‘Shovels and mattocks’
The rail lines could only go so far into the precipitous terrain (one-fifth of the Cohutta Wilderness has slopes steeper than 60 percent). And as Witherow’s father told him, just getting to the timber was a laborious, back-breaking process.
“A team of three or four men would clear brush into the area,” he related second-handedly, “and then another team would come in and clear out a road. They would use shovels and mattocks to dig out every root that was in the way — anything that could get in the way and snag a log. Daddy said that road was smooth when they got done.”
After the trees were cut down with giant two-man crosscut saws, they were trimmed of branches and cut into sections that teams of horses could pull. A man with spiked boots would walk beside or ride the logs and guide the team with a set of reins in his hands. When the terrain became too steep and dangerous for the horses in front, the driver would leap off and shout “gee” or “haw” and the trained animals would guide themselves into a “J-hole,” or hewn-out spot on the side of the road where they could get out of the way. The “J-grab” helping hold the logs to the team would automatically unhook itself as the horses made the turn, freeing them from their load.
Another man “drivin’ grabs” would hook or unhook the logs at the appropriate time if the horses were slow to respond. Still, sometimes the horses did not get out of the way and were run over or dragged down the steep slopes and killed.
‘Go plumb off the ground’
“Pole roads,” or skidding roads, made of debarked trees set into the ground perpendicularly to the direction of the pull, were used on more level ground to make the job easier on the horses. Skidding in its modern form is still in use today as a log removal technique.
Another way to get logs out of the woods was “ball hooting,” according to Donna Gardner in the book about Polk and Fannin counties, “In Touch with the Past.” Her interview with the late Chris Boatwright, a former Murray County resident who lived near the western boundary line with Gilmer County, describes the method:
“The first crew came through and cut the trees and went on. The second crew ‘ball hooted’ the logs down the steep slope. First, they skinned the bark off the bottom of the log. Then they pointed the log’s nose. They would push those logs down the hill long ways. They was going so fast they would go plumb off the ground. Why, I’ve seen them go six feet in the air. They worked ahead of the men who skidded the logs. Sometimes it would be three or four weeks before a third crew would arrive and skid the logs out.”
At the bottom of the grade one of the rail lines would be nearby, or close enough for the horses to maneuver the logs, and the logs were loaded onto cars with a steam-powered engine and winch. According to “Conasauga,” a “Shay” steam locomotive with a Marion log loader was used on the main rail line:
“Often called ‘Sidewinder’ because the boiler box was offset to one side and the arms and linkage were on the other, the Shay was the most desirable steam locomotive ever made for mountainous terrain. It had a geared drive which gave (traction on) climbs and sharp curves. There was also a Climax locomotive for use in the (lumber) yard and a larger one for logging in the mountains. When the railroad reached Old Bray Field, a switching yard was built so the locomotives could be turned around.”
According to legend, Bray Field in the Cohuttas — which was once a settlement but now contains an extensive beaver pond — was so-named because the braying of mules could be heard in those days. Other old-timers contend it is simply named after a man called Bray.
A Millionaire’s Fun
In 1920 or ’21, railroad section crews were moving toward — and loggers were cutting on — Rough Creek near the Conasauga River. Again, Ms. Tovar:
“At this time the grading work on the railroad beds was done under contract using Italian immigrant labor ... but the rail laying crews were employees of the lumber company. Teams of Percherons — very large horses — were used for snaking logs. Percherons, in spite of their great size, are the quickest and most agile of the draft horses and one of the most intelligent. They worked so hard and used so much energy that they required special nourishment. Boxcar loads of feed from Cincinnati (Ohio) and Timothy hay were brought in for them. A fire in Camp 21 in 1927 or 1928 killed eight to 10 teams of these valuable animals.”
In his book, “I’ve Had a Millionaire’s Fun,” the late L.P. “Mose” Painter — who worked as a fireman and then as an engineer on the rails — wrote that it took about 10 tons of coal a day to make the 32-mile trip into the mountains and the return run to Conasauga.
“The engines ran an average speed of 10 to 12 miles an hour ... they were powerful engines that weighed about 80 tons with coal and water,” Painter wrote. “We hauled 40-foot standard gauge flat cars from the mill back into the mountains. The log loaders had a track on top of the log cars. Rails on the cars held the logs steady. We’d start at the engine and work toward the back loading two bunks to the car. It took 12 flat cars a day to run the mill and that was approximately 80,000 board feet of lumber. We worked not less than 10 hours a day, anywhere from 10 to 24 hours a day to keep the sawmill running. It was pretty hard work.”
A native West Virginian, Painter was lured to the lumber company along with his father and the rest of the family in 1924. He eventually moved to Dalton and became a chief innovator in the fledgling tufted carpet industry as it evolved from the early hand-sewing days of making bedspreads.
When an associate once remarked that Painter’s innovations eventually made several people millionaires in the carpet industry — but not himself — he reportedly said, “Well, I’ve had a millionaire’s fun.”
Boatwright remembered the days he worked arduously with the Conasauga company, and later with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“I worked for the Conasauga Lumber Co. in the Hoover days,” he recalled of the 1929-1933 Depression years when Herbert Hoover was president. “They kept me going all through the Hoover days.”
Boatwright helped build the roads to get the logs out and also cut the timber.
“I pulled a crosscut saw all day sometimes,” he recollected. “It sure made the supper table look good.”
Boatwright remembers “dragging the logs to the tracks to be taken out by steam engines below Potato Patch Mountain.” The peak was one where a “spike camp” was located away from the main camp.