Old-time timber tales

Tongass book reveals logging past

Posted: Monday, May 01, 2006

A new historical account of the Tongass National Forest contains literally hundreds of surprising facts about the "good old days" of logging on Alaska's Panhandle.

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Some Panhandle historians and economists who have read drafts of Jim Mackovjak's 540-page manuscript - which he is now trying to publish as a reference book - say it is a revelation.

"I learned a lot, and unlearned some stuff that wasn't true," said Joe Mehrkens, a retired Forest Service timber economist living in Juneau.

Mackovjak, who ran Gustavus' former Point Adolphus Seafoods plant, pronounces his name Ma-SCOE-vee-ak, though many of his friends just call him Jim "Mack." His home in the northern Panhandle town is made almost entirely out of Tongass wood.

In addition to his three-year effort on the manuscript, titled "Tongass Timber: A History of Logging and Utilization in Southeast Alaska, 1804-1960," Mackovjak is writing the administrative history of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and has written a book about the early white settlement of Gustavus.

The heart of Mackovjak's new manuscript is a period running from 1804 to 1960, when the forest was still bustling with axes and cross saws. Chainsaws came in use into the 1940s.

His account ends just as two large pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan become the dominant logging operations in the Panhandle.

A major thread of the book, and one that is particularly eye-opening, Mehrkens said, is the 50-year-plus effort by the U.S. Forest Service to woo the pulp industry into Southeast Alaska.

As early as 1921, the Forest Service sent 850 firms around the nation a bulletin describing the potential large offerings of pulp wood on the Tongass, Mackovjak writes in his manuscript.

Dozens of pulp mill ventures were proposed in the ensuing years, and Mackovjak catalogues them in the book. Most fizzled out before a single tree was logged.

Just south of Juneau, at Port Snettisham, a group of mining and hydroelectric investors financed the first pulp mill in Alaska. The plant started operations in 1921 and employed 60 men. Unfortunately, it produced an expensive grade of wood pulp that could not generate a profit. The company failed after a couple of years.

The Forest Service was not alone in promoting a pulp industry in the Tongass. In the 1920s, Panhandle newspapers champed at the bit to land a pulp mill for their towns. "Pulp Mill at Thane is Now Certain," read one 1923 headline from Alaska Weekly in Juneau.

That pulp mill never materialized. Despite the optimistic headlines and lobbying by the Forest Service and the territory of Alaska, no others would for the next 30 years.

In the interim, a busy sawmill industry was producing lumber in many Panhandle towns to feed local industries, particularly fishing and mining. In an appendix, Mackovjak lists and describes each known sawmill that operated in Southeast Alaska between the 1800s and 1960s.

"I had no idea so much was going on before the pulp mills arrived," said John Sisk, a Juneau natural resources consultant who worked as a grassroots organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council during the 1980s.

Among the products produced from Tongass lumber were cedar shingles, salmon boxes, salmon traps, warplanes and lumber to build homes.

"So many different products were being made, so many people were scraping out a living," said Sisk, who has read portions of Mackovjak's manuscript.

One of the unpleasant episodes in the book occurred in Juneau, which had the only plywood mill in Alaska history, built in 1952.

Short on cash and delinquent on loans, the owner of Juneau's Alaska Plywood Corp. "borrowed" federal retirement funds from workers to use as operating capital. Despite frantic efforts to keep it running, the plant sagged into bankruptcy, was raided by U.S. Treasury agents and destroyed by fire.

The fate of the plywood mill is just one example of timber ventures in the Panhandle that failed for lack of capital or poor consideration of the competitive global market for wood products, said George Rogers, a former state economist living in Juneau. Rogers served as a trustee for the plywood corporation during its bankruptcy proceedings.

Mackovjak's account "is going to be useful source material in figuring out what went wrong" with those timber ventures, Rogers said. "It's the sort of book that should be in reference libraries ... the details are incredible," he added.

Mackovjak focuses on the industry's historic ups and downs in the Tongass and not the controversy that surrounded logging in later years due to environmental reform.

In a recent telephone interview, Mackovjak said he wasn't looking for "interesting facts" or a "particular point of view" in writing up his history of Tongass logging. "The book has far more value as an objective record," he said.

Mackovjak spent roughly three years assembling and writing the manuscript, filling up a 3-foot-tall file cabinet with his research material. "One of the things I really came to appreciate was the interconnectedness between the fishing and the timber industry," he said.

For example, the salmon industry for years depended on the Panhandle's salmon case-making factories and floating traps. Metlakatla boat builders used Tongass red cedar to build skiffs, called "Davis boats," which helped launch the region's troll fishery.

The idea of writing a book arose from Mackovjak's frustration about a perpetual lack of factual information about historical logging in the Tongass. "When people talked about the past, it seemed they didn't have much to go on," he said.

A major resource for his book was a vast historical collection of timber industry periodicals maintained at the University of Oregon in Eugene. In recent years, the Mackovjaks have been living part of the year in Eugene, where two of their children are in school.

"I had to go through (old periodicals) page by page. They didn't even have a table of contents ... . It was like a treasure hunt," Mackovjak said.

The Alaska Humanities Forum also provided him with a $3,000 grant that helped him with the research.

The manuscript is now under review by the Forest History Society, based at Duke University in North Carolina. Steve Anderson, the president of the educational nonprofit, said he plans to assist Mackovjak in some way in publishing a book.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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