In the vanished days of log drives, the riverman was the most special of the special breed of men who logged the great north woods of New England.
His work was hard and dangerous and it paid little, but he did it with a courage and a pride that were a vital part of his life. He worked 14-hour days in icy water, slept in wet blankets, ate plain food and constantly risked his life. Some blew a season’s pay on a long, wild bender after the river drives were over.
The riverman’s job was to guide the logs from piles along the river to the sawmills of northern New England. He rolled and pried and dragged the heavy, slippery logs over rocks and ledges and away from the riverbanks into the current. He heaved and poked with pike pole and peavey to dislodge log jams sometimes so vast they lasted two years.
Rivermen had to start early learning the specialized skills required of the job: to ride a log; to move quickly; to anticipate the logs’ behavior. They had to handle a bateau, a heavy, flat-bottomed boat with flared sides men used to carry gear and to clean out snagged logs.
More rivermen died in capsized bateaux than any other way, but they could also get crushed in an avalanche of loose logs. Or they could get sucked into the river through an open sluice gate. They wore boots with 63 spikes from a quarter inch to three-quarters inch long. If a riverman was killed on the river, his friends would nail his boots to a tree where they found his body.
According to an old logging story, a Hollywood movie outfit came to Maine to film an epic about logging. They heard the rivermen would ride logs through sluiceways along the Kennebec River. Spider Ellis was offered $5 to risk his life to ride a log through the sluiceway. He did it without falling off.
Then the movie outfit offered Ellis $10 — four days’ pay — to ride through and fall off in the white water. He took the dangerous ride, but didn’t fall off. When asked why, he said, “I’ve never fallen off in my life. I find I just can’t fall off one for less than $25.”
The best of the rivermen worked the Penobscot River. They knew they were the best. Known as the Bangor Tigers, they earned top wages throughout New England and later out west.
Until they died out in the mid-20th century, log drives on New England’s spring freshets were a popular spectator sport. Crowds gathered at bridges and dams to watch downed forests of logs quietly float down the river. The local newspapers reported the drives, especially when the rivermen finished the spring drives and got into trouble carousing around the towns.
Woodsville, N.H., was a favorite haven for the rivermen. On May 12, 1899, the Woodsville News reported:
Judge Dow is doing a very good business at his stand. Two more cases of drunkenness and one of assault were brought before him Saturday. But this is the unusually busy season anyway.
In colonial times, men floated logs down the rivers of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont for shipments back to England for the king’s masts. Over the centuries many millions of spruce logs were driven from the remote north woods to sawmills along the the Kennebec, the White River, the Androscoggin, the Penobscot, the Saco, the St. John, the Ammonoosuc and the Wild Ammonoosuc.
Long Log Drives
From 1870 to 1915, rivermen drove logs 300 miles down the Connecticut River to Massachusetts sawmills. As the longest, toughest drive in New England, it earned the name ‘the Long Drive.’
Long log drives disappeared, but the paper companies continued to drive four-foot pulpwood logs down the rivers. The Machias River ran log drives longer than any other river, until 1965. In 1976, the Maine Legislature banned drives because they polluted the rivers.
Generally, wagons drawn by eight horses each arrived to select a campsite for the rivermen and to buy milk, eggs, food and hay. The kids from the village would help dig the beanhole and then hang around the cook tent, where the cook gave them immense sugar cookies and gingersnaps. “They would fairly worship him,” wrote Pike.
One spring the logs came before the wagon. A man who happened to drive past the schoolhouse told the children about the coming log drive. The teacher knew there’d be no more work done that day, and dismissed the students. Wrote Pike:
…we went racing down to the bridge. Sure enough, the logs were coming, not many yet, but steadily growing thicker and thicker, rubbing and nosing softly against each other as the swift current urged them on.
Watching the Drive
The boys watched until supper, fascinated by the army of wood. After supper they returned with their parents. They all lined the bridge with people who had come to see.
Presently, as we stood there leaning on the plank railing, with the cool breeze rising from the river and the sun setting behind us, from upstream around a bend a solitary riverman came straight into the red beams of the dying sun. His peavey point was stuck into the big log on which he rode, and both his hands were clasped around the top of the heavy handle. Seemingly oblivious to the slippery, unstable quality of his steed, poised in a splendid attitude of indifference to the many admiring eyes he knew were fixed upon him, he came whirling down the river, the twenty-foot spruce surging and lunging through the white water. By a miracle of good luck the log avoided all the rocks and the upright riverman swept grandly beneath us, so that we got a good view of him.
Pike described the sweaty suspenders crossed over a red woolen shirt. He had heavy black trousers ‘stagged off about the tops of his spiked boots.’ He wore a torn, gray felt hat that revealed his eyes
…watchful as any cat’s, and by the look in his eyes and by the little bend in his knees we knew that while he appeared so nonchalant as he leaned there upon his peavey-handle, he was tensely alert. We almost wished that his log would strike a rock, so we might see what he would do, but really we were glad that it did not. So he went on, the vanguard of the drive, and disappeared in the fading light.
With thanks to Tall Trees, Tough Men, by Robert Pike. This story was updated in 2022.