- Historic Sites
An excerpt from a new bicentennial history of his native state
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Axemen were the aristocrats of this sort of work, and State of Maine men were much in demand because they had been cutting down pine trees all their lives. They worked in two-man crews, swinging their double-bitted axes in alternating blows, from right and from left, and a veteran team used to brag that if you drove a stake partway into the ground sixty feet away, they could fall a tree with such finesse that it would drive the stake in the rest of the way. (In pinewoods language, by the way, the loggers would fall a tree, not fell it.) Once the tree was down, less prestigious axemen got at it and trimmed off its branches and its top, after which men with long crosscut saws came up to reduce it to logs.
The hard work was by no means over then, because the logs still had to be taken to the banking ground by the river. Two things were necessary, above all: a roadway of sorts, and a good deal of snow and cold weather. The logs could be skidded over to the roadside by oxen or horses using the go-devil or a device like an overgrown set of ice tongs, but at the roadside they had to be loaded on a sleigh, and since the load was usually piled up as high as a two-story house, this involved a great deal of sweating and straining. Logs are heavy, awkward to handle, and possessed of the inherent cantankerousness that sometimes gets into inanimate objects, and although horses or oxen could be used to pull on the chains that dragged the logs up on the pile, men still had to handle the logs, guiding and controlling them, adjusting their position, turning them this way and that so that the load was compact and balanced, and they could not possibly do this with their bare hands.
Originally they used a stout pole with a ring around it and an iron hook dangling from the ring, known as a cant dog, but it was dangerously unreliable because the hook was likely to slip sideways just as a man was putting his weight on it and when that happened the man could get killed. Fortunately, just about the time the Michigan boom was beginning, a blacksmith in Maine invented a new tool: strong staff of ash or rock maple, shod with iron at the lower end, with a hook swinging from a fixed hinge that kept it from slipping sideways. With this a man could grip a log firmly, the long staff gave him the leverage he needed, and the thing would not betray him when he was handling a big log that was trying to mash him. To use it took skill—a man had to know just what he was doing on any job in the woods—but this tool was indispensable. It was known as a cant hook. Fitted with a spike at the lower end it was a peavey, named for the blacksmith who invented it; either way, they had to have it to get out the logs.
A load of logs properly stacked weighed many tons, and no wagon ever built could have carried it over a dirt road. On a sleigh it could be moved easily, always provided that the road was icy. The camp boss sent a sprinkler out at night to spray water that froze instantly, and as long as he had cold weather all was well. Horses with calked shoes could pull on such a roadway, and if the road had no hills there was no special problem. It was impossible to take one of these big loads up a real hill, and although going down was possible it was extremely dangerous—if the sleigh once picked up speed it ran over the horses, wrecked itself, and probably killed the driver. On the downhill slopes they scattered sand, sawdust, horse manure, ashes, whatever was handy, to reduce the danger, and a good teamster was highly prized.
In all of this except the downhill drag the emphasis was on speedier movement. Peavey and cant hook set a fast tempo, the great horse-drawn sleighs moved logs to the river faster than the old method, especially when trouble was taken to keep the skid road iced, and now someone discovered that the trees came down more quickly if crosscut saws were used. Axemen still began by cutting a deep notch on the side where the tree was supposed to fall, but once the notch was cut they went to the opposite side and started pulling the seven-foot saw back and forth, back and forth, until at last the top of the tree swayed a bit, there was a cracking noise just where the notch had been cut, the sawyers pulled their saw out, stepped back, and set up the long warning cry—“Timmmberrrr!”—and everyone near looked up and took cover. When a giant pine came down, it came down hard, and people gave it plenty of room.
One way or another they got the logs to the banking ground. When warm weather came and the ice went out, and melting snow raised the river level, they could get the logs down to the mills; and in some ways this was the hardest, chanciest part of the whole business.
The rivermen who took the logs down were picked crews, the best of the wintertime loggers—whose jobs, of course, were gone once the snow melted and the roads could no longer be iced. It was up to the rivermen first to tumble the logs down the banks and into the water; hard enough, and often most dangerous, because the logs were piled up high on a downhill slope, and as likely as not they would roll down with a thunderous rush once the first two or three logs at the bottom were yanked loose. The yanking, of course, was done by rivermen with peaveys, who worked with thousands of tons of logs banked up over them and who had to start running at the right second and run fast once they got things loose.