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 drive got down to Fitzdale (today they call it Gilman), and the owner of the mill and the dam there wouldn't let them sluice through the dam. Stone & Webster, who were first-rate engineers but who didn't know much about logging, had brought in a man from Massachusetts named MacDonald to be general manager. MacDonald, who accompanied the drive in a Buick touring car, advised waiting. Big Phonse, who saw the water dropping every day, scowled and did not answer, but he took it upon himself to go and call the millman.

The tall, slim walking boss strode into the office, his spiked boots gouging little triangular holes in the polished hardwood floor.

"You open up those sluices," he said, "or God have mercy on you when I turn these rivermen loose. There'll be nothing left of you, your mill, and your dam."

He meant what he said, and the other man knew he meant it. The drive went through.

Just below Fitzdale began the "Horse-Race," a quarter of a mile of rock-toothed rapids that were the start of the Fifteen-Mile Falls. Sam Martin, one of the rivermen, had managed to get drunk and now, full of bravado and Old Granddad, he got into a bateau all alone and started down through the Horse-Race. A hundred yards down, the boat hit a rock and turned over, leaving Sam out in the middle of the rapids, clinging to a boulder and sober as a preacher.

No man had ever ridden a log through the Horse-Race, and eventually a bateau would have been procured to rescue Sam, but some playful riverman bet Bill Bacon ten dollars he couldn't ride a log down past Sam and pick him off that rock. Bill ran out over the surging logs, picked a big spruce and stayed on it through the white water. As the log drove past the rock, barely missing it, he grabbed Sam by the collar, hauled him clear, and brought him safely through.

Down the drive went, down and down. The wanigan—an Indian word meaning the tents, blankets, and cooking stuff needed on the drive—transported in high-wheeled wagons drawn by eight horses, kept up with it. It's quite a trick to drive eight horses. Next to rivermen, teamsters were the highest-paid men in the woods.

Log jams were the riverman's particular bane. There were all kinds of them—little ones, big ones, wing jams, jams easy to pick, and jams that could be moved only with dynamite. They formed on rocks out in the middle of the river, where they had to be approached cautiously in bateaux; they also formed in eddies close to shore, and in bends of the river. The stone piers of the numerous bridges that crossed the river always caused bad jams. Two bridges on the Fifteen-Mile Falls were destroyed by log jams and never rebuilt.

In high water the logs floated far off onto the farmer's meadows; in low water they were stranded on the ledges. From these places they had to be hauled by horses back into the water. Often hundreds of logs would be left stranded on some farmer's property, to be cleaned up by the rear crew and dragged into the river again. That operation was like plowing up a whole meadow, and after he'd been stung one year with Van Dyke's false promises to send a check, many a farmer would mount guard over the logs and demand his damages on the spot.

Naturally, old George Van Dyke, whose favorite cry, whenever a riverman fell into the water, was, "To hell with the man! Save the cant dog!", would never pay if he could avoid it. Many fights ensued. Often, while some of the rivermen joyfully battled the horny-handed yeomen, another part of the crew would rustle the logs into the river again.

Curiously, a bad jam often gave the rivermen a little rest, for it required the personal attention of the boss, and after he had examined it with his keen professional eye, he sometimes grudgingly decided that the key log (every jam was formed by a primary, key log, which, if it could be reached and loosened, would let the whole jam "haul") could be moved only with dynamite. "Powder," they called it, and there were always one or two expert powdermen in the crew. Dan Bosse was a noted expert in its use. He could put a charge of powder under a boulder and land it fifty yards away, calling the spot.

But the necessary preparations took time, and while they were going on the rivermen perched on top of the jam, lit their pipes, and discovered, to their amazement, that it was a fine spring day. Whereat someone would leap down the face of the jam to a quiet eddy below and dance on a log, challenging anyone to come and roll ("birl" is the technical name) against him. He never had to ask twice. The two men would stand side by side near the center of the log and begin to spar for an opening by turning the log with their spiked boots. Faster and faster it rolled. Sometimes the loser was turned off in a hurry, unable to keep up—kersplash into the water. But if the two were evenly matched, then it was something to see. They would try all sorts of tricks leaping suddenly into the air to come down hard with both feet to bring the rapidly rotating log to a clear stop, thus throwing the other man forward and off—but the other man, with a loud guffaw, would be with him leap for leap and stop for stop. Or one would run out to the end of the log, putting the other man high in the air.

The drive finally came to the Narrows at Woodsville. It was the last time they ever put the old Mary Ann, the raft that carried the cook's equipment from Woodsville down, into the water. And the last time the horse raft was ever built. The horse raft was simply a log raft onto which they loaded the horses they might need to haul stranded logs into the water. Below Woodsville it wasn't logs on farmers' meadows that bothered the rivermen. But low water left the logs stranded, or jammed on the ledges, which was worse.

Woodsville was the first real town the drive had come to since leaving the wild headwaters. The rivermen had been working in the woods all winter and then gone straight onto the drive. Except for a little drinking at the Line House in Beecher Falls at the Canadian border, and a little more at North Stratford, this was their first chance for some fun. It was in Woodsville that a riverman who was drunk saw a woman's head in a clothing-store window, gave a whoop, jumped right through the plate glass, spiked boots first, and grabbed that female form and tried to ravish it.

Win Schoppe was sixty years old that spring. For many years he had been a woods boss and a dam builder for the C.V.L. They say that of all the many men who built driving dams in the North Country, Win is the only one who never built a dam that "blew"—that is, was torn away by the current and carried downstream. He was an immensely powerful man but he had never had a fight in his life. He was always goodnatured, and his nickname was "Grinner." His strongest oath was "G'acious!"

Vern Davison, who worked on the drive told me that there was one man, a mean-tempered redheaded bruiser working on the rear, who somehow had it in for the old man. He used to talk loudly to the others about what he would do to Schoppe if the latter ever tried to ride him.

"This fellow came into the tent one night at Windsor, noisy and drunk," Vern told me, "and Win told him to shut up, the men needed their sleep. He called Win a son of a bitch, and proposed to give him a licking. He made a pass at him but Win reached out one hand, took him by the throat and bore down. When the fellow came to Win said, 'G'acious, I hope I haven't hurt you. But, really, you shouldn't go around calling people sons of bitches.' The fellow took his turkey and got out of there as fast as he could caper."

And so the drive went down and down. The old men showed the young ones where the great jams of former years had piled up, where men had been killed, and where some especially pleasant fight had taken place. Finally, they came to Mt. Tom and the last long-log on the Connecticut River, the oldest and longest drive in the whole United States, was over.

They kept the men at a hotel in Holyoke before they paid them off and let them go. Vern Davison, who had at one time lived in Boston, had between six and seven hundred dollars coming to him.

"I gave half of it to Win," he told me, "and asked him to keep it for me. I took the rest and went to Boston. I had one great and glorious time. The first thing I did was to buy a ticket to North Stratford, and the next was to go over to the Adams House and get a room. Then I got all cleaned up—shave, shine, shower, shampoo, even a manicure. I bought a new suit of clothes at Filene's and started out to paint the town red.

"I'd lived in Boston some years, and I still knew my way around. I had a lot of friends there. It was wine, women, and song for two weeks. I never went on such a tear before, and I never will again. But I'll bet you there are still people in Boston who remember it! They had to lay new floors in some of their swankiest ballrooms after I led my Kitty out in a waltz."

When Vern got back to North Stratford he met Black Bill Fuller, Phonse Roby, and Jigger Johnson, who had just returned from Holyoke. The four decided to go on a fishing trip over on the Diamonds. At a local livery stable they rented a two-horse, fringed-top surrey and headed north. Vern sported a large handlebar mustache, Jigger was shaved clean, but both Phonse and Bill wore great black beards. At the Line House in Beecher Falls they stopped to buy two gallons of Canadian high wines, as pure alcohol is called along the border. A couple of miles above Beecher Falls, down below the road in the riverbank, is a fine spring known as Cold Spring.

The four friends stopped there to cut the alcohol. They tied the team to a tree, skittered down the bank, cut the liquor, and had a drink or two. It was warm, and they had all left their coats in the surrey. In his vest pocket Jigger had his whole winter's wages, more than five hundred dollars in bills. Because it was warm, he took off his vest and hung it on a limb.

"We sat there a while," said Vern, "and had a couple more drinks, and finally we started north again. We rolled along for more than fifteen miles clear up to First Lake, before we noticed Jigger didn't have his vest. Phonse and I wanted to go back and get it, but Jigger says, 'Oh, to hell with it! We're going fishing!' So we go over to the East Branch and stay ten days until our bait is all gone, and then we come back to the lake and get our team and start back to North Stratford.

"When we come to the Spring, Jigger says, 'Just stop a minute while I go down and get my vest.' And so help me, there it was, still on the limb where he'd left it, and all the money still in the pocket."

Today the Fifteen-Mile Falls is buried under a hundred feet of water. Phonse and Vern and Jigger and Black Bill Fuller and Dan Bosse are gone where spiked boots aren't needed. It's just as well. Their era passed when the last log slid into the booms at Mt. Tom in the summer of 1915.

Presented by

Robert E. Pike

A native of northern Vermont, ROBERT E. PIKE has been a farmer, a lumberjack, a surveyor, an American army officer, a professor of ancient and modern languages, and a military governor and is the author of several books. A graduate of Dartmouth, he holds an M.A. from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. from Harvard, and is at present chairman of the language department at Monmouth College in New Jersey. Here is his intrepid story of the lumberjacks and rivermen who rode the logs in the big drives on the Connecticut River.

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