Highwheels, aka Bigwheels

Wheels were used for moving logs in past centuries of ship building days in Europe and eastern US. Ship masts came from White Pine logs 100' or more in length and had to be moved from the woods to the ship yards. Small wheeled one axle “Bummers” were pulled by horses, with the front end of the log resting on the Bummer, and the other end dragging on the ground. The Bummer was adapted to logging in the southern states in the 1800's. As the loggers started logging farther away from the ship yards and lumber mills, they had to come up with faster methods of transportation. Rivers were used in the Northeast in massive log drives during the springs’ high water runoff. Rivers in the South did not have the current to move logs efficiently. Railroads started to appear in the mid to late 1800's, but the logger still had to get the logs from the logging site to the railroad landing. Heavy duty log wagons which held the logs in cradles started to replace the Bummers for longer skids. In the upper Midwest, much of the logging took place in the winter and horse drawn sleds were used to sled the logs to the rivers. As the loggers started moving into the more difficult areas, the wagons could not hold up to the constant pounding they took. The winters’ sleds in the upper Midwest worked well in the winter, but were useless in the summer. No one today knows for sure who came up with the first Big Wheel, but most likely they originated in the South. There are more than 20 patents, from 1870 to 1910 for Big Wheel design, most of which were from the South. In 1871, Silas Overpack, a wheel wright from Manistee Michigan began producing wheels of 6' and 8' in diameter for use by local loggers for moving logs. The advantage of the larger wheel was pure physics. It took less power to pull a loaded set of High Wheels than it did to pull the smaller wheeled Bummers. Horses were less tired and could produce more logs in the same amount of time.


Silas Overpack saw the business opportunity and started building complete sets of Big Wheels. Overpack’s trademark was his “Vibrant Red” color he used to paint his Big Wheels. His Big Wheel design was called the “Stinger Tongue.” The axle of the Big Wheel had two eccentric cams which were used to hook chains to the log. The axle also had a long 20' pole made of Iron Wood. The back was attached to the axle and was weighted heavy to the back so that it would stand straight up when not in use.


The horses, attached to the stinger tongue, would back the Big Wheels over the log, then the logger would unhook the horses from the tongue and the tongue would stand straight up. As it did, the cams on the axle turned backward, allowing the logger to hook up the log chain to the Big Wheel. The horses, hooked up to the tip of the tongue by a chain, pulled forward tilting down the tongue. As this happened, the cams turned lifting the front of the log off the ground. The logger would re-attach the horses to the tongue with a short chain and away they went to the landing. At the landing, the horses would be unhooked, and the tongue would stand straight up, dropping the log to the ground.


Overpacks Big Wheels were sent out west on the trains as the west started to be developed. Ten-foot diameter wheels were the maximum diameters the railroad would allow. Very quickly the loggers found out that the Big Wheel from Michigan worked well on the river bottoms of the western states. As the loggers started moving further away from the valley bottoms, they found a fatal flaw in the Big wheel design. It had no brakes! On very slight downhill grades, the horses would have to outrun the weight of the Big Wheels and the logs. Many horses were lost in accidents this way. At this time in the west, horses were very valuable, even more-so than their human handler.


This flaw led Redding Iron Works of Redding California to design what is known as the “Slip Tongue” design High Wheel. It used the same Overpack 10' wheels, but the stinger tongue was replaced with the automatic braking system of the slip tongue. The fixed stinger tongue was replaced with a tongue that slid through a frame on the High Wheels. Instead of the lifting cams directly attached to the axle, they were attached to a movable shaft that was attached to the slip tongue. As the horses started pulling on the slip tongue, the tongue slid through the frame of the High Wheels. At the same time the cams were being raised, lifting the log off the ground. The pull of the horses on the tongue lifted logs, then the wheels would start to roll. On level or uphill grades, the front of the logs would be lifted off the ground 8-10". Any downhill grade, the wheels would start catching up with the horses by sliding up on the tongue. As they slid forward, the cams rotated backwards and lowered the logs which acted as a brake. All the way to the landing the wheels and axle would “float” on the slip tongue, automatically raising and lowering the logs as needed for braking action.


Around 1915, dozers started to replace horses as the pullers of the High Wheels. Dozers were more expensive to operate, but they could cover more ground and handle steeper grades. By 1920, dozers had completely replaced horses. The Redding Iron Works slip tongue design, still using Overpack’s wheels could not withstand the tougher ground and increased speeds. Wooden wheels were replaced by metal and wooden slip tongues were replaced by hydraulic winches. The era of the High Wheels was over.


The name change from Big Wheel to High Wheel seemed to happen when they came out west. Loggers in the Midwest still call them Big Wheels, while old loggers in the west call them High Wheels.


SAF Restoration Project:

The SAF High Wheel restoration project started in 1996. When we started out, all we had was a rotting pile of Oak and rusted iron. We started by making new hubs for the wheels. These were made by Ron Butenmier from Columbia Falls. The hubs are 17" in diameter and 20" long. Each hub weighs more than 100 pounds. Hunts Timbers sawed the wood used for the spokes and “Fellies,” the arched wood below the wheel’s rims. David Watkins from Deerlodge, cut and fit the spokes and fellies into the wheels. That fall, 15 volunteers heated up the 1/2" thick, 6" wide and 10' in dimeter rims to a cherry red, then set them on the wheels. It only took 20 minutes to heat the 320-pound rims.  It took all 15 people to carry the red-hot rims from the fire to the waiting wheel. Once on, the smoke started to billow immediately. Five people were waiting with hoses to start cooling the rims. It took almost 20 more minutes to cool the rims onto the wheels.


Scott Kuehn and the area volunteers did the rest of the restoration. Hundreds of hours were spent sandblasting, cutting, fitting, painting and assembling the High Wheels.


There are only a handful of restored High Wheels in the country. The Museum has a set and the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana also has a set. That set was rebuilt in the late 70’s, early 80’s and have sat outside in the weather since. Several years ago, the tongue rotted and broke. Plans to restore that set are under way.


Quite a sight seeing a set of draft horses pulling a set of 10’ wheels. 


As I researched the history of High Wheels and wheelwright, I decided to write a pamphlet on what I had learned. That can be found at www.forestrydays.com