“RIVER DRIVERS NOW,” proclaimed a headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial on April 4, 1910. It declared, “Thousands of Men Will Soon Be at Work on Maine Rivers and Streams; Crews Going Up Now.” The annual spring migration back to the woods through Bangor had begun. The impact on the Queen City of the East back in those days when logs and schooners competed for space in the harbor was tremendous.
After the logs were cut and moved to the sides of streams and rivers during the winter in Maine’s North Woods, hundreds of loggers headed for the Queen City to hole up in boardinghouses and to spend their money on bootleg liquor, women and perhaps a new set of clothes. When the ice cleared out in the spring, many of them returned to the woods to work on the drives.
River drivers were the most skilled — and the most romanticized — of all the woodsmen.
They were “the knights of the cant-dog,” proclaimed one bard. Employment ads sometimes offered them “Klondike wages.” Only the best men were hired. The job was dangerous. And as the reporter for the Commercial on that April day a century ago concluded, life on the skids in Bangor waiting for the drives to begin was a bit less enticing than the image conveyed in story and song.
“During April, May and June between 3,000 and 4,000 men will be engaged in bringing the logs down the rivers and streams of eastern Maine and most of them will be [hired] in Bangor and shipped from this city to the points where the drives start,” said the Commercial reporter. “Almost every day now crews are seen leaving the Union Station, and the men who have been at work in the woods all winter and who have had a little breathing spell in town, are off again to bring the logs down to the booms. Monday morning 75 men left for Moosehead Lake and this is a small shipment compared to some that will be made this week.”
The author of this detailed story offered a list of places where the crews were going that spring. E. Sawyer Jr. had started his drives at Katahdin Iron Works that morning, while the men for the drives around Enfield and Costigan belonging to L.J. Butterfield had also left on the train. By the end of the next week almost all the drives in Maine waters would begin. “On the North and South branches of the West branch [of the Penobscot River] about 500 men are employed. On Russell stream, 200; Elm stream, 75; Scott brook, 100; Ragged
Stream, 150; Farrar brook, 10; Lobster lake, 50; Cuxabexis, 50; Chamberlain lake, 100; Harrington brook, 100; Sourdahunk, 100; Trout brook, 200; Hay brook, 200; Little Sebois, 100; Thorn brook, 150; the McNulty drives, 400; Sawyer drives, 150; Pleasant River Lumber Co., 50.
“These are not all but they show in part something of the way in which the driving crews are distributed,” wrote the reporter. Left unsaid was his expectation that the reader would know the location of all these backwoods water corridors as well as the names McNulty, Sawyer and the other lumbermen who played such an important role in the area’s economy.
Besides Maine natives, many Canadians would be joining the drives. “It is expected that within the next day or two many good river drivers will come into Bangor from the maritime provinces of Canada,” said the Commercial reporter. “They might find employment on the rivers at home, but the drives are shorter there, and all things considered they believe they are better off in Maine.”
In the same vein, dozens of Bangor men — mostly “young rovers” — were off to the drives on the Connecticut River and other watery thoroughfares out of state where they imagined they would find a bit of adventure and perhaps better pay and working conditions.
Most of the men hanging around Bangor were broke by now. “The men are transported to their work at the expense of the employer, and according to some of the drivers interviewed Monday most of them have not one cent to their names when they go to the drives, although they have recently come out of the woods with a considerable bank roll,” wrote the reporter.
If the men had no caulk-sole boots, the company provided them at $5 or $6 a pair, but not before they had been on the job for a day or two so they wouldn’t be tempted to quit work before the boots were put to use on slippery logs. Some springs the agencies were bothered by “skippers,” who jumped off the trains before they arrived in camp, taking whatever the employer had provided with them.
With its trains and harbor and its active economy, the Queen City was an employment hub and a hobo haven that attracted many immigrants flooding in from Europe as well as farm boys and girls looking for city jobs. The presence of so many transients — especially sailors and construction workers as well as loggers — had a great impact. Reformers were trying to get officials to enforce liquor and prostitution laws and to shut down boarding houses where immoral activity was conducted. The Salvation Army was trying to raise enough money to build a workingmen’s hotel for men who were broke, or who wanted a bed and some Christian fellowship.
“The cheaper boarding houses of the city are now filled to their capacity with the returned woodsmen waiting the opportunity to go on the drive. Many of the men now waiting are out of funds and … spend the nights in any out of the way corner they can find, and it is not unusual to find a dozen or more of them snuggled down in a corner of an old shed,” reported the Commercial.
How enjoyable was this life? “Their life is unique, the life of these carefree, responsibility-shunning woodsmen and river drivers … . That they are ready and willing to work is evident to one who steps to the entrance of one of the large [employment] agencies and finds the place so filled with humanity that he meets difficulty in squeezing through from the door to the desk at the rear. It is evident enough to the observer, that the existence of the hero of the many Maine river songs is not an ultra poetic existence after all,” concluded the reporter.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.