I really like this photograph. And so do a lot of other people.
This image can be found in the photo archives of the Clatsop County Historical Society (Astoria), The Oregon Historical Society (Portland) and the Oregon State University Library Archives (Corvallis).
The originally black-and-white photo was also colorized and sold as a postcard. The setting for this picture is variously described as Columbia County, Tillamook County, Clatsop County and Seaside (which is in Clatsop County). So, naturally, this raised a few questions:
- Where, really, was the photograph taken?
- And what exactly is going on in this picture?
I asked Liisa Penner, archivist at the Clatsop County Historical Society. Penner contacted Paul Clock, author of a book about logging, and he, in turn, emailed a couple of “historic logging gurus.” One of them, Matt Wolford, suggested a book titled Railroads In The Woods (John Labbe, author, 1961). And there was the picture, on page 117, and it had a name: “the Gripwheel.”
Much of the information that follows comes from Railroads In The Woods — and answered my two key questions.
Where was the photo taken?
The site of the photo appears to be OK Creek, near Marshland, a few miles west of Clatskanie, Columbia County, Oregon.
What is going on in this picture?
The big contraption on the rail car is a steam donkey, a cable-pulling engine that was fairly common in Oregon forests a century ago. Most donkeys sat in-place on the ground, but this one operated from a railcar. The Gripwheel first pulled the individual logs into a line, in between the railroad tracks, where they would be fastened together. Then the machine functioned as a locomotive, “gripping” a steel cable that lay beside the tracks and pulling itself along — towing behind it the train of logs, which skidded on the crossties.
The photo was probably taken in the early 1900s.
Only three or four Gripwheels were ever built, so while the photo itself has become fairly well known, the logging machine in the picture was quite rare.
To learn more about the history of logging in Oregon, watch the Oregon Experience documentary “Astoria.”