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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Rich Cultural Mosaic of the American West

When traveling through the Wind River Valley on highway 26 west of Dubois, Wyoming, travelers cannot help but notice the fourteen-foot limestone monument standing along side the road. Carved in the limestone is the image of a man with his broadax and saw who is standing before the Wind River with a skidder and team pulling logs. The stone monument is dedicated to the Tie Hacks, those hardy men from Scandinavia who worked in forest camps cutting railroad ties for the Wyoming Tie and Timber Company. We don’t often read about the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Italians or most other northern or eastern Europeans who found economic opportunities in America, especially opportunities in the American West. But, it is from these people that we have the rich cultural mosaic in the American West that contributes to who we are as Americans.





From 1914 until after the Second World War, the Wyoming Tie and Timber Company operated in the Wind River Mountains. They located their headquarters, consisting of a workhouse, bunkhouse and commissary, twenty miles west of Dubois on what is presently the Triangle C Ranch. The Scandinavians were well suited to work in the Wyoming Mountains cutting trees because they worked in similar industries in their native lands. They were men who were in great physical shape and had extraordinary strength, which enabled them to accomplish the difficult tasks of cutting trees, scoring the sides with their ax and then, while standing on top of the tree, with one swift downward motion, shinning off the bark until the tie had the desired polished smoothness. When the ties were ready, the men sent them down man-made flumes to the Wind River, where they floated the ties nearly a hundred miles to the Chicago-Northwestern railhead in Riverton. The Tie Hacks usually could cut fifty ties a day; the company paid them ten cents a tie. By the Second World War, when there was a shortage of ties, Hackers could get as much as fifty cents a piece for their ties.

Flume

Those who still remember the era of the Tie Hack tell many stories. These tales relate the rugged individualism of the men and how they worked hard, played hard and drank hard. Their recreational time was usually spent consuming copious amounts of Alcohol, either in camp or in one of the numerous saloons in Dubois. Because the Hacks worked for long stretches at a time in the forest camps without much of a break, when they had free time it was usually spent in what would be considered unrestrained activities. Their recreation was akin to that of the cowboy in the late nineteenth century who enjoyed many town activities after a three month trail drive.

Tie Hacks, when they first started in the camps, spoke little English. For this reason, perhaps, the Tie Hack community was a close-knit group of people who relied on one another for companionship and support, which was especially welcomed during the long Wyoming winters. It was during the winter season that most of the railroad ties were cut. But, the abundance of snow in the mountains tended to isolate the tie camps and the residents from the outside world. At times the snow was so deep that it buried the cabins. Snow canals had to be dug to connect one cabin to another and the only way to get into the buildings was through a snow tunnel. In the early years, when transportation was difficult, camps could be snowed in for three or four months. This would have been a tough environment for many Americans, but Scandinavians were used to alpine travel. Skiing was the most efficient method of transportation and Tie Hackers traveled from camp to camp or to headquarters on homemade boards or horse drawn sleds. It was worth the arduous travel to headquarters where the men might gather for impromptu dances (with the small female contingent from town), play cards, or sing songs and listen to stories about the old country.

Tie Hack Camp

During World War Two, when there was great demand for railroad ties, the Wyoming Tie and Timber Company experienced a reduction in available Tie Hacks because many found they could make more money in the lumber industry on the Pacific Coast than in the forest camps in Wyoming. Wyoming Tie and Timber authorities found another source of man power after the federal government constructed a Prisoner of War Camp one mile west of Douglas, Wyoming. Soon after the opening of the camp in 1943, many of the 2500 German and Italian prisoners were reassigned to outlying camps to work in the timber and agriculture areas of the state. Since the prisoners were inexperienced in cutting and hewing ties, the State Department of Education employed experienced cutters as instructors to teach the POWs the skills of the lumber trade. At the camp west of Dubois, the most pressing need for men was as tree cutters and River pigs to work the river drive. In all, the experience of the POWs must have been more favorable than perhaps an America POW’s experience in German Prisoner of War camps. At the Dubois camp the POWs lived in a tent village, received good food and they seemed to like the work. One POW later commented, “What a way to spend the war.”

As the timber industry became more mechanized, and as transportation and roads improved, there was less and less need for skilled men. By 1946, the number of ties produced by the Wyoming Timber and Tie Company was reduced to 150,000 a year—down from 670,000 produced in the late 1920s. After the decline of the Tie Industry around Dubois, many of the Hacks stayed in the area, where they put their energy into establishing businesses or engaged in farming or ranching enterprises. Their influenced in the area can be seen in the prosperity of the region and in the diversity of the Wind River Valley culture.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for taking the time to research these men.very interesting about the pows...

    ReplyDelete