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A lot of timber logged at Rock Island mills
Weyerhaeuser, Denkmann firm flourished at century's turn

By Sarah Larson, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Click here for larger view.
Logs cut from forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin were formed into great rafts for the trip downriver to the Quad-Cities.
For years, the Mississippi River was a sea of logs floating so closely together one could almost walk from shore to shore.

It was the 1880s, and the Minnesota and Wisconsin white-pine logs were destined for sawmills to the south. They also bumped up against the Quad-Cities' shore.

The lumber industry boomed in the early days of the Quad-Cities, fueled by the country's westward expansion. By 1838, Moline founder David B. Sears ran a mill on the Mississippi River in Moline. By 1854, Rock Island's numerous sawmills employed about 200 men and turned out 2 million board feet of lumber, according to "Quad-Cities: Joined By a River."

By the turn of the century, though, the Quad-Cities lumber industry began to wane. Millwheels stopped turning and doors closed over the next few decades. The last local mills -- the East Moline Lumber Store, the Moline Building Center, the White Lumber Company of Davenport and the Rock Island Lumber Co. -- closed in 1970.

A reminder of the Quad-Cities booming lumberyards, though, lives on in Tacoma, Wash.-based Weyerhaeuser Co. Now one of the world's largest forest-products manufacturers, the company got its start in Rock Island.

In 1860, German immigrants Frederick Weyerhaeuser and Frederick Denkmann bought the failed Mead, Smith and Marsh sawmill in Rock Island and renamed it Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann.

Mr. Weyerhaeuser had worked at the sawmill at 1st Street and 4th Avenue for years before he bought it. He was hired there in 1856 when he was 22, and his ambition and work habits soon led the owners to put him in charge of sales. He was then chosen to direct a branch operation in Coal Valley in 1857.

Click here for larger view.
Lumber, sent down the Mississippi from the northern forests, fed a vibrant milling industry in the Quad-Cities. Logs awaiting processing by the Rock Island Lumber Co. are seen floating in the river in this photo from the around 1905.
The Mead, Smith and Marsh mill went bankrupt in 1858. In 1860, Mr. Weyerhaeuser and his brother-in-law, Mr. Denkmann, bought the mill for $3,500.

Mr. Denkmann managed the mill's day-to-day operations. According to local historian Kathleen Seusy, stories abound of Mr. Denkmann's devotion to the mill.

"He worked long hours, even on Sundays, to ensure that the machinery was in proper order, and nothing kept him from his daily work," Ms. Seusy wrote in "Quad-Cities: Joined By a River." "Once, he nearly drowned while trying to save some logs that had escaped from the boom, and another time he lost two fingers in a planer.

"A worker at the mill reported that Denkmann `had his hand tied up and carried it in a sling and was back in the mill the next day.'"

While Mr. Denkmann ran the mill, Mr. Weyerhaeuser worked to build the business, especially by securing timber rights in the coveted white-pine forests to the north.

At the time, most of the Quad-Cities lumber industry relied on local hardwoods. The land along the Mississippi and Rock Rivers was thickly forested with high-quality hardwood trees. The loggers cut the trees from the bluffs above the river and hauled them to the mills with two-wheeled ox carts.

Local mills did not rely heavily on logs from Minnesota and Wisconsin, partially because of the imperfect method of transport. The timber floated down the Mississippi in free-floating rafts of lashed-together logs. Crews of 20 to 35 men lived on the rafts, using oars to navigate. Travel was slow, and many logs were lost when rafts collided with bridges or other obstacles.

Two developments in the 1870s greatly increased the flow of white pine from the north, which by then was very popular with homebuilders because of its durable workability.

First, a LeClaire boatyard owner named J.W. Van Sant built the first steamboat specifically designed to tow logs. It was quicker and could navigate much better than free-floating log rafts. On its inaugural run, the J.W. Van Sant steered a Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann raft down the Mississippi, under the Government Bridge and into the boom at the Rock Island sawmill, according to Ms. Seusy.

Mr. Weyerhaeuser was so impressed with the new system, he formed a company of sawmill owners from the upper Mississippi to cooperatively transport logs downriver on an unprecedented scale. The Mississippi River Logging Company was formed in 1871 with 17 charter members, including mill owners from Davenport and Moline.

Mr. Weyerhaeuser was elected president the following year, a post he held for 35 years. The company leased land at the mouth of the Chippewa River in Wisconsin and built a pen on the river to hold their logs.

Soon after, the lumber industry in the Quad-Cities boomed.

"During the busy season, the (Mississippi River Logging) company employed 1,200 to 1,500 men and kept 75 steamboats busy pushing log rafts on the upper Mississippi," Ms. Seusy wrote.

Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann's business expanded rapidly. In 1878, the two men formed the Rock Island Lumber and Manufacturing Co. to encompass other sawmills they had purchased. By 1888, the two firms operated by the men employed 1,000 men and had annual sales of $175 million, according to Ms. Seusy.

The Quad-Cities lumber industry peaked by 1890, when output rose to more than 213 million board feet. Thirty years earlier, it had only been 22 million feet, Ms. Seusy said.

As the Midwestern industry wound down, Mr. Weyerhaeuser began looking toward the forests of the West. In 1891, he and most of his family moved to Minnesota. In January 1900, he and 15 partners organized the Weyerhaeuser Timber Co. in the Northwest. The present-day Weyerhaeuser Co. dates its founding to this event.

In the largest private land transaction in U.S. history to that point, Mr. Weyerhaeuser and associates bought 900,000 acres of timberland from the Northern Pacific Railway for $6 an acre. They opened offices in Tacoma, Wash., where the company is still based.

The Denkmann family stayed in Rock Island, where Mr. Denkmann died in early 1905 at the age of 81. The Rock Island mills closed six months later.

Memories of the Weyerhaeusers and the Denkmanns abound in the Illinois Quad-Cities. The Weyerhaeuser family home at 3052 10th Ave., Rock Island, which Mr. Weyerhaeuser bought in the 1860s, was donated to Augustana College after his daughter Apollonia Weyerhaeuser Davis died in 1953.

The only stipulation was that the college continue to call it the House on the Hill, the family's name for the home. Students now live in apartments upstairs and special college events are held on the main floor.

Mr. Denkmann's memory lives on in the form of Augustana's Denkmann Memorial Hall. Mr. Denkmann's children donated the building to the college in 1909, and it was used for a library between 1911 and 1990. Now it houses Augustana's foreign language departments and other offices.

Both men donated substantial sums of money to build the Rock Island Public Library.

Today, Weyerhaeuser Co. employs more than 35,000 people in the United States and Canada. Its 1997 sales reached $11.2 billion.

Frederick Weyerhaeuser and Frederick Denkmann are buried in Rock Island's Chippiannock Cemetery.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.