“Bowling Ball” Lumbering (Nov, 1953)

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“Bowling Ball” Lumbering

Crashing through an area to be cleared, these giant steel balls can topple timber like tenpins—at 50 acres an hour.


SCORES of times every day in an area near Hungry Horse, Montana, a man-made hurricane takes place. Hurtling through heavy timber with relentless force and a crash heard for miles, a giant steel ball, as big as a garage, snaps trees two feet thick as easily as if they were match sticks. Known as the “ball that saves millions,” this is a revolutionary method for clearing timber in record-breaking time and far cheaper on a large scale, than anything else ever known. The ball, weighing 4-1/2 tons, and measuring 8 feet in diameter, is pulled through the timber by two powerful diesel tractors traveling several hundred feet apart. Two, three and sometimes more trees are grabbed and “bitten” by a tenacious loop of cable. In a matter of seconds they are either uprooted or broken off. The ball rolls on a 6-inch shaft and in- I creases the efficiency of the snagging operation by keeping the cable approximately four feet off the ground, thereby preventing hangups on stumps and giving better leverage in pulling down trees.

The men who developed the spectacular clearing method and are using it to snag down timber on the steep mountain slopes and valley floor of the Flathead River’s south fork, are Wixson and Trisdale, commercial contractors of Redding, Calif.

Basically, the giant ball is a refinement on another new clearing method used in 1951 by the two contractors, in which pairs of diesel tractors are used to drag up to 400 feet of 2-inch wire cable through the timbered areas, snagging down all of the trees and brush caught in cable loop.

Working largely in burned over areas, the contractors ‘found the cable snagging method so efficient that they were able to complete about 95 percent of their joint contract for clearing 7,210 acres of land. However, land to be cleared under new contracts—6,840 to Wixson and 7,855 acres to Trisdale—was mostly in logged over areas. Recognizing that the cable would tend to hang up on the stumps left by the loggers, Wixson and Trisdale came up with the idea of using the 8-foot diameter steel balls to keep the cable high enough above the ground to prevent snagging on stumps.

Working on fairly level ground under ideal conditions, one pair of tractors pulling only one ball snagged down all of the trees on a heavily timbered area of nearly 200 acres in four hours. Average daily production for one pair of tractors and one ball working under varying conditions, including steep hillsides and marshy ground, has been close to 100 acres per 8-hour shift.

A contributing factor to the success of the new method has been the use of winches on the tractors. By using up to 900 feet of 1-1/4-inch cable on special winches on each tractor, the two tractor operators are able to circle a large stand of timber and reel out a total of 1,800 feet of cable as they bulldoze their way through the woods.

When the operators reach the end of the cable on their winches, they anchor the tractors against trees or stumps and start reeling the cable in on the two winches. As the cable and ball crash through the timber all of the trees caught in the loop of cable are uprooted and felled.

  1. EMF says: July 9, 201010:50 am

    Hmmm, seems like the real world inspiration for this:

  2. Toronto says: July 9, 201010:54 am

    There I was, hiking through the woods….

    – Montana Jones

  3. rick s. says: July 9, 20101:32 pm

    I recall reading some years ago of something similar that was used when the Erie Canal was built in the early 1800s. The workers built giant wheels over which they strung ropes which would be attached to the stumps of trees they had cut down. The other ends of the ropes were harnessed to teams of mules which, when pulled, lifted the the stumps out of the ground thus clearing the path for the canal diggers who followed behind them. Pretty clever, I thought.


  4. rick s. says: July 9, 20101:39 pm

    I recall reading some years ago that when the Erie Canal was built in the early 1800s, the workers built giant wheels over which they strung heavy ropes which they attached to the stumps of the trees they had felled. The other ends of the ropes were harnessed to teams of mules. By pulling the ropes, the mule teams were able to lift the stumps out of the ground, thus clearing the way for the canal diggers who followed behind them. Pretty clever.


  5. Firebrand38 says: July 9, 20102:47 pm

    rick s.: You can say that again!

    Once more, if your post doesn’t show up give time for Charlie and his minions to override the spam filter.

  6. Rick Auricchio says: July 9, 20109:19 pm

    I’ve actually seen one of these balls on display somewhere in Northern California. Damned if I can remember where!

  7. Zyzzyva says: July 11, 20106:17 am

    It’s probably because I spend way too much time on sites like these, but my first thought was “hey, it’s the Trylon and the Perisphere!”

  8. Toronto says: July 11, 201010:43 am

    Rick: Paul Bunyan’s jock strap, perhaps?

  9. Arglebarglefarglegleep says: July 11, 20102:28 pm

    I’d hate to be around if the cable snaps if it can take out multiple trees. But it is a 2” thick cable so that’s remotely possible.
    I know they use wire saws for cutting blocks of stone. I wonder if that’s been tried rather than this. I don’t think it’ll ever be tried because this is obviously faster and it clears the ground of some stumps. Given the current conservation climate, I wonder if it’s still used. Clear cutting isn’t popular with the Sierra Club for one.

  10. Andrew L. Ayers says: July 11, 20103:36 pm

    Arglebarglefarglegleep: I doubt this method is still being used; my gut reaction would be because snapped-off trees might actually be unsuitable for more than paper and firewood. I wonder if felling trees in this manner might not introduce splitting and such in the final lumber product, vs trees felled using saws? It would be interesting to find out what happened with this project – if you could contact the contractor that made them, and find out what happened with them in the end (I wonder if one or more got stuck in the forest and they left it there to rust?)…

  11. Jari says: July 12, 201011:34 am

    Andrew and Agrle: Apparently a tight schedule was a key driver. Here’s more about the whole project: http://books.google.fi/…

  12. Firebrand38 says: July 12, 201011:46 am

    Jari: Excellent research!

  13. Andrew L. Ayers says: July 12, 20104:46 pm

    Jari: Thanks for that research – that article certainly explains the situation better, and why the technique was used. I still wonder why, though, if the technique was that successful, it wasn’t continued to be used in logging…?

  14. Micho 2000 says: July 13, 20107:01 am

    !! Down with the tree huggers!!

  15. Jari says: July 13, 201012:36 pm

    Andrew and FB: You’re welcome. This resembles how storms would cut or uproot the trees. As you speculated in #10, a lot of felled trees aren’t useful as a logs due to the splitting, but only suitable for pulpwood. A wasteful method, good only for clearing large areas fast.

  16. Susan says: July 21, 201012:51 pm

    I’ve seen iron balls for clearing forests in Zambia, dating from the time when the railway was built – early 20th century. No details unfortunately, just “they used horses/mules to pull them through the forest to clear the trees and brush”.

  17. cenoxo says: July 25, 20101:02 pm

    Perhaps these were the inspiration for the villain Syndrome’s spherical, jungle-busting “OmniDroid” robots in Pixar’s 2004 movie, The Incredibles:

    Omnidroid v.X9

    More at:

    Things of Interest – OmniDroids

    The Incredibles (2004)

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