The history of logging in the Pacific Northwest was written in the form of some 6,000 miles of railroad tracks in the logging woods, says Erik Piikkila.

The history of logging in the Pacific Northwest was written in the form of some 6,000 miles of railroad tracks in the logging woods, says Erik Piikkila.

"The knowledge gained from studying this history will eventually allow us to balance habitat versus timber supply and that is a conundrum nobody seems to have solved," observed the railroad logging historian and silviculture specialist living in Victoria, B.C.

"We can answer some fundamental questions with this data," he added in a telephone interview with the Mail Tribune. "It has a huge economical and ecological message."

Piikkila, 49, who hails from a three-generation logging family on Vancouver Island, will be discussing railroad logging and its historic treasure trove Thursday evening, May 16, at the Oregon State University Extension Auditorium, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point.

The event, which begins at 7 p.m., is being sponsored by the Jackson-Josephine Small Woodlands Association. Those planning to attend are asked to RSVP to 541-776-7371.

He asks those planning to attend to bring old railroad logging maps, historic photographs and other information that reflects the bygone era when steam donkeys were used.

Piikkila, who has worked in the logging woods and has a bachelor's degree in forestry, began studying railroad logging in the mid-1990s in an effort to obtain a better understanding of the history of logging in the region.

"My grandpa was a timber faller — he worked in the woods for 40 years," he said. "He used to tell stories around the supper table."

Many of those stories revolved around railroad logging, he said, adding his father was also a logger, working in the profession for 30 years.

Logging by rail began in the late 1870s, continuing into the late 1950s, although its demise began during the Great Depression, he said.

That included everything from the forests of British Columbia to the Medford Corp. lands near Butte Falls, he said.

"Up into the 1920s, there was about 6,000 miles of railroad logging tracks laid," he said. "I've got about 65 sites I've studied in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon where they used rails to haul logs out of the woods."

By his count, some 10 million acres were harvested by railroad in Western Oregon and Washington from about 1880 to the late 1950s. During that period, voluminous records were painstakingly kept that shed a light on the forests of that era, he said.

"It is an untapped resource that we really haven't looked at very hard," he said. "It is a perfect time capsule. These are some long-term data sets that provide so much information."

The information he has garnered from the data includes everything from board feet harvested in an area to conditions on the ground.

"The information is so interconnected," he explained. "With this information, we can work backward in time and reconstruct what the forests and habitat were like.

"What I'm trying to do is bring the historic records and the archaeological studies of railroad logging together, then bring in the science and ecology to help us understand" the big picture, he said.

The information will even help scholars and others understand the large fires that have burned in the region since the mid-1800s, said Piikkila, who hopes to tour the area burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire during his visit.

"With this information, we can better understand the fire regimes," he said. "There is so much to be learned from railroad logging. This information can be very important going forward."

However, like all history, it can be lost if it isn't preserved, he said.

"Railroad logging only happened once, and it is never going to come back again," he said. "It can answer all kinds of questions if we just take the time to study it."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email