What a surprise and delight I found in “The Last Wilderness,” by the late journalist and author Murray Morgan. Originally published in 1955, it is being reissued by the University of Washington Press with a fresh design and a new introduction by poet Tim McNulty — another authentic and venerable voice of the Olympic Peninsula.
I was curious as to how I would find this account from the 1950s. The pleasant surprise was how heavily Morgan, a journalist by training, draws on primary sources. From journals, diaries, ship’s logs, historical newspaper accounts and more, Murray mines first looks at the wild forests, seas and rivers of the peninsula by explorers, loggers, homesteaders and others.
Some of the best parts of the book are extensive quotations from their accounts of what it was like to cut old-growth trees with handsaws, to bushwhack unknown woods, and hack homesteads into what white settlers saw as a wilderness both hostile and wondrous.
The casualness with which whatever anyone wanted was simply taken, stripped and sold is not news. But it still shocks when confronted in the detail Morgan relates.
Here is both the astonishment of explorers as they look for the first time from their ships at the forests that cloak shores to the waterline, and the dispatch with which they claim whatever they want for whatever European crown or business tycoon back East sent them, whether a perfect Puget Sound cove for a mill site, or swaths of virgin timber as far as their eye can see.
Sea otters are shot from towers on the beach until there are none left to shoot. Trees are wastefully logged and milled, with the prime cuts taken and the rest burned as trash in fires that don’t go out for a decade. Cougars are plugged with lead by the hundreds for a $75 per head bounty.
It is a book of its time. Missing are the stories of women, of Native Americans, of the lives of the animals or the ecological story of this place and consequences of the destruction wrought by this pillage. This isn’t that book, and Morgan not that author.
Still, it is an important read that yields fresh understanding of this place, and especially of the people who transformed it.
Morgan chronicles the steaming wet clothes by the smoking woodstove in the loggers’ bunkhouse, the lonely lighthouse keeper on Destruction Island, the hilarity of the Press Expedition as explorers set off in December to see what they might find in the Olympics.
Well told is the rise and fall of the timber industry and the transformation of logging, from work done by hand and with animals to the industrial assault undertaken with steam equipment and logging railroads punched into the woods.
“It was strangely like war,” Morgan writes. “They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beach heads to be driven into the hills, broken into patches, wiped out.
“Many operators thought they were not only making lumber but liberating the land from the trees, making room for farmers.”
He is a beautiful writer, capturing not only the details of how the work was done, but the spirit of it — even the thrill of cutting ancient, colossal trees down to dimensional lumber:
“Every year more mills were built and there were more saws to feed, in each mill were an agony of sounds and a menacing flicker of steel … square it down, cut it up. It was growing before Columbus, and you’re its master.”
The incomprehensible danger of the work in the woods is honored: “The great logs swinging through the air would knock down a two foot thick tree without losing momentum. They simply splattered any logger who wasn’t clear when they started to move.”
Here too are the stories of the crackpots and schemers, the dreamers starting utopian communities for free love and swimming “clothed only in goose pimples,” and the stubborn holdouts fighting creation of Olympic National Park to the last.
A surprise on every page, this rich history is necessary reading for understanding the Olympic Peninsula both as it was and is today.