“This was a challenging but truly enjoyable project. Even though most of the wood was deteriorated beyond further use, we were able to create patterns from much of what existed. A large percentage of the hand-forged metalwork was still intact and our historical research enabled us to pinpoint missing parts, restoring them to period authenticity.”
Ever found yourself yearning for a job in the great outdoors? Spend a couple weeks swinging a splitting maul and stacking firewood or maybe take an extended ‘vacation’ to cut some logs for extra money and you’ll likely be proud to get back to your regular job – whatever it is. Excursions like those are just small reminders of what was required to work with timber in the 1800’s. While the tasks are still time-consuming, gone are the days when getting timber out of the woods was such a perilously arduous task.
Similarly, in the late 1800’s, wood was a vital and profitable commodity. But, unlike the 21st century, the 19th and early 20th centuries had other dilemmas. Beyond accessing and cutting down the huge virgin timber, just moving the wood from the remote forest floors could be especially tough. Rugged terrain coupled with long distances to mills, waterways and rails severely hampered progress. Ultimately, it was just the kind of burden that has always inspired men to rise to the challenge with determined innovation.
As valuable as they were to timber companies, there was one problem with the big-wheeled machines… they had no brakes. In the relatively flat areas of Michigan, this wasn’t as much of an issue. But in the steep timber country of northern California, Oregon and Washington, it was a serious safety concern. The owner of Redding Iron Works, John Webb Sr., came up with an ingenious solution. He developed a “slip-tongue” that allowed the cantilevered Jacob Staff (rod/lever system) to help lower the logs on downhill grades thus serving as a drag to slow the entire rig. The High Wheels worked to lift the logs when the team of horses pulled on the tongue. As the horses moved forward, the tongue slid forward and also pulled the rod and lever, rotating the chain cams and raising the logs. Going downhill, the cart would slide forward on the tongue, automatically lowering the logs back to the ground. It was a very effective design that saved the lives of horses and men while greatly increasing productivity.
Hansen’s research and documentation reinforce the fact that, in the 19th century, the remote reaches of America’s virgin forests were no place for the weak or ill-equipped. Consequently, the original specs for the logging wheels read like something out of the legendary tales of Paul Bunyan. Clearly, their looming size is indicative of a vehicle built for serious ventures. The hubs measure a whopping 18 inches in diameter and extend the better part of 2 feet in length. 18 spokes span a width of 6 inches each and the felloes have an equally impressive set of dimensions at 5.5 inches wide by 4 inches deep. Broad steel tires are a full 6 inches across and the wheels themselves weigh in at a bone-crushing 850 pounds each. Combined with a slip pole stretching some 30 feet in length, the inside circumference of the 10 foot high wheels are equipped with 3 iron bumper rings for extra protection when carrying logs. Elsewhere, the axles were constructed of a wooden clouted stub spindle with lynch pins.According to Hansen, “This was a challenging but truly enjoyable project. Even though most of the wood was deteriorated beyond further use, we were able to create patterns from much of what existed. A large percentage of the hand-forged metalwork was still intact and our historical research enabled us to pinpoint missing parts, restoring them to period authenticity.”
After a year in Hansen’s shops, today the High Wheels again stand as a remarkable example of American ingenuity and achievement. Weighing close to 3,500 pounds, this giant set of wheels sold for $350 a century ago. Today, it’s valued near $30,000. Rogan Coombs and his friends have already used the High Wheels in local California demonstrations and while the huge cart is still adept at moving timber, its impressive size is equally successful in stopping traffic.
Big jobs are nothing new for Hansen’s crew as they recently finished some conservatory work on one of Ketchum, Idaho’s huge freight wagons. As seen in the accompanying photo, this original 1880’s freighter literally dwarfs a reproduction, full size Concord Coach. This and five other freight wagons are part of a yearly parade and salute to Ketchum’s early mining history.