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Breckenridge Sawmill Museum Self-Guided Tour

The numbers below correspond to the numbered plaques at the Breckenridge Sawmill Museum.  


The Breckenridge Sawmill Museum is the site of a portable sawmill for at least 27 years (~1933-1960) established and operated by Marian and Zella Wakefield.  Marian operated his mill in the summer months and engaged in mining related activities in the winter months.  Another sawmill was located near this spot called the Jacot mill.  It had a railroad siding and operated in the 1890s and early 1900s.

This site represents the importance sawmills had in the establishment and continued growth of the American west.   It has been said that sawmills were the wheels that got all the other wheels going.  This sawmill was a portable mill.  Unlike the Midwest and Southern US there were few large rivers in the west to transport logs from the lumber camps to the sawmill.  In the Colorado high country it was more economical to take the sawmill to the trees and haul out milled lumber.

In 1859 and the early 1860s when the gold seekers crossed the continental divide into the Blue River Valley there were no sawmills.  Boards were either make locally by the pitsaw method or they had to be hauled over the divide by mules or wagons if a road existed.  As the photo shows, pit sawing was a slow and arduous method.  The top man pulled the blade up and the pit man made the cut by pulling the saw down.  Output was maybe 15 boards 12 feet long per day).

 The cost of hauling 1000 board feet over the divide was $200, the price of a healthy mule!  All the buildings were made of logs.  Few buildings were longer than 25-30 feet due to the size of native trees and the difficulty in handling.  Fewer still were a full 2 story, one story with a loft being the norm.  Two well preserved examples of each style are the Iowa Hill boarding house and the Carter museum. 

By the mid to late 1860s log structures were still the norm but the increasing need for sawmills started attracting woodsmen with an eye on big profits.   Settlements like Breckenridge were growing at a rapid rate.  By 1880 Summit County had dozens of sawmills scattered throughout servicing these settlements and the mining industry.  Sawmills were a key factor in transforming log settlements into established communities with schools, churches, fraternal halls, hotels and saloons.  Buildings could now be constructed without size constraints and in different styles.  Boards for framing, roofing, siding, could be obtained locally.  Even the by-product of cut slabs could be used or burned as stove wood.  Planning machines were introduced to produce smooth planking for flooring & boardwalks and smooth boards for siding, doors, shelving, furniture, even coffins.  The Barney Ford house in town is a good example of a nicer home built with planed lumber.  Tongue & groove boards appeared on the scene after planed boards.  They were used by placer miners to build water tight sluice boxes and flumes.

Local sawmills enabled towns to recover more quickly from devastating fires that were much too common. Over the years sawmills have continued to be key to economic growth and prosperity.

Anatomy of a portable sawmill


The sawmill can be broken down into 3 main components:

Husk – this frame contains the circular saw, drive shaft and bearings to keep the saw rotation true.  It also houses the operator’s platform, the throttle mechanism which feeds the log on the carriage into the saw.


Carriage – this may be thought of as a metal sled mounted on a track which holds the log to be cut.  It is propelled back and forth carrying the log through the saw.  The thickness of the boards is determined by setworks, mechanisms for advancing the log on the carriage a specified width after each cut.  The “knee” portion of the 2 setworks shown in the illustration physically advances the log.  The knees are mounted on headblocks bolted to the carriage.  Mounted on the knees are sharp “dogs” which penetrate the top of the log holding it in place on the carriage.  The setworks and carriage are operated by the sawyer.


Power supply – The Wakefield mill was powered by a Cleator gasoline tractor engine (called a Cletrac) built in the 1928-31 time frame.  There is evidence that water wheel power was tried but probably proved inadequate.  Water wheel power was popular in the US early in the Industrial Revolution.  It was replaced by the more powerful and efficient water turbines in the mid-1800s.  Both of these power modes were somewhat portable but required a water source.

The next advancement in sawmill power was the steam engine which was used from the last quarter of the 19th century to the first quarter of the 20th century.  Portability became an issue early on due to the weight of the engine and the steam generating boiler.  Smaller, more compact engines were soon developed with the boiler mounted on top.  They were much easier to transport.  Steam engines were a logical way to power a sawmill because they produced their own fuel and did not require much water. 

It has been reported that a crew of 6 to 8 men could dismantle and reassemble one of these portable mills in about 4 days.  Alignment and leveling of mill components was critical in the setup for producing accurately milled lumber.


Cutoff Saw – The cutoff saw sizes the boards to the desired length.  This saw is mounted on a swinging carriage hinged at the top.  It is belt driven and swung forward and backward by the operator using the handle.


Edger – The edger saw removes the outer edges of the cut slab to form a board.  The width of the edge cut is dictated by the irregularity of the log.  The edger can also be used to rip lumber using one or more saw blades.


Buick Engine – This engine powered the edger saw and the planer.


Planer – Most customers preferred their boards smooth.  Planers were introduced early on to meet the need.  Early mining towns had many tents for conducting business and for living purposes.  They were called “plank houses”.  They had smooth plank floors and some had half walls made with planed wood.  Planers also produced tongue and groove boards to make water tight flumes and sluice boxes for placer mining.

Planed boards enabled structures like the Barney Ford home to be built, beginning the transition from the log cabin phase.

This behemoth was believed to be manufactured in the early 1880s.  Those were the days when machinery was designed not only for function but with the desire to please the eye but not today’s safety engineer.  The lack of safety guards meant that safety was solely the operator’s responsibility.


Sawdust Sluice – One of the by-products of early sawmills that presented a problem was sawdust.  Every cut generated sawdust waste the width of the blade.  So much was generated that it had to be removed daily.

Marion Wakefield figured out a unique and efficient way to dispose of his sawdust.  He tapped a water source above the mill and piped it down to his operation.  He built a wooden water channel or sluice under the saw and let the water carry away the sawdust.  The sluice eventually connected to a nearby stream.


Planer - This planer was operated by Marion Wakefield to produce all types of smooth boards.  He also produced tongue and grove flooring.







Sawmill Job Responsibilities

Sawyer – Of the many mill jobs requiring concentration and good judgment, the sawyer is the key person.  He is responsible for seeing that 1) the saw is sharp and running true and 2) the logs are properly loaded and secured on the carriage.  He also operates the setworks controlling how many and what size boards are to be harvested from the log.  He controls the rpm of the saw and the speed of the carriage conveying the log to the saw.  The speed depends on the diameter and moisture content of the log, the hardness of the wood, and the condition of the saw.  He is closest to the primary saw and is in a position to spot problems.

Log loader – unloads the felled, delimbed logs and positions each one on the carriage using the peavey tool.

Off-loader – removes the freshly cut boards after they are sawed from the log and fall on the track with rollers for easy sliding. 

Cut-off saw operator – runs the cut boards through a cut-off saw to the desired length.

Edger saw operator – runs the cut slabs through an edger saw to create a board of the desired width.

Planer operator – planes the boards to the desired smoothness.

Stacker – stacks lumber so that it will dry properly without warping.

Mill mechanic - inherent in every operation of a mill are the mechanical requirements of keeping all moving parts well lubricated and operating within specification.



RHS, 6/21/15

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