J.J. Kennedy began commercial logging operations in Rib Lake in 1881. His first mill and successor mills were on the western shore of Rib Lake. At first all logs were conveyed to the mill by sleighs pulled by horses. Over the years the forests in the immediate vicinity of Rib Lake were depleted of timber. This necessitated an ever longer system of sleigh roads. The longer the sleigh road, the less practical it became to use horses since the animals tired from the long and repeated trips.
J.J. Kennedy experimented with railroads to convey logs to the mill beginning in 1897. In 1902, J.J. Kennedy sold his interest in the local mill to the U.S. Leather Company. The U.S. Leather Company, headquartered in New York, was a large corporation operating dozens of tanneries and sawmills. It had the intent to make the Rib Lake sawmill more profitable by increasing production. It also had the capital to do it.
Shortly after acquiring the Rib Lake mill. the U.S. Leather Company embarked on two bold moves to move logs. First, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Central Railroad, they constructed a series of railroad lines into Lincoln and Price County. Secondly, the Board of Directors for the Rib Lake Lumber Company apparently purchased a steam hauler.
The Rib Lake Herald of February 5, 1904, reports that the Board was investigating the acquisition of a steam hauler. The Board checked such equipment operated by the John R. Davis Lumber Company at Phillips and the Upham Lumber Company of Marshfield. Unfortunately, later editions of the Rib Lake Herald did not report the final decision of the Board. But it is undisputed that the Rib Lake Lumber Company shortly thereafter began operating at least one steam hauler.
Origins of the Steam Hauler
A steam hauler is a locomotive type device. It burned coal or wood to make steam. The steam powered pistons which, in turn, powered two steel caterpillar tracks in the center of the steam hauler. It operated on snow or, preferably, on ice.
The steam hauler was a slow moving, ponderous but powerful machine. It's top speed was perhaps five miles per hour. But it was capable of pulling as many as 14 loaded sleighs of logs. The probable source of the Rib Lake steam hauler was the Phoenix Iron Works Company of Eau Claire.
Steam hauler operations ended in Rib lake in 1922. Thereafter an extensive and expanded railroad system provided quicker and year round log transport.
Two steam haulers survive in Wisconsin today; one in the logging museum in Rhinelander, the other on public display in Laona.
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