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Jerking the Wire

A Look Back into the History of the Campbell River Area
Steam Donkey in operation. This photo is from the Mel Parker collection. Mcr18959 Courtesy of the Museum at Campbell River.

By Sandra Parrish,

Museum at Campbell River

“I first started logging steadily when I was 14, but I worked before that on my summer holidays when I was 11 or 12. The only job I could have at that time was blowing whistles” – Mel Parker

Much like Mel, many loggers, in the early days of logging began their careers working as the whistle punk. The punk had the job of blowing the whistle which was located on the steam donkey to signal to the engineer what needed to be done.

Prior to the 1940s and the introduction of diesel machinery, steam donkeys were a key component of the logging operations on the coast. Mounted on log sleds these versatile machines, were used for yarding, hauling and loading the logs. The active logging area around the donkey was often a busy place and full of hazards. With limited to no line of sight between the donkey engineer and the crew hooking up the logs the shrill sound of whistle was used for communicating at the worksite.

It was the job of the punk to jerk the wire. Mel Parker commented, “It was just a clothesline wire that was strung from the machine out to the woods. You just jerked on it to give the signals”. The punk would receive orders from the hooktender and would jerk the whistle wire in the appropriate combination of short and long blasts.

A 1946 Workers Timebook, located in our Archives, includes a guide from the Workmen’s Compensation Board regarding the signals. The importance of using the whistle for communication to ensure a safe worksite is clear and the guide notes “Engineers shall not go ahead or come back without receiving whistles.” The guide lists what each combination of sounds meant such as “come back slow – 2 short repeated” and “slack line – several short toots”.

One signal not covered in the guide was the one for the lunch break. Arthur “Bill” Mayse, recalled fondly waiting for the engineer to blow his whistle at eleven thirty signalling lunch break. “Woooo woo – one long and one short – and that meant lunch time. So everyone would drop their gloves and head for the donkey engine.”

The 1916 Empire Steam donkey located on the Museum grounds is equipped with an operational whistle. Restored to working condition, since 2004 this donkey runs on special occasions such as Canada Day and the popular “Steamin” days. When the donkey is fired up and the whistle sounds it can be heard throughout the neighbourhood and for some evokes memories of another era. Today there aren’t a lot “Punks” remaining, but I am sure that many can remember a Grandpa or two who started out their logging career “jerking the wire”.

On Sunday February 13th from 1pm to 3pm the Museum’s Empire Steam Donkey will be fired up and the whistle will be blowing. At 1:30pm the engineers will provide a demonstration of the sound combinations.

A young Whistle Punk with the jerkwire near Port Neville. Mcr5501 Courtesy of the Museum at Campbell River.