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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Driving the Middle Way: Log Drives on the Connecticut

Area residents sometimes joined the river-side encampment
for a Sunday dinner. (Bradford Historical Society)

Van Dyke log drive c 1909 at the Thetford-Lyme Bridge. Notice rivermen
on the logs and spectators on the bridge. (Lyme Historical Society)

These logs would have just passed through several of the most difficult sections
of the drive on the Connecticut River. ( From Katharine Blaisdell)




This photo was taken just north of the Village of Bradford.The cooks often
prepared bean-hole beans for the crew's meals. (Bradford Historical Society)



This historical site marker in the Great Northern Woods of New Hampshire
reminds motorists of the log drives that originated in that area.

Journal OpinionMay 19, 2010

They came from the north during the late spring and summer. The sounds they made were of distant thunderstorms growing gradually closer. But they were not storms. They were the annual log drives down the Connecticut River from the great northern woods to mills in southern New England. They provided spectacular shows for area residents gathered on the riverbanks as they passed.

Much has been written about the history of log drives on the Connecticut. This article will focus on the drives as they passed through this region. In addition to town histories, the information comes from Robert Pike’s Tall Trees, Tough Men, Bill Gove’s Log Drives on the Connecticut River and Katharine Blaisdell’s books. These titles are recommended to those who want additional information.

The earliest settlers of the region found a primeval forest with trees sometimes reaching 200 feet in height. These forests had to be cleared to establish farm fields. Surplus logs and lumber were floated down the river to markets, domestic and foreign.

After the Revolution, Bradford’s John Barron and Orford’s Israel Morey entered into a contract to deliver logs down the Connecticut to be used as masts for the French Navy. The average log was 60 feet long with one measuring 116 feet long and 40 inches in diameter. In his description of this enterprise Silas McKeen noted that “there was a giant gathering to witness the logs rolled into the river.”

After 1810, local lumbermen built rafts from boxes of logs and drifted them down the Connecticut, returning by foot. Wells’ History of Newbury states that it took 25 days to make the round trip from Wells River to Hartford, Connecticut. In 1827, Horace Allbee of Fairlee made the trip with 76 individual boxes fastened together into rafts. These rafts often held timbers and other area products for market.

From the beginning there were problems with bridge companies whose structures were damaged and from mill owners who needed dams for consistent water levels. As canals were built, restrictions were placed on the size of these rafts. At the Bellows Falls canal they “were not to exceed fifty-four feet in length and seven in width and to draw not more than three feet of water.” When loose logs were too long for the canal locks, they were “coaxed over dams and falls.”

In 1854, C. W. Bliss, later of West Fairlee, was hired to work as a cook for the crew of 18 rafts with 108 boxes bound for Holyoke. When they reached the Bellows Falls canal it took three days to break up the rafts and pass them through the locks. A large gathering of local people watched as the crews raced to reach the locks first.

The first long-log drive from the forests south of the Canadian border to mills and markets in southern New England was held in 1868. Over the next 46 years this annual event would represent, according to Gove, the longest log drive in the nation; “None compared with the Connecticut River when considering the volume of logs involved,” he wrote. The logs were cut in the winter by lumberjacks housed in camps and piled beside the river and its tributaries. The drives began, often with up to 700 men, when the ice went out and there was sufficient flow from melting snows.

The area from Fifteen Mile Falls north of McIndoe Falls to south of Lyme and Thetford was the middle way for the journey from the Connecticut Lakes to the mills in Massachusetts and Connecticut. That stretch of over 50 miles was also one of the most dangerous in the entire 345 miles of the river. At the Falls, the river fell almost 350 feet over the large boulders and ledges. In the middle was Muliken’s Pitch. Pike writes that the Pitch “was known as the most dangerous place on the whole river.” Because early drives got hung up in the Falls, the Connecticut River Lumber Company blasted open about 10 miles of this section.

Below where the Passumpsic River joins the Connecticut, there was a difficult stretch known as Twenty-Seven Islands. It was followed by the Woodsville Narrows, up stream from the present Wells River-Woodsville bridge. Wells History of Ryegate calls the Narrow “the wildest spot on the river above Bellows Falls.” Below that location was where drives from companies logging the upper regions of the Ammonoosuc came into the river.

After Woodsville were eddies, islands and wide oxbows. When water was very high logs stranded on the meadows, when low on sandbars. The section down river also presented problems. An article in the Bradford Opinion of August 2, 1879 stated, “The rear of the big log drive in the Connecticut passed here on Saturday. The river men were several deep getting around Johnson point and Willard bend. The next hard place below here was Fairlee mountain and then near Ely station.” Add to that the bridges at Fairlee and Thetford as well as additional islands and bars.

At many of the locations mentioned above and at each bridge, log booms were placed in the river to hold and direct logs. Blaisdell’s history of Haverhill describes one at the Bedell Bridge: “The boom there was hitched to a large tree on the New Hampshire side and the other end to the middle pier of the bridge. That kept the logs going down the swiftest part of the river and protecting the bridge.”

Jams occurred where there were obstructions in the river. They were often the most dangerous part of the drive for river men. With hundreds of logs piled against each other like giant jackstraws, men had to pry them loose with pikes and peaveys. In extreme cases dynamite was used. As a log jam broke, a river man might find himself caught in the moving logs “with no way to shore and pure disaster ahead.”

Gore describes a major jam in June 1900 near Wells River, “when 55 million board feet of lumber jammed up against some bridge pier, piled solid for a half-mile up the river and in some places 6 to 10 feet deep.” It took 175 men to work it apart.


Not all the logging took place in the northern forest. Local loggers supplied local sawmills and wood product factories. Some loggers added their harvest to the river drive. Lyme’s town history describes how logs cut in the eastern part of the town were brought to the riverbank during the winter. It quotes an 1887 Hanover Gazette: “John Jewell has a huge force of help on his log job as he has a million feet to put in the river in three weeks.” Pike also mentions Ruth Parks of Lyme as “the only lady logger in the United States who swung an axe, handled a cant-dog, drove team, and ran her own camps.”

Robert Pike’s books describe in depth the tough life of the lumberjacks and river men. It is still true today that this is one of the most dangerous occupations. Deaths and injuries were common and men who died along the route of the drives were often buried in empty pork barrels.

After a long winter in the northern woods, men returned to civilization with money and pent-up emotions. At Woodsville, the conflicting companies would hold their drives to avoid mixing logs. Part of the force was laid off at this point. Men from the drives descended on the village, keeping bars and law enforcement busy.

There is a story of one river man “who was drunk and feeling his oats in Woodsville one day, and seeing the wax figure of a half-nude woman in a store window, uttered a great logger’s rutting-whoop and leaped through the plate-glass spiked boots first, grabbed the female figure, and tried to ravish it.”

Actually, there were many positive interactions between local residents and the drivers. Large crowds gathered to watch the men work the logs. News of the drive was carried in local newspapers. The United Opinion of June 19, 1891 carried the following front page notice: “The last of the annual ’drive’ of logs from northern New Hampshire has just passed Bradford. It contained one hundred and twenty million of feet of lumber and required 275 men and 40 horses to care for it. The rivermen have been remarkably fortunate thus far this season as not a single life has been lost, which is something unusual.”

The Connecticut Valley Lumber Company was accompanied by the cook raft “Mary Ann” and wagons of supplies. Buyers purchased extra supplies from local merchants. When a camp was set up the cooks made bean-hole beans and baked in large reflector ovens. Sometimes on Sundays local residents were invited to bring donations for a pot-luck meal at the camp. Anytime, local boys might be treated to a large gingerbread cookie.

The drive did not always pass a community quickly. A crew with horses rafted behind to pick up logs that had become stranded. From beginning to end, a large drive might extend 75 miles along the river and take several weeks to pass. Troublesome drives, such as the one in 1914, might take up to five months to reach the mills in Massachusetts.

Probably the most famous death connected with the drives was that of lumber baron George Van Dyke. As president and major owner in the CVLC, Van Dyke was influential in the entire lumbering operation. At the end of the 19th century the company owned over 320,000 acres of prime timberland and operated mills in Vermont and Massachusetts, including one at McIndoe Falls. He often accompanied the drive in a carriage or car, observing the operation firsthand. Seeing a man struggling in the river, he is reported to have shouted “To hell with the man! Save the peavey!”

It is perhaps more accurate that he rarely asked them to do anything he himself had not done before or was willing to try again. How he treated his men was probably no different from any of the large employers of the 19th century, but his workers returned season after season. In August 1909, Van Dyke was seated in his chauffer-driven car near Turners Falls overlooking the river drive. For some reason the car moved forward over the cliff and the two men were killed.

Van Dyke did not live to see the end of the long-log drives on the Connecticut. The 1914 drive was very troublesome and so the 1915 drive was the last. The end came as a result of a number of factors. Most of the old growth timber had been harvested and the remaining logs were smaller. Damage to meadows and bridges coupled with conflicts with other users of the river, made the drives more expensive. Drives of four-foot pulp wood continued until the 1940’s, but there is no doubt they lack the adventure of the earlier drives.

On Sunday, May 23 another group of adventurers will travel a portion of the middle way. They are participants in the annual spring Paddle the Border event. Leaving from the Woodsville Community Field they will find the harnessed river less dangerous than a century ago. As they float to their destination at the Bedell Bridge State Park, they may well think of those river men who, with their corked boots and long pikes, rode long logs down the Connecticut a century ago.

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