The Day I Rolled Big Red

12 Jun 2007

Editor’s note: Ted wrote this story a number of years ago, and I liked it. Recently he gave me a rewrite, but I liked this one better, so left it in place, putting the new version after this one. The new version has more explanation of logging terms, but still ……..

The Day I Rolled Big Red

By Ted Shannon

I put “Big Red” in 3rd gear, advanced the throttle to about 3/4 speed, and let out the clutch, intending to yank the 30 inch or so diameter, 40 foot long, Redwood log onto the skidroad. The log, for some reason, proved unexpectedly reluctant to budge, almost stalling Big Red’s engine. I was just pushing in the clutch when the log broke free, shot across the skidroad and onto a down sapling, further diminishing the little resistance impeding its downhill rush. the arch followed the log of course, and as it tipped over, I thought, “Oh shucks, not again.” The reader can correctly surmise that this was not my first over-turn-the-arch procedure.

But this day was to be far from routine. The arch came down hard, jacking the rear end of the TD-24 (Big Red) off the ground. My left hand was on the winch-brake lever and I could (and should) have avoided disaster by releasing the brake, but we catskinners did not usually release the winch-line cable because our chokersetters then had to drag the gnarly cable back to the tractor . . a tough task sure to draw their ire. So I hesitated. . . and the next thing I knew, I was holding onto the brake lever to keep my body inside the cage as Big Red went over the side upside down!

As previously noted in my sad tale, “The Day I Snapped Fred’s Cable,” I was a logger for Union Lumber Company in Fort Bragg, California from 1955 through 1959. That story ended where this begins: my promotion (?) to operating a “wheelcat.”

A wheelcat is a tractor which pulls an arch. For the edification of the reader who doesn’t have the foggiest notion of what an arch is: an arch is a piece of equipment designed to lift one end of the logs off the ground, thereby reducing friction and allowing bigger “turns” (loads) of logs to be brought into the landing. There are three arches on display at the Sierra Nevada Logging Museum site at White Pines; a mix of tracked and rubber-tired arches.

Union Lumber had converted most of its arches from tracked to rubber-tired. Like so many things in life, each type had advantages and disadvantages. The rubber tires, though huge (WWII bomber tires) weighed less and produced less friction than tracks, so pulled easier. Their major shortcoming was they were less stable, and therefore overturned more readily than tracked arch.

Overturning the arch was neither a rare event nor was it a real big deal. They were built tough to take abuse, and could be righted fairly easily. The chokersetters unhooked the choker(s) from the log(s) which had upset the arch. (Usually, not always, a log rolling on a hillside was the culprit.) The chokersetters then attached the winch line hook to a short loop of cable on the arch’s axle, and the arch was winched right-side up. The chokersetters placed the choker eyes back on the hook, gave the catskinner dirty looks, and motioned him on his way.

Union Lumber operated four sides at this time and operated a mix of Caterpillar and International tractors. There were 13 Cat D8s, 4 D7s and 9 International TD24s. There were 2 wheelcats per side. . . all TD24s as I recall. The Internationals (Cornbinders) were bigger, heavier, faster, more powerful, and easier to operate than the D8s. Caterpillar came out with a more competitive tractor in the late 50s. Some say that the Cat was always more durable and reliable. On this I have no knowledge.

The Internationals were painted red. They had twin exhausts and the so-called mufflers were probably little more than spark arresters. . . which is possibly part of the reason that I don’t hear too well today. They had a four-speed transmission with a two speed planetary on the final drives. . . a total of eight speeds forward and reverse. The planetaries had separate controls for each track, providing full power to both tracks in turns by running one track in high range and the other in low. This was a truly superior feature. With Cats of the era, power to the inside track had to be disconnected to make a turn. Under a hard pull, the outside track would claw futilely for traction. Much commotion, little forward motion.

I nicknamed my Cornbinder “Big Red.” It wasn’t really mine of course, but Union Lumber let me operate it as long as I kept the logs coming in. I started running wheel-cat in 1957. I believe that my pay was $2.60 an hour. When I quit at the end of the 1959 logging season, I was getting $2.80 per hour. . . top pay for a Catskinner at Union, and good money at the time.

In 1958, I was in my second season on a wheel-cat and had become a pretty good operator. I was still allowing my arch to get upset on occasion, but logging steep ground can lead to unexpected tribulations, such as overturned arches, and, much more rarely, overturned tractors.

All that usually happened was a little jolt when the arch hit the ground.

The bulldozer operator was “punching” a new skid road and I was pulling logs as he reached them.. We were on a steep sidehill on a fairly steep downgrade.

“Go out to the end on the line and pull,” said Bob Evans, my old-timer head chokersetter and his second choke had just hooked me up to the log responsible for this tale.

Now, I wasn’t a know-it-all type, and normally followed bob’s instructions, but going out to the end of the winch line was time-consuming. After you let all the line out, you had to winch it in again. I had a better idea. “I’ll just give it a quick jerk onto the road.” Bob, it was plain to see, didn’t think much of my plan, but I was the catskinner.

Big Red slid down the hill upside down for what seemed an eternity, but was seconds in actuality. She only rolled onto her top, then skidded along on the roof and one track. I can still hear the sound of rocks and limbs scraping along during the descent. That would come later. All I can remember thinking is: “I wish this thing would stop.”

After she came to a rest, I remained inside for a few moments, partly to be reasonably sure she was going to stay put. Big Red’s engine was still running smoothly. I shut it off and climbed out, unhurt.

My chokersetters and the dozer operator had run down to check on me. Bob was apparently so glad to see that I was okay that he didn’t even say, “I told you so!”

Other than a few new scratches and losing her mufflers, Big Red was little the worse for wear. She was back on the job within a couple of days.

I got the rest of the afternoon off. Parker Ball, our hooktender, drove me to Fort Bragg where a doctor examined me. I was back to work the following morning, temporarily operating a replacement tractor.

There were no threats of my job being in jeopardy or accusations of stupidity. I am sure that the bosses believed that I had learned a lesson. Chalk another accident up to: “Operator error.”

The Day I Rolled Big Red Version II

If the log had been bucked all the way through, I would not have rolled Big Red. If I had heeded my head choker-setter, I would not have rolled Big Red; finally and most importantly, if I had released the winch brake, I would not have rolled Big Red.

I nicknamed my tractor Big Red because it was big and it was red. International Harvester’s tractors were all painted red for many years. The TD 24 was their biggest, and advanced machine, bigger, heavier, easier to operate, and much more powerful than its main competitor in the heavyweight field, the Caterpillar D-8. When working hard the engine’s twin barely muffled exhaust pipes barked Big Red’s presence for hundreds of feet, no doubt partly responsible for my impaired hearing. Hearing protection? 1950’s loggers didn’t go for sissy stuff.

Twenty four years old in 1958, I had been a logger for Union Lumber Company in Fort Bragg on California’s north coast since 1955 and a “catskinner” operating a “wheel cat” for about two years. A catskinner is the operator of a logging tractor, a wheel cat is a logging tractor pulling an arch, a piece of equipment rolling on gigantic rubber tires or tracks; it is connected to the tractor with a drawbar and has a steel beam suspended ten feet or so above the ground. On top of the beam is a roller over which a heavy steel winch cable is run, allowing one end of the logs to be lifted clear of the ground, thus enabling the tractor to bring in bigger loads, (called turns). The winch is mounted on the rear of the tractor, the winch cable, about 100 feet long, has a big hook on its outer end so “chokers” can be attached. A choker is a steel cable smaller in diameter and much shorter than the the winch line. Choker setters encircle logs with chokers, connecting the choker’s “nubbin” into its “bell”, thereby tightly gripping the log. The choker setters then drag the winch cable to the logs and fasten the choker’s “eyes” to the winch line’s hook and the catskinner winches the logs to the arch and “skids” the turn to the “landing” where the logs are loaded onto trucks for the trip to the sawmill. We logged some Douglas Fir trees, but mostly redwoods. This redwood variety is commonly called coastal redwood and grows only along the California and Southern Oregon coasts. It does not have the structural strength of the Douglas Fir or other trees used in the building industry, but is extremely rot resistant, is much less plentiful than other tree species, and is very valuable … the “money tree”. Another variety of redwood grows in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, but is even more fragile than coastal redwoods and additionally is located primarily in national parks or forests, and therefore is off limits to logging.

My two choker setters secured a choker to a big redwood log, forty feet long and nearly three feet in diameter. The log was resting on a steep hillside, ten feet or so above the narrow “skid road” that Big Red was sitting on. My head choker-setter walked over to me. Bog was built like a bull, a big raw-boned, chisel fetured, graying hair, blue-eyed Swede, middle aged but still physically fit, thanks to a life of strenuous work.

“Go out the end of your winch line and then pull”.

I thought about his suggestion momentarily. I usually did as Bob suggested; he had many years of experience, a grizzled veteran, and I was not a know-it-all type. But going out to the end of the line involved an extra minute or so by the time I winched the line back to the arch.

“I’ll just give it a quick jerk and bring it onto the road.”

Bob did not discuss the situation. I was the catskinner, the one responsible for tractor operation. I waited until Bob and the choker setter were in the clea, pushed in the clutch, placed the four speed transmission into third, opened the throttle wide, and engaged the clutch, sure a quick, strong, yank, aided by the weight of Big Red on a steep downgrade would jerk the big redwood onto the skid road. The winch and choker cables stretched tight, the log hardly budged, as unknown to me at the time, it had not been bucked (cut) all the way through and was hinged to the rest of the tree. Big Red’s engine was about to stall so I pushed in the clutch pedal, and at this inopportune moment, with Big Red, now almost at a standstill, the log broke free and hurtled down the the steep bank, barely grazed the skid road and shot on down the hill. The winch line pulled the arch over very fast and very hard. My left hand was on the winch brake and had I just released the brake, the winch line would have spun free off of Big Red’s drum. But I did not release the brake.Upsetting the arch, while not and everyday occurrence, was not rare either, especially the rubber-tire-equipped arches used by Union Lumber Company. Ot was easy to right the arch,so we did not release the winch brake because the heavy winch line would then have to be laboriously drug back to the tractor, a struggle guaranteed to earn a catskinner derogatory comments from the choker setters.

The following sequence of events happened a lot faster than it takes to read about them, maybe two seconds from when the log broke free until arch and tractor followed the log over the bank. It was time enough to react had I recognized my predicament, but by teh time I realized I had a real problem, Big Red was yanked rapidly over ane was sliding down the hill. I fell onto the top of the cage, a sturdy metal structure which formed a roof over the operator. I remember the sound of brush and rocks scraping the cage and I remember wondering if Big Red would ever stop. It seemed like and eternity, but the sliding stopped in a distance of about one hundred fifty feet and a few seconds. Big Red did not turn all the way over, it tipped onto its left side. I shut off the engine and climbed out, unhurt.

Bob an the other choker setter came slipping and sliding down the hillside, breathlessly arriving just after I crawled out. Bob didn’t even cuss me out or say, “You should have listened to me, you idiot!’

He was more relieved that I had escaped injury than angry. Our “hooktender” (foreman) took me to Redwood Coast Hospital in Fort Bragg, where I was checked and released.

It was too late to return to work, so I went home. When I waslked into our house, Rosalie, my wife of two years, immediately  knew by my tight lips and strained face that something had happened. I told her what had happened, but was not very talkative that night.

I wnet ot work the next day, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if was to be demoted to choker setter. There was another TD 24 waiting for me, it had been brought out during the previous evening. Big Red had not come out unscathed, but the damage was not major, consisting of a bent cage, hood, and exhaust pipes. After a few days in the cat hospital, Big Red and I were reunited.

Less than three months later, a D-8 wheel cat I was temporarily operating (TD 24 in cat hospital) went head-on into a big redwood tree.

Here’s a photo of Big Red. Sorry about the image quality, but it’s what Ted had.



  1. Thanks for the great story Ted. That is well written and brought back memories for me. When I was breaking in on a HD21 pioneer cat I broke the winch line and after the air cleared “Pid” the boss said, You broke it you splice it and thats when I spliced my first eye in a 1 1/8 bull line. A fellow skinner, Allan

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