Doug Hansen, owner and president of Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop, Letcher, has been in business since 1978. Only recently, however, was he asked to restore a set of High Wheels. In 1875, that name was given to a set of two ten-foot diameter wagon wheels. Such wheels were first manufactured by wheelwright Silas Overpack in Manistee, Michigan, for the purpose of being part of a vehicle for skidding (transporting) logs from the woods to a railroad landing. In addition to the wheels, an axle, cart pole, chains, winch, and metal fasteners complete the log transporting vehicle.
Rogan Coombs, of Coombs Tree Farms, Inc., Fortuna, California, and owner of the wheels, found them in a forest near Fortuna. He wanted them restored to a functional state but doubted the efficacy of the effort. The wood parts were decayed beyond repair but not the iron hardware. Those parts were usable only after being cleaned and repaired as needed. The Hansen Shop has experts internationally know for their competency in horse drawn vehicle construction and restoration, and repair. Paradoxically, what Coombs thought was junk has been restored to a like-new and completely functional condition by the Shop personnel. The period from initial discussions about the project until now when project completion is close, was about a year.
For years, dragging logs on the ground by hand or by the use of animals was the only available method of transportation. Later, wagons pulled by oxen or horses were used. If rivers were present, the logs were floated to a railroad. Sleds worked well in the winter but not in the summer. In the 1800's, loggers moved westward with the growth of the nation. The distance to shipyards, homesteads, and sawmills also grew as did the demand for logs. These changes necessitated a more efficient means of getting logs to the railroad. Silas Overpack sized on the opportunity to fulfill the need and used his wheels which he named “The Michigan Logging Wheels.”
His vehicle was satisfactory on relatively level ground. But in the hilly and mountainous western states, the lack of a brake to slow or stop a vehicle on a downhill grade proved dangerous and often fatal. This lack was eliminated by a design of the Redding Iron Works of California called the Slip Tongue. On downhill grades the wheels and axle would slide forward on the tongue. This movement (the opposite of raising the logs off the ground) rotated the chain cams backwards, lowering the logs to the ground and braking the vehicle. The tongue was locked in place on the return trip to the woods, preventing it from sliding.
Here is a picture of a high wheel logging cart that Hansen Wheel and Wagon, Letcher, SD, just finished restoring for Rogan Combs of Combs Tree Farm.
Restoration of high wheels for Rogan Coombs..
The vehicle restored by the Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop is of the slip tongue design. It weighs about 3500 pounds fully assembled, and sold for $350 when new. It will be disassembled for shipment to California. Many High Wheels vehicles were sent overseas during World War 1. They also went throughout North and Central American and India. Who knows, maybe some day in the future, another one will be found decaying in the woods and sent to Hansen Wheel and Wagon for restoration!
The wheels were found in a forest near Fortuna, CA. The wood parts were decayed beyond repair but the metal hardware was all usable after it was cleaned and had the needed repairs made. The two wheels which are 10 feet in diameter were built as well as the wooden axel and tongue which is 35' long 6” x 10”.
The wheels were developed by a wheelwright in Michigan in 1875. They worked great on fairly level ground but as the logging industry moved west on hilly and mountainous terrain the lack of a brake to slow or stop the wheels on a downgrade proved to be dangerous. A design by Redding Iron Works of California called a slip tongue was developed, where the load would slide forward on the tongue lowering the logs to the ground and braking the logging wheels. Then for the return trip the tongue was locked in place.
The restoration was in progress for several months and was a joint effort of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop and employees.