but I would not have wanted to be a member of Congress in Pinchot’s cross-hairs, though I suspect his rant put a smile on George S. Long’s face.
Pertinent here to our story is the fact that Long had led the formation of the first privately funded fire cooperatives following the Yacolt Burn, the first being the Clearwater Timber Protection Association at Potlatch, just north of here, in, I believe, 1903; the connection being that many of the same Midwestern lumbermen who invested in the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company were also Potlatch investors, and the further connection being the presence of so much western white pine in northern Idaho, a wood quite similar to eastern white pine, a preferred species among Midwestern lumbermen.
Long was also the power behind a historic Spokane meeting that brought together lumbermen from all over the region who shared Long’s desire to attack the wildfire crisis head-on, which meant patrolling one’s own land during wildfire season, helping one another extinguish fires as quickly as possible and contributing money to a public education program.
What you must appreciate here is that these lumbermen – with whom Teddy Roosevelt had such a stormy relationship – were the ones who recognized that conservation based on the still largely unknown and unproven practice of forestry, required of them that they first attack the West’s frequent wildfires head-on.
It would be another 30-plus years before the parallel idea that cutover land ought to be quickly replanted gained much traction. Replanting land would not become an article of faith until western lumbermen formed the Tree Farm System in 1941. By then, there was enough of a nursery system in place in the West to support an ambitious tree planting program.
The Spokane meeting that George S. Long organized took place Monday, January 4, 1909 in the office of Albert Flewelling, otherwise known as “Judge” Flewelling, a lumberman who had made his first fortune in eastern white pine in the Great Lakes region, and now aimed to repeat his feat in western white pine with land and mills he owned in the St. Joe and St. Maries River drainages – rivers I suspect you know well from your silvicultural field work.
Among those gathered in Flewelling’s office: Frank Davies of the Rutledge Timber Company, another Weyerhaeuser venture. Davies had hosted a December 8, 1908 meeting of Idaho cooperatives, at which time it was decided a regional meeting was a good idea. Also present: D.P. Simons, Jr., Washington Forest Fire Association; E.N. Brown, Clearwater Timber Protective Association, Idaho; J.P. McGoldrick of Idaho’s McGoldrick Lumber Company, Idaho; timber legend, T.J. Humbird, Humbird Lumber Company, Sandpoint, Idaho; Clark W. Thompson, Wind River Lumber Company, Washington; M.P. Hunt and C.H. Fancher, Milwaukee Land Company, Idaho; George Cornwall, Timberman publisher and co-founder of the Pacific Logging Congress, Oregon; F.C. Knapp, Peninsula Lumber Company, Washington; Frank H. Lamb, Lamb Timber Company, Washington; Bill Deary, Potlatch Lumber Company, Idaho; G.W. Millett, Montana and, of course, Long himself.
The meeting dragged on for two days before those in attendance named their umbrella group the Pacific Northwest Forest Protection and Conservation Association, and elected Flewelling their first president. I find the enlightened stringing together of the words “forestry,” “protection” and “conservation” to be its own indicator of good things to come.
A couple of interesting backstories here. It was Bill Deary who selected the Potlatch mill site near the Palouse River at Potlatch. When completed, it was the largest white pine sawmill in the world. When asked why he had rejected Moscow as a mill site, the plain-spoken Deary stabbed a stubby pencil into a map at Moscow and declared, “Because there isn’t enough water here to baptize a bastard!”
The old Rutledge mill in Coeur d’ Alene, at one time the largest sawmill on earth, sat on the present site of the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s world-class golf course, and it boomed its logs in the lake where the famous floating green is now tethered. One of my great uncles logged for Edward Rutledge most of his life. Duane Hagadone, who built the resort and golf course, is rumored to have made a small fortune by retrieving perfectly preserved old growth logs from their watery graves beneath his floating green.
As for Jim Humbird’s Sandpoint colossus, it sat on the beach just north of the present- day Edgewater Motel location. Condominiums now occupy some of the site. My Albertson grandfather, a cattleman, and his brother bought two sections of cutover timberland north of Sandpoint – a so-called “stump ranch” - from Jim Humbird in 1916. It remains exceptionally productive timberland.
And “Judge” Flewelling? I will hazard a guess that he readily accepted the presidency of the newly-minted fire cooperative because, as Great Lakes lumberman, he had seen entire towns in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan wiped out by wildfires. The 1871 Pestigo Fire, which burned the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, claimed an estimated 2,400 lives in Wisconsin.
George S. Long also saw to it that two of the Forest Service’s best and brightest young men were invited the Spokane meeting: E.T. Allen, who was then District Forester for District 6, which included National Forests in western Oregon and Washington, and Bill Greeley, Allen’s District 1 counterpart for all of Montana and parts of Idaho, South Dakota and eastern Washington.
Long did not know Greeley, but Allen did and, that was the only recommendation needed. They had both worked for Pinchot in the Forest Service’s Washington office, and were members of SAF’s Pennsylvania Avenue rat pack.
Allen and Greeley had last seen one another in California in the summer of 1905, during the months when Greeley was riding the Sierra’s doing timber inspection work and laying out thinnings in overstocked ponderosa pine forests.
Allen was there as California’s first State Forester, a post for which Pinchot had recommended him. Although the two young foresters had little in common on a personal level – Allen drank heavily and the pious Greeley never drank - both brought exceptional leadership and communications skills to the difficult and challenging job of convincing lumbermen and Congress that good forestry and conservation were going to require enormous investments of public and private capital,
Allen would go on to run the Western Forestry and Conservation Association for more than 30 years, and Greeley would become – at least in my mind – the greatest Chief in the history of the United States Forest Service.
I think the real significance of the Spokane meeting is that felt necessity – in this case the need to address the West’s wildfire crisis as a precursor to forestry’s grand entrance - ran ahead of federal forest policy, which did not catch up with what Long and his fellow lumbermen were doing until the Weeks Law was ratified in 1911, the year following the Great 1910 Fire.
But it wasn’t until 1924, with Greeley at the Forest Service helm, that Congress ratified the Clarke-McNary Act, which put the Forest Service in the firefighting business alongside the West’s rapidly expanding fire cooperatives. Years later, Greeley would sheepishly admit that, during sometimes raucous Clarke-McNary debate, he had hidden in the Senate cloakroom so he could secretly pass favorable questions and answers to supportive Senate members.
Greeley’s determination to force Congress to squarely face the West’s wildfire crisis rested in the fact that Pinchot had named him District 1 forester in 1909, less than a year before the Great 1910 Fire. He thus oversaw the gruesome task of attempting to identify and then bury the mostly unrecognizable remains of 87 dead firefighters.
In 1911, Pinchot’s successor, Henry Graves, brought Greeley back to the Forest Service’s Washington office to oversee administration of the Weeks Law. Spurred on by what he called “memories of blazing canyons and smoking ruins of little settlements and canvas-wrapped bodies,” he was, he said, “an evangelist out to get converts.”
The 1910 conflagration had left a lasting impact on the lives of countless eyewitnesses, one being a logger named Bill Nearing. Born in Canada in 1898, Nearing was 15 when he first logged in the upper reaches of the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River behind an iron gray mare named May. He was running a string of pack horses for the Forest Service when lightning set the first 1910 reburn in 1919.
Men, firefighting tools and food were bussed from Spokane to the headwaters of Deception Creek on the Little North Fork. Nearing then transferred the tools and food to his pack string for the 22-mile trek up Leiberg Creek and down Teepee Creek to the McGee Ranger Station. Meantime, the fire raged in tinder dry snags and downed timber.
Frank McPherson, a pioneer packer and trapper, who owned a ranch downriver from McGee, vividly remembered the 1931 reburn of what remained from the 1910 and 1919 fires. At Cinnamon Creek, about 15 miles below his house, the roar of flames that jumped the river was such that he could not hear commands from a fire boss who was shouting in his ear. McPherson later recalled that the entire eight square mile drainage was incinerated in 15 minutes.
When I was a boy, my grandmother and her sister regaled me with stories about their harrowing escapes from the 1910 Fire. Both escaped on trains that ran through firestorms, my grandmother on an open flatcar and my great aunt in a wooden passenger car that got so hot that the exterior varnish melted. It was still dripping off the coach when she stepped off the train platform in Missoula, Montana.
Meantime, my grandmother transferred her smoldering possessions to a sternwheeler at Kingston, Idaho and rode down the Coeur d’Alene River to Harrison. My grandfather and his crew stayed behind and somehow managed to keep the fire from overtaking his mill and log deck. Today, the only evidence of the old mill is a log pond that he and his crew dug by hand. Kids love fishing it for rainbows and cutthroat that seem to prefer it to the rushing waters of hardscrabble Eagle Creek.
Apart from a 2016 wildfire that burned its way downhill into Settler’s Grove, an ancient cedar stand on the West Fork of Eagle Creek – a few miles from the CCC camp from which my father built trails and fought fire in 1934 - the vast North Fork drainage hasn’t experienced a big fire since 1931, and that is not a good sign. Sooner, not later, northern Idaho residents will be caught up in another 1910-scale firestorm. We are better equipped – but no better prepared – to deal with it than we were 107 years ago. And tens of thousands more of us now live in harm’s way.
Copyright James D. Petersen and the Evergreen Foundation. All rights reserved. No part of this series can be copied in any electronic or written manner without the written permission of Jim Petersen and the non-profit Evergreen Foundation