Central Sierra Historical Society’s Very Own Dolbeer Steam Donkey Engine

October 7, 2014 8:21 am Published by 1 Comment
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Your invited to come witness the operation of the museums Dolbeer Steam Donkey, meet the Sierra Steamers who run presently run this engine, learn a bit of historical logging history, plus “toot” the steam engines whistle! Visit our calendar for future Steam Donkey Steam-up dates.
Steam Donkey Engines
For many years, logging operations were limited to areas close to water where the logs could be floated to mills or to flat ground where animal power could be used. Horses and oxen dragged logs along roads paved with greased wood ties – skid roads. The process was slow and expensive and the animals could not negotiate steep terrain.
John Dolbeer of Eureka, California changed logging forever in 1883 when he patented the first steam driven spool donkey. These simple, rugged machines were seen for decades in the woods, long after the arrival of more powerful and expensive steam yarders and skidders. The early spool donkey provided no system to return the rigging to the woods for the next log, necessitating a horse or manpower to do the job. The need to reach out further from the machine and solve the haul back problem led to the development of the “Improved” spool donkey about 1900.
On Dolbeer’s first model, he wrapped a 150-foot, 4½ inch manila rope several times around a gypsy head (horizontally mounted spool) and attached the other end to a log. The steam donkey pulled the log toward the engine. The engine was moved in the woods by attaching the line to a tree and pulling itself along on its log skids.
Operating an early Dolbeer donkey required the services of three men, a boy and a horse. One man, the “choker-setter”, attached the line to a log; an engineer or “donkey puncher”, tended the steam engine; and a “spool tender” guided the whirring line over the spool with a short stick. The boy, called a whistle punk, manned a communicating wire running from the choker setter’s position out among the logs to a steam whistle on the donkey engine. When the choker setter had secured the line running from the spool, the whistle punk tugged his whistle wire as a signal to the engineer that the log was ready to be hauled in. As soon as one log was in, or “yarded,” it was detached from the line; then the horse hauled the line back from the donkey engine to the waiting choker setter and the next log.
In addition to the men operating the steam donkey a man was needed to chop wood for the boiler fire and, if the donkey was beyond the length of a hose from a stream, then a donkey with water bags was required to lug water from a water source to the machine.

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