Nothing New — Danger and death in the early Harbor sawmills

At the end of the nineteenth century, before there was a Department of Labor &Industries and unionization was still a few years away, the lumber mills on the Harbor were a largely-unregulated maze of screaming saws, and canvas and leather belts running on open wooden pulleys with none of the guards or shields that are taken for granted today. Gruesome injuries were a nearly daily occurrence, and all it took was one moment of inattention, one small distraction. The following stories are rather graphic and not for the squeamish, but it is essential that the largely-anonymous workers who built the timber industry, often giving life and limb, are remembered and given their due.

Aberdeen recorded its first mill-related injury in 1884, not long after A.J. West established the town’s first shingle mill on the east bank of the Wishkah River where it meets the Chehalis River (were the Guest House Inn is now located). Joe Graham, an Aberdeen pioneer who would later serve as city constable and sheriff, was operating the saw when a shingle bolt fell upon his arm, forcing it onto the blade. He quickly tightened his sleeve around it and rushed down toward the waterfront. Passing a blacksmith shop, the blacksmith, seeing Joe’s condition, started after him and passed him. “”Where are you going?” yelled Mr. Graham. “To get a doctor,” returned the blacksmith, “Well take me along with you,” replied Graham, “or I’ll die before the doctor sees me.” Together they rushed down the street until they came to the boarding house of Doctor Pearson. Pearson had been on a serious medical case down on the John’s River for three days, and it took the combined efforts of the blacksmith, the victim and the boardinghouse proprietor to rouse him. By this time a large crowd had gathered, among them being Ed Koehler, chief of the volunteer fire department, and Big Murphy, a strapping lumberjack. Murphy gazed at the sight over Koehler’s head and said, ”Shure, and isn’t it a shame that such a man should lose an arm.? I’ll hold his arm while you amputate it, Doctor.” Quietly Mr. Graham asked Mr. Koehler to find him a stick of wood which was larger on one end and small enough to grip on the other. “Why?” inquired Koehler. “To hit Big Murphy over the head with!” replied Graham. Fortunately, Dr. Pearson was able to stitch the wound, Graham kept his arm, and Big Murphy kept his head.

In late June 1897, a man named Bowman, employed at the Lewis Brothers’ shingle mill at Markham, climbed up in the shafting to replace a belt that had come off. As he worked, the sleeve of his right arm was caught by a rapidly spinning shaft. By almost superhuman effort Bowman clung to the mill timbers while his clothing was dragged around the shaft. His arm was drawn against the shaft and burned by the friction. His coat sleeve was quickly followed by his shirt, undershirt, overalls, pants, and all were wound around the shaft, which threatened to take him, too, if he loosened his grip. Fortunately the clothing gave out before his strength did, and in about one minute Bowman was hanging from the timbers clad only in his shoes and socks, the rest of his clothing being wound around the shafting. Bowman was burned and cut where the clothing tightened around his body before it gave way; he was otherwise not seriously injured and was back to work by the following week.

In January 1902, a similar incident ended most gruesomely. Ira Dean, an oiler at the Grays Harbor Commercial Company mill in Cosmopolis, was engaged in putting a belt on a running pulley. Dean had just slipped the belt over the pulley when his clothes became entangled in the rapidly moving belting. The unfortunate man was hurled to the ceiling and then to the floor as the pulley turned. In the few seconds it took to shut off the machinery, it was long enough “to literally tear Dean to pieces.” The walls and machinery were a gruesome sight. Pieces of Dean’s body were thrown a hundred feet while his blood literally bathed the floor. Coroner Smits was summoned from Aberdeen, and an inquest was held. The jury found that Dean’s death resulted from his own carelessness. The pieces of Dean’s body were brought to Aberdeen in a small box, and taken to Beardsley’s undertaking parlor.

Finally, here is a weird one. In July, 1903, James Madden was assisting at the wood saw at the Aberdeen Lumber &Shingle Company in South Aberdeen. While the man in charge temporarily stepped away from the saw, Madden decided to run it alone. He must have been “rattled” as the first thing he did was to run his left arm against the saw, cutting his hand off at the wrist. Then falling forward, he struck his forehead against the saw, shaving off the bone, and exposing the brain. The steamer Fleetwood was called by telephone and the injured man was taken to the hospital where he was listed as being in critical condition. His ultimate fate is unknown.

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and salutes the thousands of anonymous mill workers upon whose shoulders the great lumber barons of Grays Harbor built their fortunes.


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