MAY DAY IS much more than just another pagan festival celebrating the return of the sun or a communist country’s excuse for a parade.
May Day in America used to be a celebration of the workers.
For most of the history of the Olympic Peninsula that work was logging.
The first logging on the Peninsula was done by the Native Americans who used fire to cut down cedars for canoes, split lumber and much of their material culture.
The Hudson Bay Co. started logging for money in 1848 on Discovery Bay, cutting spars for His Majesty’s Navy.
Sailors were natural loggers, rigging lines and skidding logs down trails made out of half-buried poles laid in the mud to form a puncheon road.
A hundred local S’Klallam were hired for a variety of trade goods to drag the logs down to the water where they were trimmed and loaded on the Hudson Bay ship Beaver for shipment to England.
Unknown to the British loggers, the Oregon Treaty of 1846 ended the joint occupation of the Oregon Territory, moving the U.S. boundary north to the 49th parallel.
The Beaver was impounded and towed back to Fort Steilacoom, where she was sold and relieved of her ship’s stores of brandy and champagne by the locals.
The first sawmill on the Peninsula was built in Port Townsend in 1853.
It was a water-powered wonder that cut planks that were so crooked it was said houses built with them would be wider at one end than the other and narrow in the middle.
Industrial age logging didn’t start until the coming of the railroad in 1914, a momentous event that coincided with the completion of the Elwha Dam and the construction of one of the world’s largest sawmills in Port Angeles.
Timber was cut by loggers living in primitive shacks “as drafty as a picket fence” in logging camps scattered across the Peninsula.
It was said at the time loggers worked in three shifts, one quitting, one breaking in and one working 11-hour days, six days a week.
They returned at the end of the day to a smoky, vermin-filled bunkhouse while dining on beans and bacon in the cookhouse with one day off to wash their woolies, change the straw in their mattress and grease their cork boots.
Mill workers might have had it easier with a 10-hour day, six days a week, but injuries inflicted by the shingle saws made the dangers as gruesome as anything the loggers suffered in the woods.
About 1890, the Shingleweavers formed the first union organization in the Pacific Northwest and played a pivotal role, with the Industrial Workers of the World, aka Wobblies, in the 1916 Everett Massacre, the 1919 Centralia Massacre and the Seattle General Strike of 1919.
All of this bloodshed, violence and death was a sacrifice for the worker’s right to an eight-hour work day that left them eight hours to sleep and eight hours to do what they wanted for themselves.
The Shingleweavers did even better than that, winning a six-hour day in a labor contract that greatly reduced the devastating injuries suffered in the shingle mills.
The woods are always changing.
With the invention of diesel power railroad logging was replaced by truck logging.
The chainsaw replaced the misery whip.
The portable steel tower replaced the spar tree.
Once loggers could drive to work every day and go home in the evening, to the logging camps melted back into the brush.
All of these changes have made the woods and mills safer places to work on this May Day.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild [email protected].