According to “Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State,” the lumber industry was Michigan’s dominating economic force following the Civil War. “[A]bout the time the Civil War was drawing to an end, an economic development [the lumber industry] occurred in Michigan with consequences for the state that were equally as important as the military and political effects of the Civil War…The economy of Michigan, and many other aspects of life in the state, was dominated in these years by the harvesting, sawing, and marketing of lumber, chiefly white pine” (Dunbar, 395).
Prior to the Civil War, in the 1840s, the United States’ lumber industry was mostly only found in “New York, Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina” (Dunbar, 396). Yet, during the 1850s, with the help of lumbermen traveling west from those states in search of abundant white pines forests, Michigan ended up ranking as the fifth most lumber producing state. By 1860, Michigan’s ranking went up to being third, and by the end of that decade, “Michigan moved ahead of all others, a position that the state would hold thereafter to the end of the century. [By 1880] Michigan produced about a fourth of the nation’s lumber, with its production nearly equaling that of the next three states combined” (Dunbar, 396). And because the Saginaw region had over 3 million acres filled with unusually large white pines, along with a river system that could help transport the lumber across and out of the state, by the mid-1850s the Saginaw Valley ended up having approximately 40 sawmills “with the capacity of 100 million board feet of lumber per year” (Dunbar, 397).
The great amounts of economic activity that generated from Saginaw Valley resulted in the political domination of lumber barons, “wealthy men [who] utilized their money to influence the state’s politicians and judge…[There ended up being a s]eemingly limitless strength [that] rested with lumbermen because of their wealth” (Rubenstein, 157). Also, the abundance of lumber gave seemingly ordinary men who came from humble beginnings an opportunity to obtain the American Dream; some men who started out as timber scouts would (years later) go on to become powerful lumber barons themselves. More importantly, the power of influence that the lumber barons had over the federal government was probably best exemplified by the story of Henry W. Sage, a man that (with the help of his elected Congressman) stole “ten thousand acres” from the Isabella Indian Reservation in 1871. Regarding the case of Mr. Sage, “no prosecutions were ever made…[because] practices such as [Sage’s] were so common that during the years 1860-1880 over one million board feet of timber, with a minimum value of $36 million, was stolen from Indian reservations.”
These criminal acts of collusion between wealth Michigan lumber barons and the federal government leading up to 1885 made the strike of the Saginaw Valley shanty boys an unwinnable battle for the laborers. By the summer of 1885, the Michigan lumber industry had already been around for 35 years. It was evident that there was no balance of power between the shanty boys and their employers. By just looking at the Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike, one can get a strong impression that although the labors heavily outnumbered their bosses, the lumber barons were the ones who had all of the resources of the local and state governments at their disposal.
To start out with, on the local level, according to the article on the 1885 strike, author Victor J. Mobley points out that the lumber barons had the Bay County deputy sheriff, sheriff, and Bay City police chief all fighting on their side; day in and day out the local law enforcement agents all fought hard to control the large group of strikers. Also, on the state level, Michigan’s very own governor, Russell Alger, was a “lumberman himself, with an interest in one of the area’s mills…[who] arrived on the scene to address the crisis…[and] issued a proclamation prohibiting all mass meetings or “unlawful assemblage”” (Mobley, 4). Also, Governor Alger called in four nearby state militias to fight on the side of the lumber barons, jailed lawmakers who were on the side of the strikers, and publicly supported the lumber employers.
Because all of the odds were stacked against the strikers, they had no other choice but to return to work with few improvements. Despite the main reason for the strike being that the shanty boys wanted a 10-hour work day, they were only offered biweekly pay – which was actually a great benefit because often before the strike they were not “necessarily paid in American currency” (French).
There are two main takeaways of the Saginaw Valley Lumber strike of 1885: (1.) Michigan economic industries were overly brazen and seemingly unstoppable because they had an extraordinary amount of power and influence over the state and federal government, and (2.) the lumber baron’s (along with other heads of industry) treatment of their laborers was cause for an outrage, and because the government was not going to support the working-class, striking was the only option left on the table for these desperate men.
And although the shanty boys did not get all of what they originally wanted (a 10-hour work day), the Saginaw Valley Lumber strike did end up capturing the nation’s attention; that’s something that laborers would end up seeing as a positive effect, and in the following decades when laborers found themselves striking against another one of Michigan’s leading economic industry’s (the automobile industry), national attention would prove to be a great resource in an seemingly unwinnable fight.
Dunbar, Willis F. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine Stat. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980.
Grimm, Joe. Michigan Voices: Our State’s History in the Words of the People Who Lived It. Wayne State University Press, 1987.
Mobley, Victor J. “Bay City’s Long Summer: The Labor Strike of 1885.” Bay Journal.Apr. 2012.
Rubenstein, Bruce A. and Lawrence E. Ziewacz. Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State. Wiley Blackwell, 2014.