The Beaver Island Lumber Company
Every so often someone walking along the Kuebler Trail or the West Side Road stumbles across an old railroad spike and wonders how it came to be on Beaver Island. The answer is that it's one of the remnants of the Beaver Island Lumber Company's narrow-gauge railroad. Traces of its bed can still be seen in such places as south of the Township Airport.
Logging on Beaver, Garden, and High has always been practiced. The market for cordwood to supply Lake Michigan steamers gave James Strang his first Beaver Island experience in 1847, when he and two friends worked in the woods here to earn enough money to complete their passage home. Throughout the nineteenth century various logging operations came and went, leaving the boiler that now rests in the sand at Wicklow Beach and the High Island Mill used by the Israelites until they accidentally burned it down. But at the end of 1902 a company was formed that took a more serious approach to harvesting timber.
This was the Beaver Island Lumber Company, created to take advantage of the growing need for hardwood in the furniture industry. It purchased much timber land here, becoming the largest landowner ever. It bought the old Stebbins/Tilley mill and adjacent property along the northwest edge of the harbor, extended and fortified an old dock, and built a large new mill. It put up homes for the owners, smaller homes for the workers, and a boarding house, and went into operation in 1903, producing shingles and hardwood planks.
The Lumber Company's plan was to haul logs from the country on its own railroad, which they built from their roundhouse westward, circling Font Lake and heading south. It brought in crews of loggers, who would cut timber and load it on the train. They gradually worked their way south, setting up large camps along the way. They soon had a work force of over a hundred men.
The Lumber Company added stables and a blacksmith shop, and extended the dock to 500'. Their seven- or eight-car trains would run back and forth between St. James and the country. Islanders were allowed to hop on and ride for free. They went through three engines during their operation. The rails were always spreading, and accidents happened, including one in which the engineer was killed.
The workers included a large contingent from Freesoil, who had worked for the same bosses there; they were housed on a street that received their previous home's name: Freesoil Avenue. Another group came from Peshabetown and settled below Angeline's Bluff south of the Stone Circle; they would climb the hill to catch the train and ride to work.
Three camps were served by the railroad. Logs were stacked up to four stories high before loading on the train. A fourth camp was set up north of Iron Ore Bay; here, logs were wheeled into the Lake and boomed to the mill. In addition, anyone who wanted to cut logs on their own property could haul them to the railroad and receive payment in town. The mill sawed the logs into boards and shakes, which were then loaded on a steady stream of boats at their dock. Sawdust powered the mill, and the threat of fire was a constant danger.
Many of the loggers who worked here during the Lumber Company's twelve years of operation fell in love with the community and decided to stay when it closed down in 1915. The equipment was shipped off, including most of the rails. During its operation here, the Lumber Company accomplished several things. It thinned and opened up the lower west side; it provided an infusion of fresh blood to mix with the mainly Irish inhabitants; and it gave a real boost to the economy at a time when fishing was in decline. The workers supported the store that later became McDonough's Market, and their need for entertainment added to the general music and good times of the evenings in those days. After the Company left, its dock and buildings were used for other sawmills, such as the one run by Gus Mielke, who built the Rambler to haul his products (primarily fish boxes) to market.
Today our economy is dominated by the construction industry; half of the working men seem to be carpenters. Ninety years ago only a fifth of the work force were employed by the Beaver Island Lumber Company, but because of their sheer numbers they added a degree of bustle and snap that has not been seen since.