Lumber Mill History


Lumber Mill History

The emergence of lumber mills in the 1830s marked an important milestone in American history. It was a major driver of Manifest Destiny, the migration of settlers westward.

Port Gamble

In 1853, three New England businessmen from Maine spotted the sandy spit at the mouth of Gamble Bay as an ideal location for a sawmill. The easy access to abundant timber lands and the Pacific trade routes caught their eye. They soon set out to found the Puget Mill Company, later renamed Pope & Talbot, with partners Josiah Keller and Charles Foster. They platted out the town of Port Gamble on a bluff above the mill and docks and built a church, school, company general store, rental houses and dormitories in the gabled, steep roof style of their hometown Maine villages. The community became a company town and remained so for the next 142 years, housing workers who helped build Port Gamble into an international lumber mill. The Port Gamble lumber mill dominated the industry in the early 1900s, shipping lumber all over the world. However, the high price of logs and changes in the timber business weakened profitability for Port Gamble.


The Lumber Mill in Saginaw was founded around the turn of the century. Located on the Saginaw River in the south end of Bay City, it was once a lumbering village, but later became the center of economic activity for the entire community. The growth of the lumber industry was due to three main factors: Treaties with Indian tribes, changing markets, and an extensive network of waterways. Using these resources, Michigan became the premier lumbering state of the nation. During this time, the Saginaw Valley was the largest lumbering area in Michigan and the world. Logs from this area were shipped to places such as Albany, New York, and Chicago. The Lumber Era brought incredible prosperity to the area, but it also brought some disillusionment. In the late 19th century, workers in lumber mills in Saginaw went on a strike demanding a 10-hour work day and fairer pay.

Bay City

The first settler in Bay City was Leon Tromble, who built a log-cabin on the east side of the Saginaw River. He later purchased land that extended from his home north along the river to what would become the Industrial Brownhoist, making him the first permanent resident of the area that has since become Bay County. Bay City’s location on the Saginaw River, with a wide and deep water channel that made it an ideal shipping point, attracted a number of industry establishments during the 1850s. Among them were sawmills, salt-blocks, and a large shipyard. As the lumber industry flourished, the town expanded and became the business center of the region. It also boasted two excellent telephone systems, reaching every part of the State and country, and telegraph lines that connected with other cities in the United States and abroad.


In the 1870s, Occidental was a thriving lumber town. It was a safe place to ship logs from the Russian River basin to the Pacific Coast. Its location and function were largely due to the presence of the North Pacific Coast Railroad. Today, the historic Lumber Mill is still operated by Sturgeon’s Mill Restoration Project. This nonprofit, volunteer organization has restored one of the last steam-powered sawmills that still uses original equipment. The lumber mill was built by Ben and Elizabeth Thurston around 1865. It occupied a clearing with Tannery Creek running through it. It consisted of a steam powered mill, a mill pond, a home, workers’ cabins and a blacksmith shop. A few years later, Elizabeth bought a nearby ranch west of Occidental. Initially, she ran a sawmill near the ranch but grew tired of the constant labor required by the job and sold it.