Friday, May 15, 2009

Early Saw Mills.

This is a photo of Sutter's Mill, a sawmill where gold was discovered while building a ditch to carry water to it, thus starting the California Gold Rush. Please click on any of the pictures for a larger view.
Photo from Wikipedia.

From California State parks website:
"James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848 on the South Fork of the American River in the valley the Nisenan Indians knew as Cullumah. This event led to the greatest mass movement of people in the Western Hemisphere and was the spark that ignited the spectacular growth of the West during the ensuing decades. The gold discovery site, located in the still visible tailrace of Sutter's sawmill, in present day Coloma California, is one of the most significant historic sites in the nation".
Ben tells me that a tribe of local Indians found the source of the rich Gold Sands and became very rich.

As with most of the old California mills, I can find very little information on what type of a headrig saw that they ran, but later illustrations of the Sutter Mill show that it had a frame saw headrig.
Photo: Humboldt State University collection.

Note the sixteen foot "Misery Whip Saw" across the front of the stump. The handles have been removed for unknown reasons.

Photo from Internet.

Hand powered "Whip Saw mill" or Pit Mill. This was back in the day before hard-hats. I couldn't help but notice that the wedge in the end of the log was right over the lower sawyers head. The Old-Timers must have gotten a lot of headaches.

Photo,By Unknown.
The above is a "Frame Saw", used in various sizes and configurations. Basically the frame is used to stretch the saw tightly, and hold it it place. A common Hack Saw is a good example of a frame saw.

Photo from Internet.
Illustration of a Muley Saw, where only the saw moved up and down instead of the whole framework. The design required a much thicker and deeper saw blade to be able to support itself without flexing. It was moved up and down through the log just like a piston on a connecting rod and crankshaft.

Sawmills in history:

One thing that California has in great abundance, and in great size, is trees. California has some of the largest trees in the world. The early settlers sawed their lumber with a "Misery Whip Rip Saw", or they used a much lighter grade of saw installed in a framework, called a “Frame saw”. The lumber was hand sawn over a pit or up on a crib assembly. One man stood above the log and another stood below the log. The saw was pulled up and down, by handles top and bottom. They sawed the full length of the log, then the saw was then moved back to the other end, and another board was sawn off the log. The slabs that were cut off the log were laid flat on the crib and they were sawn to the desired width. The lumber was of poor quality because the sizing was not that accurate or consistent. Before being used it had to be matched and trimmed for the best use. The lumber was then ready to use. Usually the size lumber that was needed was already predetermined by what they were building.

Later on, when material and location allowed, they built mechanized mills that had very large framesaws that were moved up and down. The mills were powered by water wheels, either under-shot or over-shot wheels, depending on the drop and flow of their water source. The log was moved through the saw with a carriage assembly, much like a railcar, they would clamp the log over the side of the carriage and saw off one slab of wood at a time. The boards were then edged to a usable size board.

The Muley Saw was almost unique to the west coast. The timber was much larger on the coast, and very large moving frameworks were needed to move the saws through the large logs. Steel and machinery was hard to come by on the coast because most of the steel mills were back east, and any machinery was at a premium to have delivered. The large frame saws were very cumbersome, and the Old-Timers soon figured out that if they used a large, thick saw blade, without any tension framework that was needed to move the sawblade tensioned in the frame, that they could cut lumber much much faster and truer.
In a conversation with Ben, we were discussing the scarcity of steel on the west coast, and we talked about how they would take the steel off of sailing ships abandoned in the San Francisco Bay. The ships were abandoned when they lost their crews to the Gold Fields. Many Sailors jumped ship in San Francisco to go make their fortune. The hulls of the abandoned ships were stripped clean of any metals, and the hulls were used as Barrooms and brothels among other things. Most of that steel ended up as picks and shovels in the gold fields, but some of it was used to build saw mills, to make lumber for the growing city of San Francisco. My own 2G Grandfather Ben Lockhart jumped ship in San Francisco to marry his Sweetheart from New York, and find their fortune in the Gold fields. All that they found was disease. They soon abondoned the Gold for their health, and made their way to Branscomb.

The Muley saw wasted a lot of timber because of the wide sawcut that it made. The saw kerf was up to 1/2 inch wide. Timber was in abundance, and machinery wasn't. So the "Muley Saw Mill" was the most popular on the west coast. Most of the west coast mills were powered by over-shot water wheels, again because metal machinery was a premium item on the coast. The Muley blade was about 1/4" to 3/8" thick and about a foot front to back. I've never found how tall it was, but it must have been fairley tall to cut throught the large diameter logs that they found on the coast.

Some of the more modern early mills used a triple saw combination of circular saws. Where a board was cut off the top of the log, and removed. The saw was inset far enought into the top of the log to clear the arbor nut of the two lower blades. I often wondered why they called it a triple saw, because it actually had four saw blades. One to cut down throught the top of the log, a sideways saw set 90 degrees from the top cut, to remove the top board. Then the two lower saws that cut the slab off the bottom of the log. It cut the top board and the bottom slab all in one pass of the carriage.
From some historical writings dug up by Oldmanriver: "Messrs. Simpson & White built the next saw-mill in the valley, which is located about six miles west of Cahto, in Jackson valley, This is driven by water-power, and the saw is a "muley." Its capacity is two thousand feet daily, and it is estimated that it has cut one and three-fourths million feet all told."
Most historians know that Messrs. Simpson and White were some of the first people to settle in Cahto Valley, and were the first to built a mechanized lumber mill.
They chose Jackson Valley, because the valley was surrounded large Redwood Trees. It was easier to build the mill next to the trees, rather than take the trees to the mill like we do today. (That is, if there were any mills left.)
The Muley Sawn lumber became very popular on the west coast because it was the smothest and most accurately sawn lumber. It was much preferred over hand sawn lumber which was the crudest lumber. People didn't like the circular sawn lumber because of the large circular tooth marks on the boards, that were hard to plane out. Efficiency eventually took over, and the band saw mill became the most popular high efficiency, and production, mill.
Bandsaw mills didn't become popular until the 1880's. They still use bandsaws, and they still use a form of the frame saw with multiple blades installed in it, they call it a gang saw.
The heroes of the old saw mills were the saw filers. They were the ones that figured out how to keep the saws sharp and cutting true. Some of my family are saw filers. They tell me stories about what the modern mills can do that just boggles the mind. A lot of lumber nowadays is made up of composite pieces, flakes, chips and oriented strands. Wow!


omr said...

Impressive amount of research Ernie!
As a sidenote to Ben and your info about salvaging metal from the abandoned ships in the Bay... I saw a drawing of some of hundreds of abandoned ships in the Bay at that time. As best as my morning memory recollects, something like 2/3 of Chile's sailing ships were abandoned to rot in the Bay at that time as getting to the gold fields was all that mattered. Those Chileans, and other experienced foreign miners tutored many whites at mining...only to get chased out later.

Ernie Branscomb said...

I wonder how many ships were stolen, just to make it to the Gold fields.

I don't know the circumstances of my 3G Grandfather's leaving his fathers ship. And I don’t know what happened to his ship “The Hungarian”, but it was a full rigged clipper ship. Not the kind of ship that would just be abandoned. The old sailing Captains were not above “Shanghaiing” a crew to man their ships. Many young men had gone into a bar to wet their whistles and woke up on the deck of a ship bounding across the foaming main.

Anonymous said...

Ernie, there is a lot more to band saws just cutting straight. You have to make the saws stay on the wheels too. That in itself is an accomplishment with the feed rate sometimes at over 400 FPM. As you mentioned before that must take some kind of genius but that is not entirely true. There is a great deal of magic involved.


Ernie Branscomb said...

That's strange that you would use magic to keep your saw blades on the wheels. That’s the same stuff that I use to make refrigeration run. How else can it be explained that a pound 32 deg ice can soak up 144 B.T.U.s of heat and still be 32 deg.

The problem that I have, is those mean little bastards called “Gremlins”. They know all of the counter spells to use that sometimes overcome my magic. Some days they follow me around all day. Other days, it’s just great, they leave me alone. I don’t know when the Gremlins are there, and when they aren’t, because they are invisible. Sometimes I try to tell people about them, and how they continually try to overcome my magic. People look at me like I’m crazy or something.

When I’m out there trying to trick the Gremlins, and people start asking me what I’m doing, I just mumble something like, “I’m Sorry, it’s a professional secret”.

I know about the magic crown on the band saw wheels. Do the Gremlins ever steal your crown and you have to grind a new one? Or does it just stay there forever. I should tell you though, my gremlins have a close association with your sawyer. They are always telling him to go ahead and take the Magic out of your blade, just to take a few minutes break.

omr said...

Who even remembers that Sutter had two mills? A lot of the early finds were between the two mills. Here is the SF museum link to the 'real story' of the gold find, the unpaid Mormons who offered to build the mill, and their unnoticed-by-history early gold finds.

Ernie Branscomb said...

I haven't had a chance to read to whole story of Sutter's mills that OMR provided a link for, but I have scanned it. It looks to be very interesting. One mill was a grist mill and the other was a sawmill. Poor old Sutter and Marshall didn’t fair that well after their discovery. They forgot to account for the “man’s inhumanity to man” factor.

The next link that I’m posting here The saw in history is a great article written by Henry Disston and Sons back in 1916. It pretty much covers the history of the early mills. But it leaves out the uniqueness of the western pioneer mills. Like Sutter’s mill and others.

Anonymous said...

May 17 7:50 AM

Alright Ernie, I have stewed over this post of yours long enough so going to set you straight. That magic crown you mentioned is BS!! Flat wheels are the best!!!!!! The only reason some put a crown in their wheels is they CAN'T make a flat wheel. I only tell you this because you must be reading something off the internet. BEST GUESS.
Ask uncle Edwin for a second opinion if you want.
I just want you to know sawfiling is not refridgeration but true magic.


Anonymous said...

By the way Ernie, I am sure suzy blah blah is magic so beware.

We love you suzy... That means Ernie too.


Robin Shelley said...

Absolutely, Oregon... on all counts!

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