Winfield Scott Gerrish opens the 7.1-mile-long Lake George and Muskegon River Railroad in Clare County. Following a warm winter that seriously hampered logging activities, Gerrish moved 20 million board feet of logs to the Muskegon River. The next year, he increased his output sixfold. Though Gerrish was not the first to build a Michigan logging railroad, his operation was well-publicized and successful. It revolutionized lumbering in Michigan. By 1882, 32 narrow-gauge logging railroads operated in the state. The railroads permitted new areas to be logged and all sizes of trees to be cut and, most important, allowed year-round transportation of logs to the sawmills. Commercial logging in Michigan had flourished since the Civil War, drawing immigrants from around the world—especially Scandinavians, Germans, Irish and Canadians. Michigan retained its national leadership in lumber production until 1900. By the end of the lumbering era, Michigan loggers cut 161 billion boardfeet of pine logs and 50 billion boardfeet of hardwoods. That is equivalent to a half-mile wide, one-inch plank road from New York to San Francisco. In dollar value, Michigan lumber outvalued all the gold extracted from California by a billion dollars. It also created a furniture industry centered in Grand Rapids that flourished well into the 20th century. However, wasteful logging practices left enormous cut-over acres that were periodically ravaged by fire. In 1881—in one of Michigan’s worst natural disasters—fires in the Thumb left 300 people dead. That fire also was the first disaster relief project for the American Red Cross.
January 28, 1877 by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.