Log Drive on the Connecticut

An intrepid story of the lumberjacks and rivermen who rode the logs in the big drives on the Connecticut River

The sawlog was to the riverman what the horse was to the cowboy. It was his means of transportation. He did not go plunging through the mud and brush that lined the bank to keep up with the logs. He merely chose the one he wanted, sprang aboard, stuck the point of his peavey into it, leaned nonchalantly on the handle, and was swept away by the current. If other logs came surging along and turned his log beneath him he calmly stepped onto the nearest one and kept going.

The Androscoggin drive came down from the Rangeleys and Umbagog and had to be sluiced through Errol Dam and again at Pontook. There is half a mile of rocks and wicked water below Pontook, and then comes an eddy against the bank where a jam would quickly form if rivermen were not "tending out" there, poling the logs out into the current. George Horn, the drive boss, told me that when Dan Bosse used to tend out there at night he always refused to walk down the road, but would take a lantern in his hand and jump on the first log that came along and ride down to his station.

"But," added George, who was quite a man on logs himself, "I never saw any other man do it, before or since."

George Anderson, a Brown Company foreman, had a crew of fifty or sixty men up on the Little Magalloway River one April, breaking out rollways—that is, the great piles of frozen logs were being pried loose and rolled into the water, which of course was high and fast. One rollway was on a steep bank ten or fifteen feet high, and just below it was an eddy that kept the logs inshore instead of letting them float down with the current.

"They got piled up pretty deep down there," George told me, "so I told the crew to wait while I took a couple of men [a good river boss never sentmen to do dangerous work, he always took them] and went down to pole the logs out into the river. We were working away and had them pretty well cleared out when there came a yell from the men up on the bank. We looked up, and there all the logs on that rollway had broken loose and were starting to roll down on top of us. We turned and ran over the floating logs for the middle of the river. The other two men made it safely, but I didn't.

"My first jump, I landed on my left foot on a big spruce but before I could bring up my right foot another log bobbed out of the water and caught it between the two logs. I stuck my peavey into the log and pulled for all I was worth, but I was stuck there just as if I were in a bear trap. I caught a glimpse of the logs leaping over the bank, and I thought sure my time had come, but Dan Bosse was working up on that rollway and when he saw the fix I was in he ran out and jumped. He jumped ten feet straight down and landed on that log behind me and drove one end of it deep into the water. The other end snapped up past my head like a streak of light, but that didn't bother me. My foot was free then, and I sailed out of there as quick and easy as if I were on a featherbed. And not one second later that rollway landed kerplunk where I had been standing and filled the river ten feet deep with logs. Dan was right behind me on the same big spruce."

The Connecticut River drive was the greatest one in all the Northeast. No other river was driven for so many years, no other drive went so many miles—four hundred down to Hartford, two hundred and fifty in later years to Holyoke and Mt. Tom. It was more than an ordinary log drive; it was practically an institution. The first long-log drive went down the Connecticut from the head waters in 1869, and every year thereafter until 1915. After that, pulpwood was driven in four-foot bolts until 1929. Over on the Androscoggin, the Brown Company still drives pulpwood, although the last of the long logs came down in 1930. Since then the riverman has been out of work.

The Connecticut River drive ended in a burst of glory. The Connecticut Valley Lumber Company owned most of northern New Hampshire and much of adjacent Vermont and Maine. The company was owned and headed by George Van Dyke, a two-fisted ex-riverman of the old school. He didn't own a pair of shoes until he was twelve years old, but in the spring of 1909 he died a millionaire in a tragic accident when his chauffeur-driven car backed over a cliff at Turners Falls, having come too close to the bank so that he might view the driving crew picking a jam in the river.

In 1914, Stone & Webster, a firm of Boston engineers, bought the company because they wanted the waterpower rights on the headwaters of the Connecticut. That winter, 1914-1915, it had more than three thousand men in the woods, and the word went out that the next spring would be the last long-log drive. It was the most exciting news that had hit the North Country since the Indian Stream War in 1835. Men talked about it in saloons and on street corners; they argued about it and fought about it; they said that it just couldn't be true. Many of them swore that logs would be driven down the Connecticut until the end of time. But before the ice went out, the rumor received official confirmation. The C.V.L. said that there would never be another sawlog rolled into the Upper Connecticut.

Then everybody wanted to get onto the drive. It was the last chance for the young men to carve their names on the North Country totem pole of glory, so to speak, while the old-timers wanted to give it one more whirl. There were men in the border towns who had gone down with every drive since 1869.

The C.V.L. did it up in style—five-hundred men on drive, the greatest crew of rivermen who ever went down a river. Dan Bosse abandoned the Brown Company that spring, attracted by the lure of the last drive and the princely wage of four dollars a day. Bangor Indians came all the way from Orono, and some of the old ones among them had been with John Ross, the great riverman of the Penobscot, in 1876, when the company had hired him to come over and take the drive down. He came, bringing his "Bangor Tigers" with him, and his Penobscot bateaux—"Maynard" boats, they were called. The Indians had shot the Pittsburg Falls in those double-ended bateaux, and the fame of their prowess was so great that sixty years later old men solemnly averred to me that they were the best rivermen in the world. Two bateau crews of them ran the Bellows Falls just for fun, a feat that no man had ever before or since accomplished. The year 1876 became known as "the Ross year," and was famous for seeing the highest and the lowest water ever known in the river. Even John Ross's genius couldn't beat it. His men broke their hearts tugging the stranded logs off the dry ledges. The drive was still hung up on the Fifteen-Mile Falls in July, and then winter came and the logs froze fast in the ice. It was not until the next year, 1877, that they reached their destination.

Came the night in April, 1915, when the ice went out, and the next day the drive was under way. Forty million feet of logs, massed at Second Lake, shot down the roaring river and in no time were spreading themselves quietly in the booms set to catch them on the choppy waters of First Lake. There, fifteen million more came out of South Bay, and all of them were towed across the lake in giant booms by night, when the wind was quiet, and sluiced through the dam into the channel below. Five million more came out of Perry Stream, and six million from Deadwater Brook. And so, like a snowball, the drive grew and grew until, when it hit North Stratford, there were sixty-five million feet of logs in the river—the greatest drive that ever went down the Connecticut.

Two men were killed on Perry Falls that spring. "I saw one of them die," Phonse Roby, the C.V.L. walking boss, told me. "There was a wing jam on both sides, and he was walking across the stream on a log wedged about a foot under water. He held his peavey dangling from his hand, on the upstream side, and the current hit it just enough to throw him off-balance. He fell into the stream, where the water was fast as a millrace. He could swim some, and a log came along, and he grabbed it by the middle and tried to hoist himself on top.

"If he'd only used his head and taken the log at one end, he could have held himself up until we pulled him out; but I suppose he was too scared to think, and he kept trying to wrestle that log, and it kept rolling out of his hands.

"The jam stuck out into the stream a few rods below, and the current set in against it. I ran to beat hell over those logs and got out on the point and was all ready to pull him in when the cold water and the shock were too much for him, and he let go the log and went under. One of his hands came up as if he was waving good-bye and that was the last of him."

But after a couple of men were lost at Perry Falls the drive went merry as a wedding bell until it reached North Stratford. There the river was blocked by an ice jam, and the logs jammed behind it, rearing up in huge piles, twenty and thirty feet high; the worst log jam ever seen, said old Rube Leonard of Colebrook, who could remember them all, even the first one. For there were thirty-five million feet of logs in one bunch, sticking straight up and sideways and every other way, a diabolical and inextricable mass.

They kept piling up, and the water backed up and flooded houses and barns and tore up the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks, and the Grand Trunk started a lawsuit and there was hell to pay.

Phonse Roby had charge of the drive that year, and Win Schoppe, one of the great names in the North Country, bossed the rear. They got all the men down at the great jam, and they worked day and night. Finally, after many days, they had picked and dynamited the jam to pieces and set the logs floating off down the black, sullen river.

"I saw a funny thing while we were breaking that jam," John Locke, who was later general manager of the C.V.L., told me. "The dynamite had frozen, so they built a fire to thaw it out. They shoveled up a bank of earth all around the fire, a foot or two away, and stood the sticks of powder up against the inside of the bank. They left a young fellow in charge of it who didn't know much about the vagaries of dynamite. One of the sticks happened to slip and fall toward the fire, and he reached over to pull it out. Probably someone had told him that dynamite had to be jarred to explode. At that precise moment old Win came striding up to see if the powder was ready, and just as the youngster reached over the embankment, Win reached out one paw and wrapped it around his short ribs and flattened him on the ground like you would a doll.

"Boom! And that stick of dynamite exploded all over the adjacent territory. But nobody was hurt. Win got up and brushed himself and says to the lad, 'G'acious! G'acious, sonny, you must learn to be more careful.'

"Dan Bosse was doing the shooting. He was a good man with powder. I saw him put in one blast that didn't do any good. He'd tied two sticks of powder onto the end of a pole and swum out with a lighted fuse and stuck it into a hole of the jam. When it didn't go off correctly, he was a little bothered. He wrapped some more dynamite around the end of a pole about fifteen feet long and skipped out onto the jam and pushed it into the hole he'd selected, and stood there watching to see what would happen. It happened all right. The whole front of the jam came loose, and I'll swear it looked as if Dan went up in the air more than ten feet. But when he came down he was standing with both feet on a log and headed downstream."

Presented by

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In