[ memorandum pursuant to a visit to the Port of Olympia earlier this month ]
I’d never heard of the Columbus Day windstorm of 1962, a.k.a. “The Big Blow.”
On October 12, 1962, Columbus Day, a windstorm ravages the Puget Sound region in what the National Weather service later designates as Washington’s worst weather disaster of the twentieth century. More than 50 people are killed between Vancouver B.C. and San Francisco, nine in Washington.
When the Columbus Day Storm occurred in 1962, enormous volumes of downed timber flooded domestic wood markets. The export market, which was relatively small and specialized at the time, was viewed as an outlet for surplus salvaged material. After the salvaged timber was exhausted, log trade expanded owing to excess demand for wood raw materials triggered by economic growth in Pacific Rim nations, especially Japan. This expansion, resulting from excess supply of salvaged logs in the PNW and excess demand for softwood logs in Japan, was the beginning of one of the most influential trade flows of wood in the world. (4)
More recent history shows that, as one headline from late last year puts it:
For more on exports to China, which I think we were told accounts for some ~30% of what goes out through our Port, see this study from 2012.
Hakan Ekstrom explains in a piece late last year on OPB some idiosyncracies in how the wood gets used in China:
We have board feet in this country and the rest of the world has the metric system. And the Chinese don’t have any standard sizes and qualities of lumber. Its not like they can come over here and buy 2x4s and just start building with them, because they don’t have a tradition of 2x4 houses. They need to work with sawmills over here that can produce the type of lumber, the sizes and qualities and species that the Chinese need. And that’s hard right now because they don’t have any universal dimension system like they have in Japan, for example.
So if you’re a sawmill in the Northwest, you know what dimensions the Japanese are using in their market. But for China, they use anything. They cut that log into a hundred different sizes and pieces and utilize the log much better than we do here. They want it that way; they can decide how they turn and twist that log to get as much lumber out if it as possible. But over time we’ll start to see more standard sizes, so it’s easier for the U.S. sawmills to export to China.
I daresay the history of logging in these parts is worthy of a program in and of itself. The name Weyerhaeuser rings out in this survey of the history, which also includes a description of the activities of the Industrial Workers of the World a little under a century ago.
Frederick Weyerhaeuser, another Minnesota investor, gave the Washington lumber industry a huge boost with his arrival in 1900. He bought 900,000 acres of western Washington timber from the Northern Pacific Railroad to become the second largest private holder of timber in the nation. After an additional transfer from the Northern Pacific in 1903 and several smaller purchases from other owners, Weyerhaeuser’s holdings encompassed 1.3 million acres (which was 26 percent of all private timberlands in Washington)
& on the IWW (a.k.a. “the Wobblies”) and WWI (interesting symmetry there, no?):
Wobbly activism continued with an industry-wide strike in July 1917, closing most of the mills and camps in the Pacific Northwest. Strikers demanded an eight-hour day with no reduction in pay. This extensive, protracted strike demonstrated the volatile relationship that had developed between lumber barons and the individuals who worked for them. Employers were willing to meet some of labor’s demands, but they feared the radicalism that the I.W.W. represented.
America’s participation in World War I offered lumbermen an opportunity to defeat the Wobblies. The Woodrow Wilson Administration planned an airplane program that required large amounts of spruce, the best wood for airplane frames. Because the Olympic Peninsula was home to some of the largest spruce trees in the world, President Wilson returned half the acreage of Mount Olympus National Monument to the Olympic National Forest in 1915 in order to free up timber. Soon after the U.S. entered the First World War in 1917, the Wobbly lumber strike reached its peak. Desperately wanting to increase aircraft production, the Wilson Administration resolved to break the strike and step up spruce production. The army organized the Spruce Production Division, which assigned thousands of soldiers to build roads and railroads into the spruce forests of the Olympic Peninsula. In addition, the head of the Spruce Production Division, Colonel Brice Disque, established the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (the 4L), an organization of employers and workers designed to increase production through patriotic appeals (see document 29). Disque used the 4L as a means to eradicate the Wobblies; millworkers and logging camp employees were required to join the Legion, but known Wobblies were barred from membership. Furthermore, the soldiers of the Spruce Production Division frequently beat up suspected Wobblies and chased them out of lumber camps. In 1918 Disque convinced industry leaders to agree to an eight-hour day with no reduction in workers’ pay. He also convinced executives to improve living conditions in logging camps. Basically, the lumber industry agreed to the eight-hour day in return for the government’s virtual eradication of the Wobblies.
I’d take issue with the word defeat in the first sentence of this last paragraph. The phrase virtual eradication, in the last sentence, seems an unintentionally apt way of describing this bonafide Wobbly victory: it’s no hard thing to ditch your red card for the nonce and join the LLLL if you get every last one of your demands met! The “virtual” character of this “eradication” is all the more evident in light of the one thing this page leaves out: the Seattle General Strike of February 1919. This came hot on the heels of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, which lead to a quick collapse of the 4L compromise, not to mention an abrupt reduction in force at the Seattle shipyards, which had been working overtime during the war and where no small amount of local lumber was being put to use; I seem to recall that Seattle’s shipyards produced the most boats of all the West Coast yards during WWI. (Incidentally, FDR was in charge of that emergency ship building operation, in his capacity as Assistant Secretary of the Navy; Winston Churchill, too, spent WWI working in the Royal Navy, and was instrumental in shifting from coal to oil as the primary fuel for their ships, as Timothy Mitchell discusses.)
All this puts into perspective the date of the fateful encounter between Veterans and Wobblies down the road from us in Centralia, those actions and events that history remembers as “The Centralia Massacre”: Armistice Day of 1919. It was in this period, by the way, that Louis F. Post took it upon himself to tap the brakes on the voracious Red Raids that got underway in 1919 (as described by Bonnie Honig). But all that, as they say, is a story for another day.
I can’t help observing in closing that this strange circuit through link-land has placed us roughly into the same timescape as when Edward Bernays was coming into his own as a theorist and practitioner of “public relations,” an activity in which the Wobblies, it must be said, were most proficient in their own right, as this archival tranche readily reveals.