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Log Drives: The Annual Spring Event Brought Valley Residents to the Riverbank

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 who gathered on the riverbanks as they passed.

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 averaging 60 feet as well as lumber were floated down the river bound for markets domestic and foreign.

After 1810, local lumbermen built rafts from boxes of logs, loaded them with area products and drifted them down the Connecticut, returning by foot. Frederic Wells’ History of Newbury states that it took 25 days to make the round trip from Wells River to Hartford, Conn.

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. 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 great northern woods to the mills in southern New England was held in 1868. Over the next 46 years this annual event would represent the longest log drive in the nation, Bill Gove wrote in his book Log Drives on the Connecticut River. 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 Fifteen Mile Falls, the river fell almost 350 feet over large boulders and ledges. In the middle was Muliken’s Pitch, the most dangerous place on the river. Because early drives got hung up in the Falls, the Connecticut River Lumber Co. 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 wild Woodsville Narrows, upstream from the present Wells River-Woodsville bridge. 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 would become stranded on the meadows, when low on sandbars. The section downriver also presented problems. An article in the Bradford Opinion of Aug. 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 away from the bridge piers.

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. One jam in 1900 near Wells River required 175 men to free 55 million board feet of lumber. In extreme cases, dynamite was used. As a log jam broke, a river man might find himself caught in the moving logs.

Local loggers also supplied local sawmills and wood product factories. Some loggers added their harvest to the river drive. Lyme’s town history describes how logs 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.”

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, and local newspapers took note. 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 120 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 Co. 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.

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 his men 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 they lacked the adventure of the earlier drives.

On Sunday, May 19 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.

This article was originally published in “The Journal-Opinion.” The author is president of the Bradford Historical Society and author of two books on the history of the Upper Valley available at local outlets.

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Letter: Wonderful Look at a Perilous Era

Friday, May 17, 2013

To the Editor: Much as I enjoyed and admired Larry Coffin’s piece on the Connecticut River log drives (“Log Drives,” May 11), I would point out that the river drive on the Machias River, from Third Machias Lake to Whitneyville, took 39 days, two full weeks more than the 25 days of the Wells River-to-Hartford drive. The greater time had …