Heritage \ Writings \ Industry: Lumbering

John McGraw & Co. Lumber Mill (Established 1868)
Location: Harrison St., foot of Cass ave., Bay City, Mich.

1878 - T. H. McGraw & Co.
1882 - Birdsall & Barker Co.

History as of 1883. - Added Feb., 2012.

History of Bay County, Michigan - 1883.


This firm are the present proprietors of the McGraw Mill, one of the most noted mills in all the lumbering regions. The late John McGraw, who was so widely known in connection with Cornell University, and as one of the most extensive lumbermen of his time, was first engaged in the manufacture of lumber with Mr. H. W. Sage, at Wenona, where in 1863-64 they built a mill of monster proportions. In 1868 Mr. McGraw sold his interest in that mill, and built one at Portsmouth, which was destroyed by fire in 1872. The mill was immediately rebuilt on a much larger scale. It was said to be the largest mill in the world. It cut one season 55,260,000 feet of lumber. The mill site covered about one hundred acres, which has been thickly dotted with buildings of various kinds, until quite a village is gathered there. The cut of the mill last season was about 40,000,000 feet of lumber. The product of the two salt blocks is about 125,000 barrels. After the death of John McGraw, Mr. Thomas McGraw, a nephew living at Poughkeepsie, New York, was interested in the settlement of the estate, and in 1878 the firm of T. H. McGraw Co. succeeded that of John McGraw & Co., and continued until the summer of 1882, when the firm of Birdsall & Barker became proprietors. Mr. T. H. McGraw is still concerned in the property, and does an extensive business in pine lands, logs and lumber. His residence is at Poughkeepsie, and a portion of his time is spent in Bay City, as his interests demand. The firm of Birdsall and Barker is composed of Benjamin Birdsall and C. C. Barker, both of whom had been connected with the mill for several years. Mr. Barker has been connected with the mill since the first one was built in 1869.

News 1872. - Added Feb., 2012.

Lumberman's Gazette, Vol. 1, No. 2, August, 1872.
HENRY S. DOW, Editor and Proprietor.

Page 7.
John McGraw & Co. have commenced the work of rebuilding the magnificent planing mill at Portsmouth, which was destroyed by fire a few weeks since. The saw-mill will probably be rebuilt during the next season, but as yet no definite action is decided upon that we learn.

Page 13.
This firm commenced business in Albany in the year 1866. They have had extensive mills at Portsmouth, Mich., and at Worthington, Ind. One of these was reputed to be the finest planing and sawing mill in the United States previous to its destruction by fire, which event but recently occurred. The fire followed closely in a more deplorable calamity – the death of Mr. Thomas McGraw, who owned a heavy interest in the establishment, and who stood high in the esteem of his fellow merchants. The house deal in pine, walnut and white wood. The yearly sales are about $500,000. The office the concern is No. 27.

News 1877.

Lumberman's Gazette – 1877.

The mill of John McGraw and Company is at the upper end of the city. The firm owns 600 acres of land, and a third of their property is occupied by their saw mill, salt work, drying kilns, and other buildings and storage places. The sawmill has a greater capacity than any other in this section, and is believed to be the largest in the world. It is rated at 40,000,000 feet of lumber for the season, but, if needed could be worked up to double that capacity. Over 350 men are employed, and during the past six weeks over 200,000 feet of lumber have been cut every day. One day, when the mill was tested to it utmost capacity, 180,000 fet were cut in three hours, or at the rate of 675,000 feet per day of 11 Ό working hours.

Description of McGraw mill and Bay City in 1879.

Carpentry and Building, Vol. 1, 1879

A Michigan Saw Mill.

Saginaw Valley, Mich. May 24, 1879.

To the Editor of Carpentry and Building:

Our first impression of Bay City was a curious one. As we walked toward the town from the depot, our attention was attracted by the singular appearance of the sidewalks. Like everything else in this lumber country, these are of wood. The surfaces of the planks seemed to have been subjected to unusual influences. They looked as if they had had a severe attack of small pox. Every inch of exposed surface was covered with deep, well-defined indentations. Naturally, we fell to speculating as to the cause of this phenomenon. It might be atmospheric influence; it might be the work of some insect or worm; more likely it was hail. Presently we encountered an intelligent looking native, standing with hands in pockets before the door of a beer saloon, of which the door step furnished a striking illustration of the action of the mysterious influence which had so puzzled us. “Beg pardon, neighbor,” said your correspondent, “but I'll be much obliged if you will tell me what causes the plank sidewalks of this interesting town to assume such a curious appearance?” The intelligent native looked at us, then at the sidewalk. “Waal, I don't know as I know what you mean.” “Observe,” said we, “the singular pock marked appearance of the exposed surfaces, which is not seen on the fences or houses fronts. My friend and I have been wondering whether it was hail, or an insect, or some other influence peculiar to this neighborhood, and not being able to arrive at any satisfactory decision, we concluded to trouble you for exact information on the subject.”

A lambent smile overspread the countenance of the intelligent native. “Waal, stranger,” said he, “it aint neither hail nor worms. It's log drivers.” Not fully comprehending his meaning, we asked further information, and were told that the men who handle logs in the river wear boots with sharp steel spikes in the soles, so that they can walk or stand on the logs which, from long immersion have grown slippery. We thanked the smiling citizen for his information, and were about turning away when he blandly remarked: “ I say stranger, if you'll just stop inside you'll find them pock marks all over the floor, and more infront of the bar.” the hint was so delicately conveyed that we could not but act upon it; and then we went our way with the pleasing consciousness that we had furnished the lumbermen of the Saginaw Valley a standing joke, which would amuse them for years to come.

Bay City is a surprise to the stranger from the East. It is much larger and more important than one expects to find it. The streets are wide, with many blocks of fine stores well filled with merchandise of the best quality. There are many stores which do credit to the best business streets of the most prosperous cities of the East. Many of the buildings are substantial brick structures. Stone is something very difficult to find in this neighborhood, but very good native bricks are made and are coming into use. Notwithstanding its abundance, lumber is but little, if any, cheaper here than in New York. Slabs and sawdust are plenty and cheap, but lumber of good quality is never in excess of the demands of the export trade.


Of course, the exhaustion of the pine forests of the lower peninsula of Michigan is only a question of time, but as that term is used here, it is in distinction from eternity. About 11 years ago a careful estimate by experienced men, led to the conclusion that the standing pine in the valley of the Saginaw River and its tributaries would furnish 600,000,000 feet of sound lumber for 17 years, and then the supply would be exhausted. The time allotted for the life of this industry is drawing to a close, but the supply is as abundant as ever, and will last far into the future. Unfortunately, however, it is not inexhaustible. The destruction of the forests is proceeding with alarming rapidity, and if it were not that Canada still has vast and untouched forests, we might well regard with apprehension the exhaustion of the pine supply which, for this country, will mark the end of the age of wood and the beginning of the age of paper. Nature furnishes us no substitute for pine; when we need one we must make it.

During the 16 years from 1863-8 the mills of the Saginaw Valley cut over seven thousand millions of feet of lumber. Since the lumbering operations began here the estimated product of the mills has been something over nine thousand millions of feet. To this must be added immense shingle and lath product and the enormous aggregate waste of the mills. Some of the districts formerly largely productive are already exhausted. The Cass River no longer furnishes a supply of any consequence, and several of the rivers must soon be abandoned by the lumbermen. But while the pine lasts it will be a source of great wealth to this district, and will give employment to a large and generally prosperous population. The shipments of lumber and shingles from the Saginaw Valley from 1869 to 1878 inclusive, are given in the following table, for which we are indebted to the courtesy of Mr. Bennett, proprietor of the Lumberman's Gazette.

Year / Lumber / Shingles.

1869 / 474,012,425 / 88,876,500
1870 / 487,489, 268 / 130,448,490
1871 / 516,602,474 / 142,661,500
1872 / 492,834,090 / 87,904,500
1873 / 452,763,560 / 28,521,500
1874 / 448,707,652 / 82,154,500
1875 / 445,149,155 / 117,832,500
1876 / 455,227,242 / 105,743,050
1877 / 539,863,047 / 162,594,250
1878 / 525,282,098 / 187,699,380

Of the minor products of the mills – those which use up all the lumber that would otherwise go to waste – your corespondent had not time to gather information. These are principally hoops and staves.


The largest and most interesting lumber mill in this district, and probably the largest in the world, is at the extreme southern end of Bay City. It is the famous mill of Thos. McGraw & Co., and as it is the best representative of its class, a brief description cannot fail to interest the reader. The offices at the main entrance are large and convenient, and there is an extensive store for the accommodation of the workmen and their families.

The saw mill proper is a building 85 x 162 feet, with a wing 32 x 52 feet. Power is furnished by three engines for the gangs, each with 16 x 20 inch cylinders; an engine of 28 x 34 inch cylinder for the small machinery and circular saws; and one with 8 x 12 inch cylinder for the saw dust conveyors. There is one “live gang” of 30 saws; one “stock gang” of 36 saws; one “slabbing gang” with 16 saws on each side. There are two circular saws of 72-inch diameter; two trimming tables capable of trimming the entire product of the mill; four edgers, four slab saws and tables, one splitter for making flooring or siding from stock boards, and one resawyer for think lumber. Among the wood working machinery there is a heading machine with a capacity of 5000 pieces per day; a stave machine with a capacity of 50,000 pieces; and a hoop machine with a capacity of 10,000 pieces. The product of these machines is all ready for making into barrels when taken from the mill. In addition there is a lath mill with a capacity of 40,000 per day; a shingle mill with a capacity of 25,000, and a picket mill with a capacity of 3000.


The saw mill, or, as my companion called it, the slaughter house, is one of the most interesting industrial establishments your correspondent ever visited. It is more like a well-arranged abattoir than anything else to which it can be compared, and one has but to see both to note the striking similarity. The logs are floated to the foot of the inclined planes leading up to the mill, and when the carriage which, a moment before, has made a plunge into the brown water, comes up again, it brings one, two or three great pine logs to be slaughtered. These are rolled into the unyielding embrace of the clamps attached to the carriages which serve the great circular slabbing saws. The carriage is set in motion, and the terrible saws tear their way through the wet log with railroad speed, sending a cloud of spray in every direction. The log is then turned and another side is taken off. The turning is effected by a curious instrument of torture which rises through the floor, lays hold of the log with its formidable spikes, shoulders it over and subsides. When the removal of four slabs has squared the timber, it is passed to the gang saws, which divide it into boards. These pass forward to the trimming tables, where they are edged. The slabs and edges all move forward in the same direction, over tables with rollers kept constantly in motion by endless chains revolving over drums. At the proper point they are gathered, sawed into convenient lengths and passed down into hoppers, when they disappear from sight. The dust from the saws is caught and carried forward by belts with buckets, and conveyed where it is need to feed the fires under the boilers.

The system in this mill is perfect, and everything is done by machinery, which only needs intelligent control to make it all work. Everything moves steadily forward. Nothing stops, nothing accumulates, nothing is in the way. The onward movement is like the flow of a river with a uniform current. The men employed merely guide the driftwood.


Adjoining the sawmill is a boiler house of brick, with iron-roof – fire-proof throughout. It contains six flue boilers, 4x 24 feet; two tubular boilers, 4 x 14 feet; two large steam pumps for feeding the boilers and supplying water for fire protection. The fuel used is sawdust from the gang and circular saws. It is fed automatically, and the intensity of the fire attests the value of the fuel for this purpose. In another part of the works your correspondent saw the operation of firing by hand. The sawdust is handled with great wooden snow shovels, and feeding the fires under six boilers keeps two men constantly at work. The grate is a perforated plate with a large ash-pit underneath. On this the firemen pile all the sawdust the furnace will hold, pushing it back with implements made for the purpose, and throwing in more until the mouth is closed. Your correspondent saw at least 4 feet of dust piled on a grate, and would have supposed that such a mass of cold fuel between the grate and the boiler would have choked the fire and lowered the steam pressure; but the heat somewhere in the furnace is intense, the boilers were singing like comfortable tea kettles, and the gauge recorded 85 pounds, with a tendency to rise.

The system of automatic feeding in the main boiler house is attended with great economy. One man can now take care of the fires which, if fed by hand, would keep six men hard at work. The surplus sawdust is carried on to a building designed for the purpose, from which it is returned at night to generate steam for the dry kilns. A great advantage of the automatic firing is found in the fact that it is never necessary to open the furnace doors; whereas, with hand firing, they are opened nearly a third of the time. With automatic feeding the temperature is more uniform, and the steam pressure is maintained at a constant figure.

The mill and the platform up which the logs are drawn from the river are lighted with gas, so that when necessary, work can proceed day and night without interruption.


The average product of this one mill is about 205,000 feet of board per day of 11 hours. At a trial of speed made in 1874, there were cut in this mill, in 10 hours and 43 minutes, 179,718 feet of lumber; since that time the machinery has been greatly improved, and on the 10th of August last there were sawed, in 11 hours, 335,240 feet. Of course, a net product of sawed lumber represents an immense amount of refuse in the shape of slabs, sidings, sawdust, & c., but of this little or nothing is wasted. The useful wood is all manufactured into pickets, staves, hoops, & c., and the chips and sawdust are all converted to power.


Most of the logs sawed have been more or less completely water-seasoned, but before shipment it is necessary to dry them very thoroughly. In McGraw's mill the kilns are of what is known as the Chicago Pattern. They are of brick with tall chimneys, and each will hold 700,000 feet of lumber. With lumber fresh from the mill, the amount which can be properly dried in one of these kilns averages 75,000 feet per day.


Is a substantial brick building 40 x 60 feet and two stories high. It has three molding machines, 8, 10 and 12 inch respectively, and provided with knives for over 2000 patterns. In this mill and an adjoining building there is much fine and valuable machinery, including three planing machines with an aggregate capacity for dressing 100,000 feet of lumber per day; an edger, cut-off saw, scroll saw and picket pointer. The boiler room of this mill is 48 x 60 feet. The only fuel used is sawdust.

Among the other buildings of this vast establishment, of which only an imperfect idea can be conveyed by a description, is an extensive and well appointed blacksmith shop, a carpenter shop, a cooper shop with storage capacity for 8000 barrels, a barn, a mill for grinding feed, an extensive storehouse on the river for grain and coal, a large brick store, a boarding house with accommodation for 55 boarders, and 27 tenants leased to men employed.


There are 8358 feet on a level with the second stories of the mills. So perfect is the system that all the hauling necessary is done by two horses. These tramways are sufficient to afford piling room for 40,000,000 feet of lumber. On the ground there is a tramway connecting the drying kilns with the mills and with 20,000 feet of dockage on the Saginaw River.

J. C. B.

Additional Notes.

    1879 – Directory: Bay City, Mich.
    Employes listed as working at T. H. McGraw & Co.:

  • Badgeley, Rufus – laborer.
  • Barker, Harvey – laborer.
  • Beggs, Robert – millright.
  • Birmingstall, George – laborer.
  • Brady, Bernard – laborer.
  • Burtch, George F. - engineer.
  • Calderwood, John F. - clerk.
  • Charton, L. - laborer.
  • Columbia, Victor – laborer.
  • Conway, James – laborer.
  • Conway, John – laborer.
  • Dezelets, Joseph – laborer.
  • DuHamel, Charles – laborer.
  • Eastman, Charles foreman.
  • Foote, Charles E. - laborer.
  • Fox, C. Louis – laborer.
  • Hanson, Charles – laborer.
  • Hearns, Stephen – laborer.
  • Hodges, Reuben – laborer.
  • La Count, John – laborer.
  • Lindsay, John – engineer.
  • Lorenski, Samuel – laborer.
  • Lunger, Jacob – teamster.
  • Maynard, Moses – laborer.
  • McDerby, John – laborer.
  • Parsons, John – laborer.
  • Parsons, Ownen – saw filer.
  • Parsons, Thomas – laborer.
  • Patello, George – laborer.
  • Petersen, Oscar – laborer.
  • Pollock, Wm. - laborer.
  • Rhoder, Frank – laborer.
  • Ross, Peter – helper.
  • Smith, James – laborer.
  • Stewart, Andrew – laborer.
  • Wagner, Joseph – laborer.
  • Watrous, Martin – laborer.

Related Notes & Pages

{Lumbering Pictorial}

John McGraw

Related Pages:
McGraw, John.
Sage, Henry W.
McGraw Mill Fire 1872
People Referenced
Barker, C.C.
Bennett, Edwin
Birdsall, Benjamin
Dow, Henry
McGraw, John
McGraw, Thomas H.
Sage, Henry W.
  • See directory listing of employees.
  • Subjects Referenced
    Bay City, MI
    Birdsall & Barker
    John McGraw & Co.
    Lumberman's Gazette
    Poughkeesie, NY
    Portsmouth, MI
    Saginaw Valley, MI
    T.H. McGraw & Co.
    Worthington, IN
    Circular saw
    Gang saw
    Salt block
    Saw mill
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.