State Log Patrol incorporates in Tacoma on February 24, 1928.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 1/09/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8340

On February 24, 1928, seven major logging and timber companies, which have banded together to combat log piracy in and around Washington waters, incorporate the State Log Patrol with headquarters in Tacoma (Pierce County) Washington.  Although not an official law enforcement organization, State Log Patrol officers are deputized in six Western Washington counties and have the lawful authority to arrest log pirates and seize evidence and equipment.  Within a few years, the patrol, led by Captain William E. Craw (1896-1941), will virtually eliminate the organized, large-scale theft of floating timber.

Log Piracy

Log piracy in Washington’s coastal areas and Puget Sound was most prevalent from roughly 1917 to 1928.  In the early twentieth century, there was an insatiable demand for lumber, both domestically and overseas.  Prices were high, logging operations were leveling Washington’s forests at an unprecedented rate, and there were hundreds of sawmills, big and small, ready to turn trees into lumber.  The logs were moved to the mills by wagon or truck, by rail or, when possible, by water, the traditional method of transporting timber in the Northwest. 

The advantage of water over the other methods was it was a simple and economical way to transport a large number of logs in a short time.  Only one or two tugboats were needed to move a huge number of logs corralled in rafts or booms.  Log booms were made by connecting the outside logs to one another with chains, while the interior logs floated free. The disadvantage was that the booms, each worth tens of thousands of dollars, were easy prey to log pirates and there were hundreds of remote bays, sloughs, rivers and inlets where stolen logs could be stashed.  And there was no shortage of small, bootleg sawmills willing to turn a blind eye to the source of the contraband timber in return for a cheap price.

Log theft wasn’t new to Washington, it had been going on since the timber industry began in the mid-1800s. There were always brigands around hoping to capitalize on the work of others.  But in the early 1900s, log piracy had become organized and accomplished on a large scale, causing logging and timber companies to loose tens-of-thousands of dollars per year.  It was losing profits that caused the timber industry to lobby the Washington State Legislature to pass laws protecting the rightful ownership and addressing the problem of log theft.

Sabotage, Bribery, Theft

Log pirates often precipitated accidents. They sabotaged the booms by cutting the chains, spilling a section or two of logs into open water.  Sometimes tugboat captains were bribed to spill their loads in a convenient location.  Occasionally, however, the pirates made off with an entire raft, often containing hundreds of thousands of board-feet of timber.

According to local legend, the greatest log heist in Pacific Northwest history took place in British Columbia in the summer of 1920.  One evening a tugboat, named the Daisy Ann, arrived on the Fraser River delta and the captain asked the watchman, overseeing a huge log boom containing over one million board-feet of Douglas fir, if he was on course to Mission, a small logging town some 30 miles upstream, east of Vancouver.  The skipper tied up at the boom house and set about getting the watchman drunk.  Then, in the middle of the night, he made off with the entire boom.  The  next morning, the watchman was awakened by the crew of another tugboat, who had come from Seattle for the log boom, which had since disappeared.  The watchman also vanished soon thereafter, without giving his two-weeks notice or collecting his back wages.

In 1923, timber companies in Grays Harbor County reported that approximately $100,000 worth of logs had been stolen.  Informal log patrols and vigilante committees were organized there to combat the problem and the idea spread to other mill towns around Puget Sound.  Meanwhile, timber and mill companies continued lobbying the Washington State Legislature for laws to protect the industry from thieves.

An Act to Protect the Owners ...

Finally in January 1925, during the 19th session of the Washington State Legislature, “An act to protect the title of the owners of floating logs, timber and lumber,” was introduced.  The act, which was simply known as Chapter 154 of the Code of Washington, was passed by the Senate and House in December 1925 and signed into law by Governor Roland Hill Hartley (1864-1952) on January 18, 1926.

Chapter 154 instituted a system requiring the butt end of every log to be marked with a branding sledgehammer bearing a unique registered symbol, designating legal ownership.  All boom equipment was also required to be marked and when logs or boom equipment changed ownership, each was marked with a “catch brand” showing the previous ownership.  The law made it a crime to hold, ship by rail, or float a raft of unbranded logs or possess unmarked boom equipment.

Boom companies and log patrol companies, organized as corporations for the purpose of reclaiming and holding forest products for their owners, were exempt.  And more importantly, they were given the lawful right “at any time and in any peaceable manner” to enter any private property to search for marked timber or equipment and recover said items.  The law attached criminal penalties for any person who interfered with a brand owner, or authorized agent, retaking his property, using forged or counterfeit brands, destroying or defacing registered marks, as well as theft and dealing in hot merchandise.

But chasing timber rustlers and rounding up stray logs took a lot of time and effort and timber companies found the business of maintaining private navies unprofitable.  So, in early 1928, seven companies banded together and created the State Log Patrol, incorporated in Washington state on February 28.

The State Log Patrol

The members of the association that the created the State Log Patrol were:

  • Dickman Lumber Company
  • Henry Mill and Timber Company
  • Weyerhaeuser Timber Company
  • Buckley Logging Company
  • Mud Bay Logging Company
  • Mountain Logging Company
  • Cascade Timber Company

The duration of the State Log Patrol’s charter was 50 years.  There would be four patrol areas, one on Grays Harbor and three on Puget Sound, with patrol headquarters located in Tacoma.  The corporation hired William Edson Craw, age 32, a Captain with the Everett Police Department and former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, as patrol chief.  He had combat experience, having served overseas during World War I (1914-1918), was well versed in police procedures and was familiar with the Puget Sound area.

Captain Craw acquired a fleet of eight tugboats.  The vessels carried a crew of at least two officers, each a sworn deputy sheriff authorized to carry firearms, make arrests, and seize evidence.  Each tugboat had specific areas to patrol which included monitoring log booms and mills.  Captain Craw’s strategy was to eliminate the market by increasing surveillance of bootleg sawmills suspected of buying stolen logs.  In addition, he set up a network of operatives, posing as boom men and log-pond men, to identify log pirates.  Men in these jobs were susceptible to bribery and often befriended by the gangs.

Captain Craw's Beat

Dressed casually as a fisherman, Captain Craw roamed his domain alone in a 16-foot launch powered by a 32-horsepower outboard engine.  It allowed him to travel about Puget Sound anonymously and gave him the element of surprise when visiting sawmills, log ponds, and booms.  A man in a small boat was able to explore the shallow rivers, inlets, coves and tidal areas, favorite hiding places for stolen timber, where deep-draft vessels couldn’t go.  A small, unobtrusive boat was also excellent for surveillance purposes.

According to noted Northwest historian Stewart H. Holbrook (1893-1964), in his book Holy Old Mackinaw, within a few months, Captain Craw and his agents exposed an organized, large-scale theft operation that involved the owner, general manager, superintendent, and head boom man of a reputable, well-established Seattle sawmill.  They were stealing entire booms and boom sections and cutting the logs at the mill.  The gang was successfully prosecuted for their crimes and it was revealed during trial that a county sheriff was receiving payoffs for turning a blind-eye to stolen logs transiting his jurisdiction.

In addition to keeping log rustlers at bay, the log patrol was also responsible for rounding up floating and beached strays which had spilled from the boom during inclement weather or as the result of an accident or sabotage.  Some men, called “stump ranchers,” made a living picking up stray logs and selling them to bootleg sawmills for a tenth of the actual value.  To legitimize the “hot” logs, the stump ranchers had to change the brand.  This was accomplished by sawing off the log’s butt end or obliterating the mark with an ax or sledgehammer.  The logs were then remarked with either the brand of the mill where they were sold or with the stump rancher’s own registered brand.  Although an obvious ploy, it made ownership of a log questionable and therefore useless as evidence in a court of law.

Although the State Log Patrol proved successful in prosecuting thieves and discouraging log rustling, it was the precipitous drop in log prices during the Great Depression (1929-1939) that ended organized piracy. The patrol now spent most of its time corralling stray logs and hauling them back to their owners.  It wasn’t until the advent of World War II (1941-1945) that logs became valuable again.  But during the war years, manpower was in short supply, jobs were plentiful, wages were high, and surveillance was intense in Washington waters.

Headquarters of the State Log Patrol was eventually established at 953 Market Street in Tacoma (Pierce County) and remained there throughout the Depression years.  Captain Craw remained chief of the log patrol, but with time on his hands, opened Craw Electric Appliance Company in the mid-1930s.  Later he became the manager of the electronics department at Rhodes Brothers Department Store.

Captain Craw's Life and Death

Captain Craw’s first wife, Katherine, was a registered nurse and stayed in Everett with her niece, Sarah A. Scott, when he accepted the State Log Patrol job and moved to Tacoma.  They had no children and divorced.  In 1934, Craw married Elizabeth Morrow, age 31, from Belfast, Ireland, and they had two children: Barbara and Geraldine.

Early Friday evening, July 4, 1941, the Craw family, returning home from the Fircrest Golf Course, was driving east on Center Street in Tacoma when a car, driven by Estelle Barbee, age 39, ran a stop sign at Orchard Street and collided with Craw’s vehicle.  Barbee’s car “turned over four times before landing right side up astraddle a fence some distance away” (Tacoma News Tribune). 

Both vehicles were totally demolished by the impact. Captain Craw and his wife Elizabeth were killed outright. Geraldine, their two-year-old daughter, died an hour later at Tacoma General Hospital.  The Craw’s six-year-old daughter, Barbara, miraculously survived the crash uninjured.  Although hospitalized with critical injuries, the five occupants of the Barbee vehicle also survived the crash.  The Tacoma Police Department reported that Barbee and all her passengers were under the influence of alcohol.  William E. Craw, his wife Elizabeth and daughter Geraldine were buried on Thursday, July 11, at the Mountain View Cemetery in Tacoma.

Private Log Patrols

During the early 1940s, some enterprising person determined there was nothing in Chapter 154 preventing individuals from establishing private log patrol companies.  Under Washington state law, a log patrol company was only required to be organized as a corporation “for the purpose of catching or re-claiming and holding or disposing of forest products for the benefit of the owners” and have a state business license.  Murray Morgan (1916-2000), noted Pacific Northwest historian, wrote in his newspaper column: “Soon a dozen or more free-lance patrol boats were roaming Puget Sound in search of runaway fir, hemlock and cedar.  The going price for returned branded logs averaged $17.50 a thousand board-feet” (Tacoma News Tribune).

Big timber corporations complained it was almost impossible “to tell a patrolman from a pirate” and lobbied the state legislature to tighten the law, excluding independent operators.  A lobbyist representing the private log-patrol companies argued that “logs were needed for the war effort, that the sale of salvaged logs was conducted under state regulations, and that brand-owners got part of the money paid for their logs” (Morgan, Seattle, 241).

End of the State Log Patrol

The Washington State Legislature chose not to amend Chapter 154 and the private log patrols continued to operate, making the State Log Patrol redundant and hardly worth the expense.  And without Captain Craw’s leadership, the State Log Patrol just faded into history. 

As forests nearby waterways were exhausted, logging operations receded back into the mountains. Now timber was hauled directly to the big mills by logging trucks and transportation of logs by water was no longer commonplace.  When sources of cheap “hot” timber dried up, most of the small, bootleg sawmill operations became unprofitable and vanished from the landscape.  Private log patrols continued rounding up the occasional stray log throughout Puget Sound for the next few decades, but they too eventually disappeared.

Changing Times

The Department of Natural Resources, established in 1957 under the Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands, had been given the responsibility for managing a log patrol licensing program.  Licenses cost $500 and were valid for two years.  The department was also assigned to oversee the marks and brands registration program for forest products, previously administered by the Office of the Secretary of State.  A registered brand allows a log's owner to be identified when a branded log is recovered.

In the past, under Chapter 154, only a log’s owner, his agent, or a licensed log patrol was permitted to recover stray logs, preventing local governments, federal, and state agencies or anyone else from dealing with potential threats to navigation, safety, and property.  According to Department of Natural Resources records, in the two-year license period 1991-1992 a total of 10 persons paid the $500 license fee, and in 1993 there were only three log-patrol license holders in the state.  Clearly, the time had come to establish new procedures for recovery of stray logs.

On January 25, 1994, during the 53rd session of the Washington State Legislature, House Bill 2351 was introduced to modify provisions relating to recovery of stray logs.  Sponsored by the House Committee on Natural Resources and Parks, the bill passed unopposed through the House and Senate and was signed into law (Chapter 163, Laws of 1994) by Governor Mike Lowry (b. 1939) on March 30, 1994.  The existing statutes, codified under Log Patrols, Chapter 76.40, Revised Code of Washington (RCW), had been repealed, and all references to log patrols were removed from the state law, effective June 9, 1994.

Drifting Logs and Wood Debris

Section 5 of the House Bill 2351 mandated Department of Natural Resources develop new guidelines for the recovery of adrift stray logs on or before October 31, 1994.  Although not seen as a big problem in the 1990s, the issue of stray logs still had to be addressed to protect life, property, navigational safety, the environment, and publicly owned aquatic resources. The department responded with the Stray Logs Recovery Legislative Report which it submitted to the state Legislature as requested.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, the current regulations differentiate between “logs,” considered to have economic value, and “wood debris,” which is not economically salvageable.  A branded or marked log may only be retrieved by its owner or authorized agent.  Log owners retain the legal authority, codified under Stray Logs Recovery, Chapter 76.36, RCW, to enter private property at any time to search for and recover any forest products and/or booming equipment bearing his registered brand.  Unbranded marketable stray logs are considered the property of Washington state when recovered, even if stranded on private property.  The regulations do not provide for any reward or payment to persons reporting stray logs to the owner, local authorities, or the state.

Unmarketable wood debris, including driftwood, can be retrieved and used by anyone for any purpose, without restriction.  However, permission is required if the wood debris is stranded on privately owned shorelands or tidelands, and removal from national or state parks is prohibited.  Adrift stray logs and wood debris posing a threat to navigation and public safety may be removed without the written permission of the Department of Natural Resources, or it may be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates a continuous stray log and wood debris clean-up program on Washington’s navigable waters, or the closest local authority.


Sources: Stewart H. Holbrook, Holy Old Mackinaw: A Natural History of the American Lumberjack (New York: The MacMillian Company, 1938, 1956, 1957), 222-229; Murray Morgan, The Last Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1955), 238-243. Carol J. Lind, Big Timber, Big Men (Seattle: Hancock House Publishers, Inc, 1978), 83-35; Session Laws of the State of Washington: Nineteenth Session (Olympia: Frank M. Lamborn, Public Printer, 1925) 427-435; Session Laws of the State of Washington, Regular Session, Fifty-Third Legislature (Olympia: Statue Law Committee, 1994), 791-794; “House Bill Report SHB 2351,” Washington State Legislature website accessed June 29, 2007 (www.leg.wa.gov/pub/BillInfo/1993-94/Htm); Stray Logs Recovery Report; October 1994, (Olympia: Washington State Department of Natural Resources, 1994); “Three Killed in Terrific Crash,” Tacoma News Tribune, July 7, 1941, p. 1; “Services for Craw Family,” Ibid., July 10, 1941, p. 20. Murray Morgan, “Murray Morgan’s History: Boom Days of Puget Sound Pirates Ended by Log Patrol,” Ibid., February 3, 1994, p. 12.

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