Woodcutters of the Eastern Sierra

There was a time in the history of the West, when if nothing else, a person could earn a living cutting wood. This was during the time of mining, railroads and wood gathering for pioneer households. The mines needed charcoal to fire their milling operations, the trains needed wood to produce steam, and the households needed wood for heating and cooking.

The woodcutters were in the Eastern Sierra region from 1860-1890, came from all walks of life and represented all nationalities. It was one of the first equal opportunity businesses. There were Italian charcoal burners called carbonari, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans and Euros all in need of extra cash.

The wood gathering was extremely hard work, and the men often had to climb steep hillsides with their mules, horses and burros. They used axes to cut limbs and saws to fell the gnarly Pinyon Pine trees. They would buck up the wood into four foot lengths and stack it. From there they would have to pack out load by load with their animals to wherever a wagon could get close enough to. The Chinese often packed burros with wood from their camps to the towns many miles away. It was an odd sight to see those strange looking processions going through the mining camps.

Other people were out burning wood in large piles to make charcoal for the ore mills. The mills had to have an intense heat source to reduce the precious ore, and charcoal was the only method at the time. One mill could require tens of thousands of bushels to get the gold or silver out. It must have been quite a sight to see large bonfires all over the hillsides at night in those days. And to hear the silence of the forest broken by the sounds of axes chopping trees for the first time in history.

The woodcutting business with the Indians was a sad deal. All those thousands of years pinenuts were one of their primary foods, and they considered the Pinyon groves to be sacred. When the miners began wiping out the trees on the hillsides, the Indians lost their valuable food source. Most of the animals were hunted out, the pinenut trees cut down for the mines, and all the seed bearing plants mowed by cattle and sheep. Sadly, the native people ended up cutting their own trees down to make a living.

There are woodcutter camps littered all over the Pinyon forests in the Eastern Sierra and throughout the Great Basin. Sometimes they would construct a makeshift corral and shelter. One easy method was to stack limbs and lengths of wood in a tipi shape against a tree. They brought tools with them like hand drills, axes, saws, shovels, hammer, nails and lots of wire. They usually left a bottle, broken glass, or old cans that can pinpoint the exact time they were there.

Every once in awhile the woodcutters got ahead of themselves or were run out of the country by a snow storm. They actually left piles of wood in certain areas that were never retrieved and sit there to this day. All that hard work for nothing! I have seen up to two cords of wood left stacked uphill against a tree near Bridgeport, CA. It is common to run into small piles of leftover wood most everyplace one may venture in the pinenut hills.

Places where charcoal burning was going on have small pieces of charcoal scattered in large circular areas. Brush has overgrown these spots now, but the charcoal lasts for eons. Instead of transporting wood to a wagon, the charcoal burners had to consolidate all the wood in one spot for burning. Then they would bag up the charcoal in bushel loads for packing out to the wagon.

In time the mines folded, the towns disappeard, automobiles replaced the railroad and there wasn’t a need for the mass consumption of wood anymore. There are few places that you can go in the entire Great Basin without seeing a stump from those days. The stumps, camps, and leftover woodpiles are now archeological sites and a fascinating glimpse into the history of the West.


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