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Hell And High Water

June 2024
11min read

Today’s lumberjacks are better paid, and they are apt to live longer, but their exploits pale beside those of old-fashioned "river hogs."
those of the old-fashioned “river hogs”

The lumberjack was a special breed of a man, but the riverman was very special. Like the cowboy, he was a product of his environment, and now that the environment has passed, he no longer exists. He started in the Northeast, where countless streams and rivers come tumbling down from remote and tangled mountains. The lumber was there, but there were no roads, and the only way to get it out was by water. The streams were not suitable for rafting and were not navigable by lumber schooners, so the logs came down loose; and they had to come in the spring, when the melting snows swelled the rivers. Two phrases coined in river-driving days remain in popular usage: “come hell or high water” and “as easy as falling off a log.”

It is very easy to fall off a log, even a large one, as you can prove to yourself by trying not to. The rivermen not only rode logs through rapids, treading them with squirrel-like agility; they also used the slippery, unstable timbers to stand on while they worked.

As they pushed and heaved stranded logs, they seemed to balance themselves automatically. They treaded now one way, now another as the log rolled, instinctively adjusting to the buoyancy of the wood. Townspeople would watch them for hours, fascinated.

It was said that good rivermen were born, not made; at least they had to start early. When they were small boys of eight, they began practicing and were fished out of the river a hundred times. At an early age they took naturally to the pike pole and the peavey, working first in the still waters of the mill ponds and later on in the drive. These men developed an inarticulate love for the river. The work was hard and dangerous, the food was not of the best, there were no women, wages were low—and yet the call of the river drew them, just as the call of the sea draws the sailor. “I want to go back to my little river,” Dan Bosse, the great log-driver of the Androscoggin, lamented to me in his old age.

When the logs had been rolled into the stream and the drive had reached swift water, then the special skills of the “river hogs” came into action. They would work and heave and pry on a tall jam for hours trying to edge the logs out into the current. All at once the apparently solid surface began to creak and settle. The men zigzagged rapidly to shore. A crash and a spout of water marked where the first tier had broken free. The front melted like sugar. A vast, formidable movement agitated the brown tangles as far as one could see. And then, with another sudden and mighty crash that could be heard for miles, the whole river burst into a torrent of motion.

If everything had gone well, the men were all safe ashore, leaning on their peavies, but ready at any instant to rush out and forestall any jamming that might threaten. There were always some men who, out of sheer bravado, jumped from the breast of the jam, just as it was breaking down, to a floating log ahead, thus to be rushed far down the river. A single slip meant death. It may have been foolish, but it was magnificent just the same.

The business of the riverman was to guide, or drive, the logs from the “rollways” alongside the streams, where lumberjacks had piled them during the winter, to the screeching sawmills down-river. The drive might last three weeks, or it might last two years if water was low and the logs became stranded on dry ledges. A riverman spent far more time lugging and prying and lifting the heavy, inert timbers from where they were jammed against the bank and shoving them out into flowing water than in nonchalantly riding a surging log downstream.

Constant heavy lifting made him as strong as a horse and as hard as nails, while the demand for quick action among the rolling, slippery logs kept him from getting muscle-bound. He had to be as agile as a panther and as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Small wonder that one could always spot a riverman among other workingmen. His stagged kersey trousers marked him, to be sure; his little black felt hat and his red shirt, the plug of Climax (“the Grand Old Chew”) in his hip pocket, and of course his spiked boots, armed with “three-and-sixty” casehardened spikes from one-quarter to three-quarters of an inch in length. Those calked (or “cork,” as they were called) boots were the riverman’s distinctive badge. Everywhere in the river towns one could see the traces of those calks; they picked the wooden sidewalks into fine splinters and pockmarked the floors of stores and saloons.

Accustomed to facing death every day, the riverman was afraid of nothing that walked, crawled, swam, or flew. I have known such a man to go into a blacked-out shed stacked with dynamite, fully aware that a grown wildcat was loose in it, and come out lugging the wildcat.

In a rough-and-tumble fight, the riverman was probably the best man with his hands in the world, and rivermen loved to fight. Like most outdoorsmen, they were, unless drunk or provoked, modest and soft-spoken, but their robust virtues were equalled by their robust vices. When they hit town, especially at the end of the drive, with the logs in the booms and their pay in their pockets, they figured it was their duty to take the place apart. The great and glorious bust might last three days to three weeks, while God-fearing citizens locked their doors and local police looked the other way. Then, having thrown away all their money, the men headed back to the timber, sore and sober.

The riverman fought with his fists, his head, and his 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; or again, to hurl oneself through the air feet first toward an opponent, raking his face and chest with those terrible spikes. Bosse, greatest of all the log drivers in the Northeast, had a trick of coming at an enemy while turning a handspring. The other man, bemused at the sight of his charging foe suddenly putting both hands on the floor, usually hadn’t time to recover before Dan’s spiked boots had struck him in some sensitive spot.

The riverman was a hard man to lick. I never heard of one being killed in a fight, though he might lose an eye or have an ear chewed off. Albert Johnson, from Fryeburg, Maine, was known throughout all the North country as “Jigger.” For years he was a woods boss for the lumber company that owned all of northern New Hampshire, and one spring he had charge of the Connecticut River drive when it reached Beecher Falls, where New Hampshire, Vermont, and Canada come together. Here, astride the international boundary, stood the Line House, a notorious drinking place, called a hellhole by righteous citizens but highly favored by rivermen and lumberjacks.

Jigger profanely and explicitly told his crew of forty men to keep away from this bar while he went off to West Stewartstown, a mile below, to scare up more drivers. But it was dark and the men were cold. Heedless of Jigger’s orders, a good many of them dropped their pike poles and peavies and went down to the Line House to tank up. When Jigger came back and found them gone, he knew where to look.

Ever a believer in direct action, he stormed into the big barroom, grabbed the two men nearest the door, and ran them outside, telling them to get back to work. He went back inside, snatched from the wall a short length of peavey handle used by the bouncer in cases of emergency, and waded into the crowd, swinging with all his might. Men fell, men ran outside into the night. Out from a corner came the Line House bouncer, a huge Canuck named La Pointe, who fell onto Jigger, knocking him to the floor. Then La Pointe jumped up and began to kick him with his spiked boots.

Jigger gathered the stamping legs in a bear hug and upended the bouncer onto the barroom stove. Unable to get loose, the unhappy Canuck screamed like a banshee, and the spectators could smell rump steak frying. Paying no heed to La Pointe’s bilingual entreaties to let him go, Jigger held him there for a good minute. Then he jumped back. He reached up and grabbed hold of the big reflector lamp that hung from the ceiling and yanked it out, frame and all. With the whole rigging in his hands, Jigger jumped two feet off the floor and brought the frame down over La Pointe’s head, hanging it around his neck like a ruff. The kerosene started to leak out, and it flared up. Jigger picked up the peavey handle he’d dropped and started for the bouncer, chasing him out into the yard, where someone threw a blanket over the poor man to douse the fire. The pockmarks Jigger got from his opponent’s spiked boots, plus a good many others, he always referred to as “logger’s small-pox.”

The saw log was to the riverman what the horse was to the cowboy—except that the log would take him downstream but wouldn’t take him back up. Instead, long after dark, tired and cold, he had to walk back to camp—slogging his way through the mud and brush, and not infrequently falling into the deep and wide holes that had filled with water when the gates of a dam up above had been opened during the day for sluicing logs. Still in his wet and sodden clothing, he rolled into wet and sodden blankets and slept like a baby, untroubled by the melancholy howls of the wolves and the owls in the surrounding forest.

First of all, the riverman had to know how to ride a log, and that does not mean just standing on it without falling off, or being able to ride it in quiet water. As a matter of fact, riding a log in quiet water and riding it in fast water required two entirely different sets of muscles and reflexes. A journey downstream was a very simple matter: a man merely stepped onto a log, stuck his peavey into it, and leaned on the handle while the current swept him away. If the water was rough, he used the peavey as a balancing pole; and if another log came along to roll his under, he just stepped onto the new log and continued on his way.

To ferry from one side of a stream to another was more difficult. Of course, one could always paddle with a peavey, or push one’s way across with a pike pole, if the water wasn’t too deep. But that was slow and commonplace. If the stream was narrow, the riverman, by means of a violent running jump, landed with both feet on the rear end of the timber. The bow thereupon rose in a flurry of foam, the rear was depressed, and the log was forced violently ahead. At the proper moment, the riverman ran forward to the center. If scattered logs were adrift, he propelled himself across by hooking his peavey into one after another and pulling himself along.

On the river, skill of this sort was presupposed, as skill in horsemanship is taken for granted on the range. Without it a man was useless. And just as a cowboy likes to show off, or compete in a kind of horsemanship that can have no practical application to his trade, so the riverman had his little tricks. Some Bangor Tigers—as Penobscot River drivers were called —would do a handstand on a peavey stuck into a floating log; others could perform a somersault; most any of them could lie down on his log while floating with the current. A riverman has been known to float twelve miles down a stream on a piece of timber he could pick up and carry across his shoulders. Dan Bosse could go out on a big four-foot stick of pulp wood and play with it until he had it standing on end in the water, and then stand on top of it.

A favorite amusement of the riverman was logrolling, or “birling.” Two men got on the same log and each tried to throw the other into the river without touching him in any way. If one was much superior to the other, he did this quite simply by rotating the log faster and faster until the other man could no longer keep pace. But when the opponents were evenly matched, more strategy was employed. The log whirled one way, stopped abruptly, started rolling the other way, checked again, blurred into foam, and suddenly stopped moving entirely. Contests like this are still engaged in by professional birlers at woodsmen’s jubilees, but they would look rather wan and pale if pitted against some of the old-time river hogs.

Not only strength and agility were essential to a riverman, but also a special kind of instantaneous decision and response. In the spring of 1915, the Berlin Mills Company was driving the Little Magalloway River, a tributary of the Androscoggin. A foreman named George Anderson had a crew of fifty or sixty men up there breaking out rollways, rolling the logs down into the river over a steep bank ten or twelve feet high. The water was high and fast, of course, but below one rollway was an eddy that kept the logs inshore instead of letting them float down with the current. They were piling up pretty deep there, so George told the crew to wait while he took two men and went down to pole them out into midstream.

They were working away and had got them fairly well cleared out when the men on the bank let out a yell. Anderson and his companions looked up and saw that all the logs on that rollway had got loose and were starting to come down on top of them. They turned and ran, over the floating logs, for the middle of the river. The two others made it safely, but it looked as if George wouldn’t.

On his first jump he landed on his left foot on a big spruce, but before he could bring up his right foot, another log bobbed out of the water and caught it between the two logs. He stuck his peavey into the log and pulled for all he was worth, but his foot was stuck there as if in a bear trap. The logs from the rollway had just got to the edge of the bank, and it seemed that old George’s time had come. Just then a miracle happened, or at least a good example of what I mean by instantaneous decision and response. Dan Bosse was working up on that rollway, and the instant he saw the fix George was in—even before the logs came thundering down off the skids—he ran to the bank, jumped ten feet straight down, and landed on the log that had trapped George, forcing one end of it deep into the water. George’s foot was free then, and he sailed clear one second before that rollway landed where he had been standing, filling the river ten feet deep with logs. Dan was right behind him on the same big spruce.

Another stirring incident that illustrates the riverman’s quickness took place at Upper Dam, which is below Mooselookmeguntic Lake, one of the Rangeleys. Ten boom sticks—the logs used to encircle a boom or log enclosure—held together by toggle chains had been carefully worked around lengthwise into the current above the dam, to be sluiced through for use below. The boat’s crew doing the work rowed hard to straighten out the boom before the powerful suction at the gate seized the forward end and pulled the line through with the speed of an express train. The last few logs, however, drew in upon one side of a narrow platform built as a V-shaped guide for the logs going through the sluice. Upon this platform four men were standing with pike poles to keep the logs running and straightened out. Suddenly a stray branch of dead wood caught between the toggle chains of the running boom, twisted out of the water, and swept down upon the men about knee-high. There was not a second for reflection; to be thrown into the whirling maelstrom that sucked through the gates meant death. The first man saw the danger, gave a cry of warning, turned and hurdled the flying stick, and came down catlike in his place. Instinctively, each of the others in succession did the same, no one losing his balance, and all landing rightside up and unhurt.

All these qualities of balance, judgment, and quickness, plus endurance and physical strength, constituted the essential equipment of even the least expert man who would go on drive. But there was, in addition, a deep “log sense” that came only with experience, and to some men more than to others. The tendencies of currents, the effect of the water’s volume and swiftness, the places where jams are likely to form and why, how to avoid pile-ups, where they would break, the probable situation of the key log, rollway-breaking, dam-running, and a thousand other technical details—a knowledge of all these things marked the riverman who rose to the top of his profession.

Many people who saw the riverman only at his worst moments—in town, after the drive was in, unkempt, drunk, roaring and fighting—forgot that those moments of violent relaxation constituted only three weeks out of fifty-two in the man’s hard year. Most townspeople thought he must be weak in the head. That was not true. Many log-drivers did blow their hard-earned pay on wild sprees, but many more pocketed their wages and quietly went home to some New England farm to help with the haying. I have known others who went to Boston or Portland and spent the summer studying. Fred Noad, who started out carrying a cant dog (peavey) on his back like any ordinary riverman, ended up as Deputy Minister of Lands and Forests for Ontario. George Van Dyke, from the same start, became the wealthiest man in New Hampshire.

There aren’t any rivermen any more, and it is nice to know that a modern lumberjack is far better off economically than the old-time riverman ever was. But as Ernest Martin Hopkins, the late president emeritus of Dartmouth College, wrote to me, “I know he is a damned sight less interesting!”

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