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Sawmills Deserved Dangerous Reputation

W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, December 17, 2003, p. A20.

For anyone who has ever worked in a medium or large sawmill; or who should enter a sawmill for the first time, it is a scary place to be. A big band saw rotating at several hundred revolutions per minute is scary enough, but when the saw bites into a log, it makes a screeching, frightening noise for the person standing next to the log carriage.

One day in 1936, while my truck was being loaded with lumber, I walked into the Southern Land and Lumber Co. sawmill at Fourth and Crockett Streets in Beaumont. I stood at one end of the log carriage, where the edgerman removed freshly-sawed slabs or boards and fed them either onto slab rollers or into 36-inch edger saws. I was both deafened by the noise and screeches, and somewhat terrified by the dozen or so whirling saws that turned at high speed only a few feet from me.

The edgerman winked at me and poked a new employee in the rear with a beanpole slab. The mill hand screamed and jumped, and the edgerman laughed heartily as a result of his prank. However, he was careful enough to commit his prank at a place where there were no saws turning in the proximity.

Between 1880-1910 East Texas newspapers were filled with instances of sawmill accidents, which severed an arm or a leg. And a mill hand could bleed to death in a matter of minutes from a severed leg.

On Feb. 15, 1888 a Galveston Daily News reporter published an article about his tours inside all of the big shingle and sawmills of Beaumont. All the mills of that age used double circular saws, with no massive band or gang saws then in use. And still the reporter was alarmed at the maze of rotating machinery. He noted that: “...Mr. Wiess led me safely through, but I was right glad to be able to inventory as many arms and legs at the end as when we started...”

One of the main reasons that the Timber Workers tried so hard in 1912 to unionize the mills was to secure safer working conditions as well as adequate compensation for injured employees. If a mill hand lost an arm between 1880-1910, he received medical care and whatever wages were earned, and nothing else. Unskilled laborers received $1.50 for a 10 or 12-hour workday, and if an injury caused permanent disability, there were 100 more men waiting at the gate to take his place. There was hardly a weekly issue of The Enterprise that did not report a disabling sawmill injury

One of the most dangerous machines was a big gang saw, which might have 30 or 40 large circular saws ganged together one or two inches apart. And if the saw bit into a nail or spike while rotating at high speed, the blade often broke up into a dozen pieces. A good example appeared in The Beaumont Journal of March 5 and 19, 1905, as follows:

“...Tom Weeks, while feeding a planer at Hayward’s Nacogdoches mill, had his hand cut off completely. This makes the 12th man hurt at this mill in four months time, including one killed (one fatality and 11 severed limbs)... The big band saw was demolished last Thursday, and the gang saw broke up and was out of commission for several days... When a big gang saw breaks up, it often succeeds in cutting a half dozen men in two before it is stopped...”

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