THE evolution of the sawmill is largely due to conditions and demands of the lumber industry in America. The early colonists built and operated sawmills one hundred years before there was one in England. However, the wood-working industry was highly developed in that country long before the first sawmill was erected. So if a sawmill did not always appear in a colony soon after the first settlement, it does not follow that no lumbering was carried on. They had other means of manufacturing the forest products.
The pioneer of the wilderness with axe and wedge could easily supply his few wants in this respect; but in the villages which sprang up at each important trading port there was a demand for building material and ship timber, which the villagers themselves could not supply. Most of them were engaged in better-paying pursuits or professions; hence some labor found employment in manufacturing lumber by hand. The large timbers for house and ship building were hewn out and squared with a broad-axe by men who were experts with this tool. The planks, boards and boat-sides were mostly made by pit-sawing. The latter was a common industry in England; and one reason why that country had no sawmills until after 1768 was because the mobs, always opposed to labor-saving machinery, destroyed the first ones as fast as they were erected, thru fear that the pit-sawyers would be thrown out of employment.
Pit-sawing was done by two men with a long saw that had cross handles on each end. A stick of timber, hewed square, was placed over a pit, or elevated on trestles. One man stood on top and pulled the saw up while the other stood in the pit below and pulled it down. The workman on top who guided the saw along the chalk-line, and who was supposedly the better man, was called the pit-man. When sawmills were first substituted in this work the saw was held taut on the upward stroke by a springpole overhead, and was worked up and down by a wooden beam attached to a crank on the mill wheel. This wooden beam was called the pitman, and is still known by that name in every saw-mill in the country. Pit-sawing or whip-sawing, as it is often called, was not entirely abandoned on the introduction of saw-mills. This old method was still useful in sawing long stuff, be-cause in many mills the carriage was not long enough to saw planks of the desired length.
In the Hudson River Valley no settlement was made, nor house erected, by white men until 1614. Just when the labor of the settlers first took the form we call lumbering it is impossible to say. In 1623, nine years after the first house was built at New Amsterdam, three sawmills were erected by the Dutch West India Company; and with their erection begins the history of lumbering in the State of New York.*)
The machinery for these mills, which was shipped from Holland, was constructed to run by water power or by wind-mill. One of them was built on Governor's Island, and was probably operated by wind power; another, which stood on Sawmill Creek, a tributary of the East River, may have used a water wheel. In 1639 the mill on Governor's Island was based at the annual rental of 500 merchantable boards, half oak and half pine.
About the same time, perhaps a little earlier, some sawmills were built at Fort Orange (Albany) or in its immediate vicinity. Andries Corstiaensen, a master millwright, with two sawyers, was sent there from Holland in 1630. Among the settlers at Rensselaerwyck (Troy), in 1630, were Lawrens Lawrenssen and Barent Tomassen, sawyers. In 1636 Barent Pieterse Koeymans joined the colony, and in the fall of 1645 took charge of the Patroon's sawmills, being allowed 150 guilders a year for board and 3 stuyvers for every plank he sawed. In two years this mill cut over 4,000 boards. In 1673 Koeymans bought a large tract of land on the Hudson River, 12 miles south of Albany (the location of the present town of Coeymans), on which there were some desirable mill-sites, and where Cruyn Cornelissen and Hans Jonsen had erected sawmills as early as 1651.
The colonists soon made other settlements in the Hudson Valley, and in 1661 Frans Pietero Clavers built a sawmill on the little stream which runs into the river 2 miles north of Stuyvesant Landing, in what is now the town of Kinderhook, Columbia County. This stream has been known as the Saw Kill ever since. In 1663 a sawmill was built by Jan Barendsen Wemp on the Poesten Kill, a stream which empties into the Hudson at Troy. As the falls of the Poesten Kill (Puffing or Foaming Creek) furnished a strong water-power, it may be assumed that this mill was driven by a water-wheel.
In a letter to the Lords of Trade, England, dated 2d of January, 1701, the Earl of Bellomont says :
They have got about 40 sawmills up in this province (the province of New York) which I hear rids more woods and destroys more timber than all the sawmills in New Hampshire. Four saws are the most in New Hampshire that work in one mill, and here is a Dutchman, lately come over, who is an extraordinary artist at these mills. Mr. Livingston told me this last summer he had made him a mill that went with 12 saws. A few such mills will quickly destroy all the woods in the province at a reasonable distance from them.
For the first two hundred years the mills were of rude construction and of small capacity, most of them being limited to a single upright saw. At first this saw was attached directly to the pitman, the blade being steadied by a side pressure from guide blocks. Then an improvement was made by straming the saw between stirrups in a frame or "gate," the pitman being attached to the latter. As the turbine was then unknown, water power was obtained from a single overshot water-wheel.
Many of the first sawmills were built in combination with gristmills, often under the same roof, the power being used to drive them both or singly, as needed.
For the next hundred years after the founding of the colonies at New Amsterdam and Fort Orange (Albany) the settlement of the state was confined to the region of the Hudson and Mohawk valleys. The development of the country and growth of the lumber industry were slow compared to the progress which succeeded the Revolution. There being no means of transportation except in the river districts, the lumbermen, after supplying local demands, had to depend on the export business, which was confined largely to the English trade. There was a market for large white pine masts and ship-timber, which gave employment to axmen and raftsmen to some extent. But even at the close of the Revolution four-fifths of the state was still an unbroken wilderness, and where the large and populous city of Rochester now stands there was not a house or a white man to be seen one hundred and twenty years ago. Except in the Hudson and Mohawk counties, settlements and lumbering operations were not commenced earlier than one hundred and fifty years ago, while thruout a very large area nothing was attempted until a much later date. But it is interesting to notice, as at New Amsterdam, how soon the sawmill followed the first cabin, how quickly the lumber industry began in each pioneer settlement, and how closely it was associated with the development of the country.
At the beginning of the last century there was a lack of the tools and labor-saving appliances which are today considered indispensable in the lumber industry. Even the axe of the chopper was homemade—a single bit with a curved hickory handle, the rude handiwork of the nearest blacksmith; for the axe factories were yet to come, and the double-bitted axe had not been invented. Crosscut saws, which had to be imported from England, were scarce and costly; hence the tree trunks were made into logs by chopping instead of sawing. The millwrights were not much better off for tools. The first mill in Rensselaer County was built in 1792 by a man named Cross who "had no tools but an axe, saw and auger."
Skidways were rarely made, except where a stock of logs was left lying in the woods, the logs being usually hauled direct to the mill. Oxen were used for the most part in logging, the same teams being employed on farm work part of the year; for the lumberman was also a farmer.
There was no river driving then. The great White Pines stood close around the mill itself, and so thickly that the logs were quickly and easily "snaked" there. The old-fashioned saw-mill did not require much timber to stock it; hence several years would elapse before the haul became too long to be profitable. Then the lumberman would move his mill into another tract of timber and resume logging. It was not until years later that the lumbermen conceived the plan of driving the logs to the mill instead of moving the mill to the logs, and so started the practice of river driving.
The local market of each mill was Iimited to the distance which the sawed lumber could be transported on wagons over soft, newly built roads; no canals or railroads extended their limits. The greater outside market could be reached only by rafting the product and floating it down to the towns and cities, which were always located on some waterway. For this reason the mills were located on the upper waters of creeks or rivers, which furnished at the same time water power and an outlet to market. Every lumberman was a raftsman as well as a logger and a mill-owner.
The beginning of log-driving was co-incident with the sudden increase in the development of the country in the early part of last century. Former primitive methods of hauling logs from forest to mill were no longer adequate to supply the increasing demand. The haul had become too long to be profitable, and there were no canals or railroads in those days. It became necessary for the manufacturers either to move their sawmills up stream or to flood their logs down to the mills. Log-driving on the upper Hudson began about 1813. One of the first drives was from the Brant Lake Tract to the mills at Glen Falls. Others soon followed, and in a few years log-drivers were at work on every large river in the state.