Almost all early sawmills utilised water power to drive their sawblades and were therefore located on riverbanks. This made delivering wood a breeze — just chop down a patch of timber upriver, push the felled logs into the water and float them down to the mill.
In narrow stretches of water, the logs could be pushed down individually, in wider stretches they could be lashed together into sturdier rafts. And on Russia’s Volga and Vetluga rivers, they were assembled into giant inverted pyramids and loaded onto massive barges like these.
Known as Belyana, these ships were part of large-scale logging operations along the Volga and Vetluga rivers at the turn of the 20th century. They often measured in excess of 100m long, 6m tall and 25m wide. These giant boats had little trouble hauling 5000 tons of lumber (13,000 individual logs) at a time. They were constructed from the fir and pine logs they were built to ship. In fact, the name Belyana means “made of white wood” and is derived from the white colour of the debarked logs that went into their construction. Incredibly, assembling the earliest iterations of these river ships didn’t even require nails.
The logs that were to be shipped were first loaded on and lashed together into a widening platform. This was done to allow the crew access to the bottom of the boat in the event of a leak, which happened pretty much constantly. Anywhere from 13 to 80 men would be hired on to each ship and a vast majority of them were on bailing duty. These ships also incorporated a passageway running down the centerline, allowing the bottom logs to air dry as well as permit passage from one end of the ship to the other.
After the logs were set, crews built wooden guiding cabins atop the lumber stack. A roughly hewn house was built on either side of the platform, with a more finished captain’s deck house between them. These wooden homes served as crew quarters during the voyage but upon arrival at their destination, typically the city of Astrakhan, the entire structure — boat, cargo, and homes — were dismantled and processed into building materials.