Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Piloting Minnesota lumberjacks’ souls to the sky

Logging northern Minnesota was a difficult job — many loggers blew off steam by drinking, gambling, or visiting brothels. “Sky pilots” tried to save the men’s souls and put them on the road to holiness rather than vice.

sky pilot poster
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Paper poster advertising a lecture appearance
by Frank E. Higgins, c.1909.

Working as a lumberjack in northern Minnesota was a difficult job with poor living conditions. Many loggers blew off steam by drinking, gambling, or visiting brothels. “Sky pilots,” or visiting ministers, tried to save the men’s souls and put them on the road to holiness rather than vice.

Logging in Minnesota began as the fur trade was dying out, in the middle of the nineteenth century. The first commercial sawmill was built in 1839, and the industry grew steadily over the next few decades. The first logging operations were in places such as Stillwater and St. Anthony, but by the 1880s, logging was moving into the northern and western parts of the state.

The Minnesota lumber industry grew tremendously between 1870 and 1890, and it peaked between 1890 and 1905. This was partly due to the Dawes Act and other legislation that allowed timber companies to buy land belonging to American Indians. The Dawes Act divided Indian reservations and gave Indian families individual land allotments. This opened up “surplus” land for white settlement. In Minnesota, it benefited white lumber interests near the Red Lake and White Earth reservations. Lumbermen had become interested in this land after railroads began running through the area.

mnopediaIt was during the industry’s peak, in the 1890s, when sky pilots first made their appearance in the lumber camps. In 1895, Francis “Frank” E. Higgins was a student pastor in Barnum when a church member invited Higgins out to a logging camp that he operated. The loggers ribbed Higgins, asking him to preach on demand. He did so, and his impromptu sermon moved them. Higgins kept ministering to lumberjacks and eventually left the church in Barnum to become the first full-time missionary to loggers.

Article continues after advertisement

“Sky pilots” were clergymen who visited and served people who lived in isolated communities-lumberjacks, as well as miners, members of the armed forces, and prisoners. Sources disagree about the origins of the term. Higgins claimed that lumberjacks coined the phrase to describe him. When a lumberjack asked him what he hoped to accomplish through his service, Higgins responded that he wanted to pilot their souls to the sky. The lumberjacks responded by calling him a sky pilot. Other sources suggest that the phrase was first used among seamen in the 1880s.

Sky pilots found a diverse group of men in Minnesota’s logging camps. Loggers were itinerant, following the work from state to state. Some came from Maine, where logging had begun and ended earlier than in Minnesota. Others came from the woods of Michigan or Wisconsin. Many lumberjacks were immigrants from a wide range of countries: Norway, Ireland, French Canada, Sweden, English Canada, or Finland. Some were American Indian, usually Anishinaabe (Ojibwe).

Life in logging camps was difficult. Logging operations took place in the winter, so logs could be loaded onto frozen rivers and sent downstream during the spring thaw. Men huddled together in cold bunkrooms during logging season. Lice were a certainty, and illness and injury were likely. Most lumberjacks had lost contact with their parents and siblings as they traveled from state to state for work. Men who were married rarely if ever saw their wives and children; only the foreman and sometimes the cook were allowed to bring their wives into the camps. The other loggers were usually the only family that the men had. Sky pilots were sometimes concerned about the men having sexual relationships with each other and seeming uninterested in marriage.

Much to sky pilots’ chagrin, when logging season was over, lumberjacks usually enjoyed themselves in towns or cities near the camps. Saloons, gambling establishments, and brothels catered to them. As Higgins explained, saloons were the only social institutions around. Every basic need that a lumberjack had—even getting a haircut—was met at a saloon. Even more upsetting to sky pilots, after towns started springing up along the new railroads, it became easier for lumberjacks to make a quick trip to the saloon in the middle of the season.

Sky pilots initially found a mixed reaction. Lumbermen such as Thomas B. Walker—the bosses who owned and operated the camps—supported the ministers and invited them to camp, sometimes even paying them. They thought that if their workers found religion, they would work more efficiently. Labor activists, particularly the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies,” opposed sky pilots for the same reason. The “Wobblies,” who were one of the only labor unions willing to organize lumberjacks, used the term “sky pilot” as an insult. They thought the lumbermen should improve worker morale with better working conditions, not preachers.

Some lumberjacks found religion through the sky pilots, and a few became sky pilots themselves. Most famous was John Sornberger, a wanted murderer who turned his life around with Higgins’s help. Andrew Stenstrom, another lumberjack, converted to Christianity in 1907. He became very devout and left logging behind, only to come back to the camps many years later as a sky pilot. Stenstrom is better-known as a primitive painter; he used a palette and brush to record scenes in lumber camps across Minnesota, the Dakotas, and the Pacific Coast.

While a few jacks in each camp were hostile to sky pilots, most men enjoyed the social atmosphere that the ministers created. At the very least, a sky pilot’s visit broke up the monotony of life in a logging camp. Sky pilots arrived with a portable organ, and lumberjacks would join together to sing gospel hymns. Ministers also brought reading material, both religious and secular, and in some cases taught lumberjacks how to read. Sky pilots knew they could not patronize lumberjacks, so they spoke to them with “homely truths.” Even preachers who had never logged had big, sturdy builds and could hold their own in a fight if necessary.

Sky pilots also provided social services that the logging companies did not. When a lumberjack was injured, sky pilots took him to the hospital. After Higgins pulled a man to the nearest hospital on a particularly long and bumpy toboggan ride, he thought there should be a better way. He began traveling from camp to camp using a dogsled. The dogsled doubled as a dog-drawn ambulance when men were hurt or sick, or even when a pregnant woman in town needed to be rushed to a hospital.

Although sky pilots hoped that lumberjacks would give up drink and vice, they protected men who were too drunk to protect themselves. Men who blacked out were put in a saloon’s “snake room,” where they were often robbed of all the money they had just earned in the camps. Higgins, however, would take the drunken man’s money for safe-keeping. The next morning he would give it back, along with a stern talking-to. Lumberjacks were not accustomed to such kindness.

In 1902, the Presbyterian Church asked Higgins to lead a mission to logging camps—”the parish of the pines.” By 1907, Higgins had seven assistant ministers working for him, serving approximately 10,000 lumbermen. In 1908, the Presbyterian Church started converting missions to small town churches, since it seemed that the forests were giving way to more permanent farming communities. Still, sky pilots continued visiting logging camps for as long as logging camps existed, following the lumber industry to the Pacific Coast and Southern states, until the 1930s and 1940s.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.