The Logging Museum’s steam donkey was built by the Willamette (will-AM-it) Iron and Steel Works of Portland, Oregon in 1916. It is Engine No. 1233, with 12″x14″ cylinders and a boiler that was numbered 9414. Before arriving at the Museum, it belonged to the West Side Lumber Company of Tuolumne City, California.
The Museum’s donkey is a ‘yarder’, which means it’s a donkey that is equipped with drums and winches that are used to haul (or yard) logs from the stump to the landing where they will be loaded onto trucks or rail cars for movement to a mill.
When West Side Lumber Co. ceased operations in 1961, much of its equipment, including this donkey, remained in the woods. This steam donkey had probably been inoperative since at least the 1940s, when some steam donkeys were converted to diesel or were left to rust wherever they were. West Side had as many as ten steam donkeys similar to the Museum’s engine (six or seven of which still remain), and more than thirty steam donkeys in all.
Donkey No. 1233 was found on a ridge above Bear Creek, near Cherry Lake, about 15 miles east of Tuolumne. It was recovered from the woods in the 1980s or 1990s, but there was a dispute about whether it belonged to the then-current owner of West Side Lumber Company or whether it belonged to the Forest Service. While the ownership question was being debated, the donkey sat at Sierra Pacific’s mill at Standard, CA. Finally, it was donated to the Logging Museum in 1997, perhaps as a way to put the ownership question to rest.
Operation of donkey engines was not simple. The working end of the cables was usually far off in the woods, far beyond shouting range. For the choker setters who cabled up the logs, the cable was a danger that could remove a finger or hand in the blink of an eye. The donkey puncher (operator) moved a cable only at the direction of the foreman at the far end of the cable. The foreman would determine that the chokers were properly set, and that his crew was in the clear; then he would tell the whistle punk to signal the puncher to bring in the load. The whistle punk, usually a green teenager on his first logging job or an older guy who had been disabled, would pull on the jerk wire, which ran all the way back to the whistle on the steam donkey. Three long pulls told the puncher to haul in the logs; the whistle also told everyone near the donkey engine or cables to get in the clear so they wouldn’t be injured by the moving cables or timber.
The cables and rigging that ran from the donkey out into the woods were complex. Even a simple installation for ground hauling required multiple cables and blocks (pullies). High-lead logging, using a spar tree to fly logs back to the landing, could result in dozens of fixed and moving lines and cables, with many dozens of blocks of all kinds. The riggers who installed and maintained all this gear had to be agile and strong. You can get a feel for the complexities of installing rigging and yarding logs at sites like this one at the University of Washington, or for the various pieces of yarding hardware in a catalog like this one from Young Iron Works in 1949.
Over time, steam donkeys were replaced by gas and diesel-engined loaders. Few of the remaining steam donkeys are operational today. The Museum’s steam donkey is not operational, and because of damage to the boiler, probably cannot be restored at a reasonable cost.