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

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.

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."

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.