Alaskan People: Stories of Yesteryear & Today
John Schnabel: Old Time Logger
by Edward May
This is the story as told by John Schnabel: I was born in 1920 in New Almeno Kansas. We left there when I was 3 years old and moved to the west coast. I grew up in Klamath Falls Oregon. It was 1937 when my father, Frank Schnabel, returned from Alaska where he had sought work during the Great Depression in 1931. I was a senior at Klamath Falls High School in Oregon. He told me(John Schnabel) and my brothers about an old burned out sawmill boiler, engine and carriage that could be bought for five hundred dollars and thought that this could be an opportunity to lift ourselves out of the manual laboring class. I had no idea of the sweat, blood, tears and conflict that lie ahead.
I graduated in 1938 and went to work for Weyerhaueser Timber Company to earn travel money and to get some idea of what running a saw mill entailed. My father and brother James traveled to Haines to purchase the saw mill and move the rusted and warped iron from the P.B. Allen property to its new location, a twenty acre leased site on Jones Point. There they built a twelve by sixteen foot cabin which was our home until nineteen forty seven.
In March of nineteen thirty nine, I left Weyerhaueser took a train to Seattle and boarded the Alaska Steamship SS Yukon headed for Haines. I took a set of tools and had thirty eight dollars in my pocket. I was traveling as a steerage passenger below deck and I learned that the ship was loaded with the spring supplies for the various canneries in southeast and I could work in each port handling the cargo. This not only covered my fare but increased my cash reserve. When I arrived, I had to spend the money to lift a C.O.D. out of the post office. John Schnabel was broke. The cabin had no running water or electricity.
Unlike Weyerhaueser, where we produced one million board feet of lumber a day the Jones Point Mill had one steam engine to run the saw. All the logs and lumber were either rolled or hand carried which was back breaking work. My first assignment was to turn a crank attached to a round log Windlass which was fastened to a cable attached to the carriage. It was my job to move this carriage. A log was placed on the carriage and cranked into the saw. The engine for the saw was so small that I had to crank the carriage slowly into the saw or the belt would slip and fly off the pulley.
The boiler had several leaking tubes which made it difficult to provide the steam to keep the engine at a constant speed. This would cause the saw to slow down and lose rim tension and run off line creating a faulty board. To correct this, my father would signal me to reverse the carriage direction and he would throw a bucket of cold water on the saw in an effort to get it to stand up straight. On a good day we could cut two thousand board feet in eight hours.
My father and Uncle Tony, during the day, worked in construction building the new school gym in town and at night ran the mill to produce the lumber that would be used the next day. I applied for a job, but the construction foreman, Jack Ward, questioned my qualifications. When I told him I had a full set of carpenter tools that included an adze I was hired. It was a busy and educational year and come late September I boarded the SS Yukon to go south to work for Weyerhaueser for the winter to earn enough money to carry me through the next year. This became my annual pattern until the winter of forty one when WW11 broke out. I enlisted in the Naval Air Corp in ‘42.
After the War
In March, of nineteen forty-six, my brother George and I headed back to Alaska determined to make a success of the mill venture. During the war a road had been built connecting Haines to the Alaska Highway and this opened a vast area for our product. Heavy snows had collapsed the mill building at Jones Point and the place was a shambles. Mr. Benson, the man who had leased his 20 acre Native allotment on Jones Point to my father, had died and there was no one to renew the lease with. We were reluctant to invest time and money back into the mill without some assurance we could use the property.
I went to Juneau and contacted the solicitor for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He assured me that within six months the heirs would be determined and that a lease would be forthcoming. A year later the search was still on for Benson heirs and eventually forty two people were identified. I spent over ten thousand dollars in attorney’s fees to bring all the heirs to an agreement to purchase the property.
An appraisal was made and then we found out that no Native allotment could be transferred without the approval of the U.S. Congress. Since Alaska was still a territory there was only a delegate to represent us in Washington. Delegate Bartlett persuaded a member of congress to attach a rider on a bill authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to sign the deed. It languished on his desk for over three years and finally in nineteen sixty-six he signed the deed. Meanwhile we rebuilt the site.
Thirty five miles west of Haines was an abandoned gold mine that had the remains of a saw mill used to cut lumber for the Porcupine mine. It was owned by Carl Bjornstad and he sold us the mill. To reach the mill at Porcupine, one had to ford the Klehini River at thirty three mile. Budge Mcray, the territorial road foreman assisted us with the lowboy and tractor needed to move the mill to Jones Point. It took most of the summer to accomplish this. By fall it was running and producing ten-thousand board feet per day.
Growing a Town and Families
Haines in nineteen forty-six was a town of about two hundred people and four blocks by six blocks in size. There were no sidewalks, streetlights, sewer system or adequate water system. The streets were mud in the spring and fall and dust in the summer. There wasn’t a doctor or dentist. We relied on the weekly mail boat to take us to Juneau or Skagway. There was a monthly freight boat.
In ‘46 the Army was enlarging Fort Richardson in Anchorage and needed lumber. For two summers they sent barges to Jones Point to pick up all the lumber that was available at the mill.
In 47 we bought an old truck and began hauling lumber over the Haines Highway. T.C. Richards was building the Whitehorse Inn and we began supplying the material. Then Canada placed an embargo on all imported lumber. George and I decided to supply Fairbanks. The six hundred and seventy mile trip was rough on the un-maintained road. The luxury accommodations had a wood stove and a bucket of water in the room.
My father passed away in fifty-nine and my brother George had married and bought into the Haines Light and Power Company. I was running the mill now on my own and went to the bank and borrowed one hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the mill. I was supplying Fairbanks with hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber.
Unfortunately, I neglected to buy fire insurance and the day before start up a worker lit a torch and unintentionally burned the mill to the ground. I sold the Fairbanks inventory and paid off the bank but, I was broke. Forest Young offered to loan me two thousand dollars and with this as a down payment, plus my reputation as John Schnabel, I was able to buy enough equipment to build a small portable mill, which I put in the woods and began cutting cants for the Japanese market.
This was extremely profitable and within a year I was free of debt. I sold the Jones Point Mill site which was then sold to Dante & Russell of Portland Oregon who put up a mill with a production of over one hundred and fifty thousand board foot a shift.
Pushing me out of the Valley into Success
They bid up the timber sales and began pushing me out of the valley. They finally persuaded the commissioner of Natural Resources to shut me down on the basis that I did not have a waste wood burner in the woods. At this time I had two portable mills producing one hundred thousand board feet a day.
I elected to build a new mill in Lutak Inlet and began logging in the Tongass Forest near Petersburg. Within six months I had it in operation and was loading ocean going ships to Japan from my own dock. Dante & Russell eventually went bankrupt due to the poor quality timber and no market.
The mill employed over 120 people and I (John Schnabel) was the largest employer in Haines. In 1982 I had been in the logging business longer than anyone alive, at that time, in Alaska. I was a director of the Alaska Logging Association for over 15 years. In the nineteen 70’s a series of events from environmental regulations, declining timber sales, increased operating costs and other factors eventually shut down the logging industry in Southeast Alaska.
I retired from logging and bought a mine in Porcupine and now spend my time developing the mine as a tourist attraction and RV park. I’m 86 and get up at 5:30 am every morning to work at the mine; I’m building an eight mile 2 lane road.
I look upon myself with a certain amount of approval because, I hide my bad points. When we came here people didn’t have much. We didn’t have much either but we built a little mill and we were able to cut lumber that they needed to build houses and things that they wanted.
People wanted jobs so we were able to expand the mill and we employed people so they felt comfortable with living here. In other words they could make enough money to enjoy life and live in a place that was more satisfying to them.
I feel we provided a benefit to a lot of people through the employment opportunity. So many young kids out of school would come to the mill and we’d give them jobs so they could make money to do whatever they wanted to do with it. I don’t pat myself on the back but, I feel comfortable with the way I’ve lived.
This was the story of John Schnabel. If you are interested in more fascinating stories of people that helped shape Alaska, grab your copy of Alaskan People: Stories of Yesteryear & Today on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2NjomSA
The 1950’s through the 1970’s were years of discovery for both the timber purchasers and the Forest Service. There was an effort to cooperate, and the contracts were bilateral. Disagreements were settled between the parties. Under the supervision of the Forest Service, the roads and cutting units for the long-term timber sales were laid out by the purchasers.
Issues regarding fish stream management were discussed and resolved jointly by the Forest Service, State Fish and Game, and the purchaser. Beginning in 1959, the Alaska Loggers Association established a standing committee that met regularly with the Forest Service to discuss appraisals, permitting issues, logging systems, road construction costs, timber sale designs, and other items that impact costs.
In the mid-1970s, the Forest Service took over the job of designing and marking cutting units for the long-term timber sales. At the same time, the agency adopted a 100-acre cutting unit limit. This limitation greatly reduced the volume of timber that was available to harvest from each mile of road that was constructed; consequently, the cost of building roads dramatically decreased both the amount of stumpage and the amount of profit that could be generated by harvesting timber.
Also during the late sixties and early seventies, the industry began developing markets for sawn products in order to improve the manufacturing integration and the financial returns to their operations, thus offsetting some of the added cost that resulted from the cutting unit size limitation. Spruce lumber was the primary sawn product prior to this period, but hemlock is the dominant species in the region; therefore, the industry effort was focused on selling hemlock sawn products.
The effort was successful and a market was developed for hemlock cants (an outer corner, as of a building) and flitches (a log cut lengthwise from a tree, ready for further processing at a mill). This satisfied the Forest Service primary manufacture requirements and the Japanese desire to retain their sawmill industry by re-sawing the material from Alaska. Saw logs that were too small or too rough to make cants or flitches were generally chipped for the pulp mills.
Today, the federal timber sale program has shrunk by about 90%. The Tongass National Forest encompasses about 93% of the timberlands in Southeast Alaska; consequently the timber industry which includes an infrastructure economy that intimately affects towns and families has drastically declined virtually eliminating an important industry and source of employment.
Here is the author Edward May’s website: www.insightpassagepro.com
You can also check out other The Alaska Life articles such as The Way It Was – Coming to Alaska in the 1950’s