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Ed Pulaski and the tool he invented January 27, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history, trail maintenance.
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Ed Pulaski

When I first got involved with trail maintenance 25 years ago, I quickly became acquainted with a tool called the pulaski. It’s about the size of a long-handled axe, but the business end of the tool has two sides: one side is an axe and the other is a grub-hoe. We used pulaskis for digging out water bars, cutting tree roots when digging, cutting small brush, shifting piles of debris. We were told that the pulaski was a firefighting tool. But I never knew the whole story until I read The Big Burn by Timothy Egan.*

Pulaski tool

The “Big Burn” was the name given to a tremendous conflagration that started along the Idaho-Montana border on the hot, dry, windy afternoon of August 20, 1910. Altogether, an area of about 3 million acres burned, about the size of Connecticut. There had been no rain all through that summer.  The forest floor was covered with slash from logging operations, dried out and ripe for burning. Small blazes had been sprouting up by the hundreds, and already thousands of men had been brought in to fight the fires. They were a ragtag bunch—ranging from eager college boys to immigrants to guys pulled out of the bars who needed a quick buck.

But even if the firefighting crew had been tripled, quadrupled in size, there was no way anyone could have dealt with what happened that afternoon. As Egan beautifully describes, it started with a wind called a Palouser that fed on the differences in temperature, moisture, and barometric pressure between adjoining regions of desert plateau and big forests. The wind built up furious strength and slammed into the already smoldering forests.

Egan tells the tale of the various pockets of humans who got caught when the world around them turned into towering flames. Some jammed onto trains leaving the area—shoving and pushing others out of the way. Some ran for a creek or a river, lying in the water with damp blankets over their heads, often to be killed anyway by falling, burning trees. Some ran for isolated cabins that burst into flames. And some found old mine shafts where they could wait out the conflagration.

Ed Pulaski, a ranger who’d been with the Forest Service since 1908, led about 45 men among burning trees toward the town of Wallace, Idaho. They stumbled down a steep ridge, some crying and screaming with fear as balls of flame jumped over their heads. Soon it became apparent they wouldn’t be able to make the town. Pulaski recalled an old mine tunnel he’d seen back in prospecting days. It was amazing he was able to find it in this overturned, disorienting landscape, but he led the men there. They dashed inside, but the air in the tunnel soon turned hot and stale as the flames right outside the entrance sucked the oxygen out of the opening.

Wallace, Idaho, after the fire

Pulaski ordered everyone to lie down, but they were choking and gagging. One man panicked, fearing suffocation in the small stifling space, and ran toward the opening. Pulaski knew that was suicide. He pulled his .44 revolver and shouted, “The next man who tries to leave the tunnel, I will shoot!”

They waited it out. Five men died, but the rest staggered out the next day. Pulaski had survived with terrible burns to his eyes, his head, and his hands, as well as damage to his lungs. He permanently lost sight in one eye. He and many others wounded in the fire hoped for aid from the Forest Service—they needed costly medical assistance. But the help that came was too little, too late. The Forest Service had been gutted, neglected, left with inadequate funds under the presidency of William Taft, who’d come under pressure from the timber barons to disband the agency.

In the end, the plight of the wounded firefighters came to the attention of the newspapers and the general public. It was an outrage! The mood of the public turned toward support of the young Forest Service, and it was an important rallying point for Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, the leading spirits for conservation of public lands. Still, the men who had suffered never did get the care they deserved.  An embittered Pulaski tended the scattered graves of those who had died, lobbied for a memorial, and pushed for a graveyard where the dead could be gathered from many locations. Six years later, Congress finally appropriated the funds for a granite slab engraved with the names of the dead. But it wasn’t until 1933 that a central graveyard was established and the remains gathered there. Pulaski died before he could see that happen.

In the meantime, he invented a tool that would come to be of great use for the firefighters of the future. And for trail maintainers. I will think of him now whenever I use a pulaski.

The "Big Burn" of 1910

* Timothy Egan, The Big Burn. Mariner Books, Boston, 2010.


1. Thomas Stazyk - January 27, 2011

Fascinating story, thanks for posting.

2. Jenny - January 27, 2011

Glad you enjoyed it.

3. brian - January 27, 2011

I’d wondered where the name came from. It seemed like such a basic hand tool not to have been around forever and have a good old germanic name. Like a mattock. What is the difference between a mattock and a pulaski anyway? Is the shape just optimized a little bit?

Thomas Stazyk - January 27, 2011

I’m no expert, but I think a mattock is a pulaski with a wider flat part and no pointy part. Please excuse the technical jargon:)

Thomas Stazyk - January 27, 2011

Wrong again, I Googled after I spoke–I think they are the same.

Jenny - January 27, 2011

As I understand it, “mattock” refers to the grub-hoe or “adze” side of the implement. There are two other combination tools out there that combine the mattock with another implement: the pick-mattock and the cutter-mattock. The pick-mattock has a pick on one side and a grub-hoe on the other. The cutter-mattock has an axe-type implement on one side and a grub-hoe on the other. The pulaski is similar to the cutter-mattock but distinguished by being a sharper tool more aimed at cutting wood than working with soil. At any rate, I think some of these terms may have intermingled in their meanings! My final words on the subject are: (1) Ed Pulaski apparently did something to promote a tool that had not been in use, even if something similar (the cutter-mattock) had been invented before. (2) Don’t ever call it a pick-matic or cutter-matic! My editor’s eye hurts when I see that—and I have indeed seen that.

4. brian - January 27, 2011

Thank you Thomas and Jenny. It’s like I have a free research service at my fingertips.

5. Monex - January 29, 2011

Forest Service web archive their folklore holds that the Pulaski fire fighting tool was invented by Edward C. It is likely that working a home workshop or blacksmith shops the Pulaski a combination ax and mattock was devised…..One version of the events according to the web site was that the Pulaski was developed as a tree-planting tool by other agency staff Joe Halm and Ed Holdomb with a shovel as a third tool on the handle.

6. John Burtis III - July 30, 2013

As a former park ranger and fire warden from upstate NY during the 60’s and the late 70’s, I responded to my share of brush and wild fires. As a result I had the occasion to swing (or swang in the firefighting parlance of the time) my share of tools, including the pulaski. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the two variations in the pronunciation of pulaski. For me, having lived in New York State, where the Village of Pulaski is found near the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, pulaski is always pronounced /pəˈlæsk aɪ/ , with the last syllable like “eye”.

But firefighters from different locales whom I’ve run into refer to this now venerable and still important tool as the pulaski, where the last syllable sounds like ski, as in Winooski.

Even in firefighting, pronunciation, like so many other things in life, is a regional thang.

Jenny - July 30, 2013

Interesting. Reminds me of Tripoli Road in the southern White Mountains of NH, pronounced “Triple-Eye.” But I’ve always heard “pulaski” pronounced with the “ee” ending sound. There’s more than one town called Pulaski, y’know. A larger one than the upstate NY one is located in southwestern VA. I believe the ones there pronounce it with the “ee” sound. I guess I vaguely assumed since that isn’t too far away from Konnarock VA, near where VA/TN/NC come together and where a famous team of pulaski-wielding A.T. trail maintainers is based, the town and the tool were both pronounced with the “ee” sound. Since Ed Pulaski grew up in Ohio, I’m not sure we can draw any definite conclusions. Thanks for your visit.

7. kwcoates - February 4, 2015

There are pick mattocks and cutter mattocks. Both have the adze, one has a pick opposite, the other has a half axe, or cutter. Typically they are not a finely sharpened edge tool (though people sharpen them to some extent). The heads are not fixed to the handles, but held in shape by the swinging action. Both are particularly heavy single use tools. A Pulaski axe is a sharpened tool, a lighter combo than the mattock, with a hung head (fixed) like any axe, for cutting logs, branches, roots (a lopper is better for that instead of killing your edge in the dirt) and some are sharpened very finely at both ends for woodworking, and used to hew logs for bog bridging, shelters, etc as well as grubbing. A pulaski should never be used to pry with, that is the pick mattocks duty. It is an excellent trail tool, but being a combo tool is a jack of all trades, master of none. The early firefighters typically carried both a grub hoe and an axe, and that was a heavy burdensome undertaking in horrid conditions…Pulaski solved that

Jenny - February 4, 2015

Yes, I think I knew there was a difference between pick mattocks and cutter mattocks, as you might have seen in the comments section. I thought I expressed that, but apparently not to your satisfaction. Thank you for providing expert information on the subject. All I know is that I have done a lot of trail work and that carrying more than one heavy tool for different specific purposes did not appeal to me or many other volunteer trail workers.

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