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A Genuine Logjam

By Charles Henry

Fourth in the Beveled Mirrors Series

We are accustomed to using the term logjam as a metaphor for any number of clogged and dysfunctional circumstances. Vehicular traffic at rush hour comes to mind; a committee of politicians unable to agree on a solution to a complex challenge; numerous references to slow information delivery over the early Internet. The descriptor is popular in part because of the sharp visual imagery it conjures: it is easy to imagine thousands of rough-cut tree trunks jammed together, piled and disordered, stuck between a river’s fixed banks and damming their only means of delivery.

One can turn to a real logjam with a specific geographic locus—the Chippewa River Valley in Wisconsin, in the mid 19th century—for insight and analogy to contemporary higher education. This logjam was actually a chronology of repeated interruptions, snags, thievery, and competition over many years that soured the business prospects of logging and delivering lumber in one of the richest forested areas in America.

As Eric Rutkow describes in American Canopy, his engaging history of U.S. trees, forests, and how they shaped our national identity, the Chippewa River was a major artery that connected logging operations to the Mississippi. In the 1860s, the Chippewa was a disorganized and locally competitive water transportation network of many often-uncooperative individuals, including “lumberjacks, landowners, log drivers, boom operators, raft pilots, and upper and lower river mill owners” (110). One of the mill owners in this uncertain and unpredictable environment was Frederick Weyerhaeuser, a brilliant entrepreneur and businessperson who set out to fix the broken network. He did so by redefining and aligning the human enterprises to become as fluid, capacious, and unidirectional as the river itself.

Weyerhaeuser did this in several phases, but two are especially important. One was social and psychological. The many owners and operators of the logging-related business in the area distrusted one another, were prone to argue, and were not inclined to cooperate. Weyerhaeuser worked tirelessly to build trust among these disparate players and after years finally created the environment of cooperation that allowed them to behave concertedly, understanding that their best interests were served by a cooperative venture wherein the multiple parts of transporting logs became a system. The ‘middlemen’ stepped out of the middle and became partners. Productivity soared at what was named the Chippewa Logging Company.

The second phase of note was toward the end of Weyerhaeuser’s stint in Wisconsin and environs when he began to buy huge tracts of timberland. At this point Weyerhaeuser controlled the entire production stream of the logging business, from the felling of trees to river transport to delivery. This beginning-to-end industry was renamed the Mississippi River Logging Company to reflect the sweep and reach of the enterprise, one of the largest and most profitable companies in the U.S.

As always in this series, the analogies to our current environment are not meant to be exact, but similarities hold true. When embarking on building a vast digital environment for support of higher education and to provide at the same time a public good, the first step is building trust among the various stakeholders and institutions to allow for a subsequent working system of information management, preservation, and reuse. With a nascent functional ecology in place, larger areas or “tracts” of information and our cultural heritage can be aggregated and used profitably, in the sense of enlightenment.

Previous blogs in the Beveled Mirrors series:

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