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Centennial Archaeology at Camp 3 and the Lumberjack Lab

Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington, 2002
by Rick McClure, Forest Archaeologist

By the time we had opened up our fourth excavation unit, we had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and this expectation was written all over the faces of dig partners Carol and Margaret. Clearing leaves, twigs, and fir needles from their square meter of ground, they began to cautiously scrape so very gently with freshly sharpened trowels. It was but a matter of minutes before pieces of glass, fragments of metal, a button, and the buckle from a set of suspenders emerged from just below the surface. Next door, in Unit 114, Chelsea was working around the edges of a caulked boot sole buried just below the surface. Hunkered over their screens nearby, Larry and Dave listened to Gordon tell tales of PIT adventures at Lake Tahoe.

I was studying a photograph showing this very spot as it appeared in 1911, with a two-story hand-hewn log bunk-house perched on the edge of the slope dropping to the creek. Other buildings were scattered along the bank upstream. This was Camp 3 of the Wind River Lumber Company, constructed a century ago as the headquarters for a logging operation that used steam “donkey” engines and splash dams to move logs from the forest. The site of Camp 3 was now thick with spring vegetation and looked nothing like the scene in the old photograph.

Studying the picture, FS archaeologist Cheryl Mack pointed into the brush. “It looks like people were throwing things out the back door and over the bank there.” As we pondered the position of the building, Brian emerged from the brush below us with a metal detector in one hand and a fistful of pin flags in the other, announcing the discovery of a brass lantern. This was the day we realized we had located the site of the company bunkhouse, used from 1902 to 1912. Most of the artifacts we were finding were, in fact, the personal effects of the men who lived there while logging one of the earliest national forest timber sales in the region. It was also the first day of the 2002 project. Now, three years later, and thanks to more PIT volunteers who helped analyze the materials recovered, we have a pretty picture of life at Camp 3. 

A week of excavation by nine PIT volunteers left us with a large sample of artifacts that would become the focus of a second phase of work in the fall of 2002. Lumberjack Lab became the logical outgrowth of the field project. Five PIT volunteers each spent five days at various work stations in the historic Heritage Program laboratory at Trout Lake, Washington. Buttons, buckles, clasps, tobacco tins, and other artifacts came out of their field bags for cleaning and cataloging. While some volunteers measured objects and typed information into the computer database, others searched the Internet or looked through period mail-order catalogs for additional clues to artifact age and function. 

By the time we adjourned the Lumberjack Lab project, everything was labeled and stored in acid-free archival packaging. Our artifact catalog was complete and more-detailed analysis could begin. 

Since initially planning the Camp 3 excavation project, we made several important discoveries that will help in interpreting the archaeology of the century-old lumber camp. Four private collections of photographs came to light, providing us with a variety of images of Camp 3 and its occupants in the period from 1904 to 1912. One local resident provided close-up photographs of the logger’s bunkhouse; another had a period photo album kept by the wife of one of the men. We also obtained federal census data for 1910 that had a complete list of Camp 3 residents. We now know the names of each of the men who lived in the bunkhouse and whose artifacts we had uncovered. Combining the historical data and results of artifact analysis, we can now piece together a more complete picture of the lives these men led. 

We know that there were 32 men and 2 women in the camp, and the average age of the crew was 29. The camp was a virtual melting pot of transient labor: 38 percent were immigrants, and 62 percent had been born in the United States. Foreign-born residents came from eight different European countries; the rest from nine U.S. states. Only one man came from a local family. In 1910, Daniel Allen was the rigging rustler on the crew, and Hans Howe the hook tender. When we look at the two broken iron “dogs”—large hooks pounded into logs for hauling—found at the site by PIT volunteers, we know that Hans and Daniel were probably the last men to actually handle the artifacts. 

Studying the newly acquired photographs, we can look into the eyes of the same men who cast medicine bottles, tobacco tins, and ruined clothing over the bank in front of their bunkhouse. We imagine these same men sitting around a big wood stove in the evening, the aroma of pipe smoke mingling with the smell of wet wool, kerosene from the lamps, sweat, and the stink of the socks drying on the line near the fire. Archaeology, is, after all, about people and cultures, and so we imagine the sounds of these men, the Norwegian, German, and Russian accents in their English, the twang of the Texan on the crew, and wonder about the commonality they created for themselves in their work and life together. Little by little, the analysis of artifacts, photographs, and documents is beginning to give us a sense of their world.
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