A History of Its Industries, Railroads and Inventions



History Lesson: Saratoga County Lumber Drives

Ballston Spa Life


BALLSTON SPA — The dense forests and several large rivers in Saratoga County made conditions almost perfect for large-scale lumbering operations to be undertaken that supported the growth and prosperity of the region for decades. 

Each year, hundreds of thousands of logs were gathered along the banks of the lakes and tributaries that fed the Hudson and Sacandaga rivers. When spring arrived and the great floods of water from the melted snow packs of the Adirondacks commenced, the piles would be forced into the rapids to form one of the great spectacles of the county, in which floating logs stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see.  

The seemingly endless supply of timber provided an opportunity for lumberjacks to harvest the millions of trees needed to meet the demand for wood in the Capital Region and more distant cities such as New York and Boston. Finished lumber also supplied the needs of local industries such as paper mills, tanneries, boat builders, coopers, wagon makers and woodenware factories. Even the soap factories in the county relied indirectly on Adirondack lumber, as giant piles of wood ash were collected into “ash sheds” to be subjected to a leaching process, which extracted the lye used to make soap.  

Although lumbering operations were carried on all year, each stage of the business was performed in a particular season. The year began in late June when lumberjacks entered the forests to cut down hemlock trees for use in local tanneries. Demand for these trees depended upon the market conditions in the leather industry. The men usually built rough-cut log houses near the scene of operations to live in for the season. The hemlock tree harvest continued until July, when the bark would be removed and the trees prepared for sale to sawmills. This “industry within an industry” died away in the early 1900s when most small tanneries shut down and those that remained switched over to using chemicals rather than hemlock bark. 

During the fall, other trees would be harvested for processing at the sawmills. The work of hauling trees to the river was done during the winter when it was easiest to drag them through the forest with teams of horses. The logs were collected into piles along the banks that sometimes numbered fifty thousand. 

It was preferable for the ground to be sloped toward the river so that skidways, or chutes, could be made from the woods to the water’s edge. At the bottom of the skidway, the logs were piled up, measured and marked. Once this was done, it remained to wait until the river thawed enough to begin forcing the logs into the water for the trip to South Glens Falls. Because hardwood does not float as easily as softwood, the hardwood trees were generally left standing unless cut for manufacturing establishments such as the woodenware factories of Edinburgh and Hadley.  

The earliest loggers, observing the immense forests that seemed to stretch into eternity, made little effort to conserve resources or use any type of systematic harvesting program. However, because they were seeking only the largest hemlocks for tanning or pine and spruce trees for lumber, many of the smaller trees and hardwoods were left standing. Some observers in the early 1800s could hardly tell that certain parts of the forest had been harvested during the previous season, as spring foliage camouflaged the winter cut.  

The rise of the paper mills in Saratoga County dramatically changed these practices, since wood of all sizes and types could be used in the chemical pulp wood process. As one historian noted, “With the sawmill in view, only the full-grown trees were cut, but with the pulp mill in view, large and small, young and old went down before the axe.”  

By the end of the century, there were over two dozen large paper mills in operation within the county, each requiring several cords of wood daily. Only after the paper mills began to close down were the forests allowed to recover.


Timothy Starr
Brookside Museum trustees board treasurer

Excerpted from the book “Lost Industries of Saratoga County,” released by The History Press in late October, 2010. It is available at the Brookside Museum and online. For more information, see www.HistoryOfSaratoga.com.


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