Sunday, March 26, 2023
March 26, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Clark County History: Donkey engine


We imagine loggers as burly men in calk boots, wool shirts and pants trimmed nearly to their boot tops to keep them from snagging on the brush and leftover bramble of their work. We don’t think of steam engines, despite the fact that in the early 1900s, they were very much part of logging.

Loggers of that era didn’t foresee that the 100-foot-tall, old-growth timber covering much of Clark County would disappear. Felling just one was hard work and took days for men using oxen, mules and horses.

To improve efficiency, logging companies laid railroad tracks into the forest so trains propelled by steam engines could haul flatcars of timber, some holding only one colossal log, to sawmills. Two lumber companies extended track into the north county woods in 1903. Weyerhaeuser received the right-of-way for 15 miles of logging track, and Woodland Brothers built a half-mile rail spur into a large belt of timber. Trains tugged 60 carloads of logs daily to Vancouver that year.

A Californian, John Dolbeer, took the first step toward mechanizing logging by modifying and patenting a steam donkey for the woods in 1881. Previously, such engines loaded and unloaded cargo between port docks and ships.

In the early 1900s, Twin Falls Logging bought three Baldwin oil-burning locomotives from Philadelphia for $47,500 and spent $2,500 in shipping. The company employed 300 people and 18 steam donkeys. The North Clark Historical Museum accepted a 2018 donation of Rashford Steam Donkey No. 582, manufactured in the early 1900s and last used by Nick Rashford Logging.

The steam donkey is a boiler on heavy skids holding gears and wench drums wound with steel cable in front. It replaced the livestock used to move logs — and was stronger. The donkey worked unbothered by rain, cold or exhaustion. It opened felling timber on hills once considered too steep and dangerous to cut. And it pulled logs out faster.

Steam donkeys also increased the dangers of logging. Steam engines burned wood, and wood gave off sparks. Sometimes logging camps burned as a result. The use of heavy equipment also changed the logging process, requiring improved communication among crews and creating job specialization. The operator, or donkeyman, relied on a whistle punk, who operated a wire telling the donkeyman when to rewind the cable hitched to a fallen log by a choke setter. Anything from a frayed cable to a miscommunication might mean an accident.

A donkeyman pulling too soon could roll the log over the choke setter or anyone nearby. A frayed cable could fracture, whipping fast enough to sever a logger’s limb or torso. During the era, safety in logging camps was a recruiting point for labor unions, like the International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, who also sought a fair wage for workers and compensation for injured loggers.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at