They say that in the old days lumbering was wasteful; the lumbermen would fell a tree and perhaps take only one good log out of the middle, leaving the other two to rot. Today, the red-shirted, calk-booted, two-fisted woodsman has disappeared, along with the forlorn tar-paper flaps on the roofs of the old log camps. Yet the trees are coming down faster and more wastefully than of old, thanks to the chain saw that makes a forest look as if a gigantic mowing machine had gone over it.
Horses are still used in the woods; there still are lumber camps (made in plywood sections and brought in by truck from the factory); there is even the cookee, who beats mightily with a hammer on a suspended, worn-out circular saw at five o'clock in the black, cold mornings and yells, "Turn out! Turn out! It's daylight in the swamp!" But the long-log drives that used to take place in the spring on every stream in northern New England have passed forever.
All through the winter the horses hauled twenty-foot logs out of the woods and piled them in great heaps on the ice of the lakes and rivers, and when the riverbed was full, on the banks. In March came the first warm winds; dirt began to show in the road ruts, the six-foot icicles on the camp eaves began to drip and finally came a night when the lumberjack smelled that the ice would go out before morning.
From beneath his bunk, or his fir-bough pillow, he fished a pair of old cork boots, filed their inch-long spikes to gleaming points, and then, as he was lovingly greasing them, there would come an earthshaking tremor and a tremendous roar of cracking ice and leaping water from the river, to confirm his presentiment.
The next morning, before daylight, having consumed his usual breakfast of salt pork, baked beans, gingerbread, and molasses washed down with black tea "strong enough to float a half-inch nut," he traded his ax for a peavey and followed the foreman down to the stream and began to break out frozen rollways. He had become a riverman.
The riverman, like the cowboy, was a special breed of man called into existence by a special set of circumstances. Now that the circumstances no longer exist, he has gone out of business. The business has vanished, but the genus riverman is still to be found up on the head waters of the Connecticut, the Androscoggin, the Kennebec, and the Penobscot, where dwell in ever-decreasing numbers the old men who in their prime "took the drive down" to the screeching mills at Hartford, Holyoke, Lewiston, and Bangor.
All rivermen were lumberjacks, though by no means were all lumberjacks rivermen. Almost anybody can learn to handle an ax or a saw, but to work in ice water, often up to your navel, fourteen hours a day requires stamina. Log driving was a profession that was dangerous to life and limb, not just some of the time, but every minute.
From the moment he began to break out the frozen rollways till the day, sometimes six months later, that the drive was safe in the booms hundreds of miles downriver, the riverman was flirting with death a dozen times a day. The heavy, slippery logs that he had to roll, pry, and lift would fly back at him and knock him literally to kingdom come, or he himself would slip and a whole rollway would pass over him, leaving not enough to bury. On the Penobscot, rivermen buried their dead comrades where they found them, hanging their spiked boots on tree branches over their graves. At Mulliken's Pitch, at the foot of the Fifteen-Mile Falls on the Connecticut, they used to bury rivermen in empty pork barrels. When the New England Power Company built the great dam precisely at the Pitch in 1930, it excavated half a dozen of those makeshift coffins, the old spiked boots still intact.
Working from unstable bateaux or on treacherous jams, the riverman had to be as agile as a panther and surefooted as a mountain goat merely to survive. Small wonder that you could always spot a riverman among other workingmen. His stagged trousers marked him, to be sure; his little black felt hat and his red shirt, the plug of black B-L in his hip pocket, and of course his spiked boots, but most of all his walk, which had a little swagger in it, the devil-may-care swing to his shoulders, and the good-humored, challenging gleam in his steady eyes.
He was afraid of nothing that walked or crawled or swam or flew. I have known a riverman to go into a blacked-out shed knowing that a full-grown wildcat was in it, loose, and come out lugging the wildcat. His constant heavy lifting made him strong as a horse and hard as nails, while the demand for quick action on the slippery logs kept him from becoming muscle-bound. In a rough-and-tumble fight he was probably the best man in the world with his hands and rivermen loved to fight. They fought with their fists and their heads and their spiked boots, but never with guns or knives. A favorite trick was to turn away from a foe as if abandoning the fight and then lash back at the man's face with your calked shoe. Many a riverman bore on his face and body the permanent scars of "lumberjack's smallpox." But it was all in good fun, and the riverman, like most outdoorsmen, was, unless drunk or provoked, a modest and soft-spoken man. I remember once asking Dan Bosse, the greatest riverman of the North Country, whether a certain man I had heard of was a better man than himself.
"I'll tell you," Dan answered thoughtfully, "I'd go anywhere he would, but there were places I'd go that he didn't follow me."
The old-time riverman would work his head off for his boss if he thought he was getting a fair shake and never expect or accept any reward for extra labor. But even with his bosses he was independent. Jack Lary, who was a walking boss for the Brown Company of Berlin, New Hampshire, was taking the wanigan up to the lakes one March to begin the spring drive. Having come down out of the woods to Berlin, Jack was feeling no pain as they used to say. In the Thirteen-Mile Woods he met W. R. Brown, woods manager and one of the owners of the company. W. R. had something to tell his walking boss, but he couldn't make him understand. At last he exploded, "Lary, the trouble with you is you're drunk, and I know it!"
"Mr. Brown," answered Jack, "the trouble with you is you're a damned fool, and you'll never know it!"
But the same obstreperous boss worked day and night for the company and landed logs on the river for two dollars less per thousand than any other man in its employ.