“It was good coffee. A man with big feet could walk on it.”
In the late 1800s, in an effort to increase production, steam technology began to replace horse and oxen in the logging industry. Until diesel machinery began to be in use in the 1940s, steam donkeys could be seen all over the Pacific Northwest. They were mounted on log sleds and could be towed from one area to another on floats. Steam donkeys were versatile machines that could be used for yarding, hauling and loading logs.
One of the lesser known uses of the steam donkey was also the highlight of many a loggers’ day – donkey boiler coffee. Arthur “Bill” Mayse, who told his story to Jeanette Taylor shortly before his death, 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 fireman who stoked the fires of the engine, was responsible for making the coffee. “He would take a great big lard pail, one of the great big storage pails that holds two or three gallons of water, off a hook and he’d reach for what he called his injector hose.” The injector hose was a high pressure hose filled with steam from the donkey boiler. “He’d take the injector hose and whoosh, he’d send a big jet of hot steam into it and would bring it right from cold to boiling in nothing flat. Then the important thing, he’d take about two pounds of coffee, which is quite a lot of coffee, and he’d dump it into this furiously boiling water. Then he’d take what they called the slice bar, one of the steel pokers that they used for poking up the fire in the firebox, and he’d hang his pail with his coffee makings on one end of the slice bar and he’d ram it right into the white-hot donkey boiler. He’d hold it there for a while and let it have a good bubble, good boil. Then he’d set the pail on the donkey deck and he’d grab another of these bags of cold water, drinking water, and he’d pour about two quarts in the coffee; that was to settle it down. And then the coffee was ready for drinking.”
The loggers would gather around the steam donkey and each grab an empty tobacco can. “They’d take a dip into the big steaming bucket of coffee and get about a half-pound can of coffee, which is quite a lot. And then there’d be canned milk, “canned cow” we called it, and sugar in bags and we’d fix our coffee the way we wanted it.”
The loggers would then find a place to sit and open up their nose bags, which is what they called their brown bagged lunches, and settle in for lunch with their sandwiches, pie and coffee.
“It was good coffee. A man with big feet could walk on it. It was the best coffee I ever tasted in my life, even if you did have to fish bits of burnt twig and charcoal out of it every now and then. But it had a taste, I think maybe from the quick, really savage boil in the white hot steam that no other coffee anywhere else ever got, so we loved it.”
An Empire Steam Donkey manufactured in 1916 can be seen at the entrance to the Museum at Campbell River. This fully restored donkey will be fired up for Canada Day at 11:30am and the public is invited to bring their nose bags for a picnic on the Museum grounds, and join us for a sip of coffee in honour of the loggers of the past who once gathered around the steam donkey for this daily ritual.
This article was written in June of 2016 by Erika Anderson.