MAINE RIVER DRIVERS TO THE CONNECTICUT,” said a headline in the Bangor Daily News on March 30, 1910. The story in the newspaper that morning told an old tale well encrusted in legend: “Three [train] carloads of woodsmen, Maine river drivers, justly famous as the best in the world, were shipped from Bangor on No. 8, leaving here at 12:45 a.m. Wednesday.”
There were 125 men in all. They were going to North Stratford in northern New Hampshire on the Vermont border to drive logs on the Connecticut River for the Connecticut Valley Lumber Co. The W.A. Bragg employment agency on Exchange Street planned to send another crew on Thursday. “This will be one of the largest drives ever sent down the river,” the story said.
Bangor had a long tradition of supplying men to work on the Connecticut River drives (and on other out-of-state river drives), where they were sometimes called Bangor Tigers. The practice, however, was coming to an end. “There was a time when the best river drivers went to the Connecticut, preferring the long drive; but of late years they have been staying on the Maine rivers, finding, or claiming to find, that they were better off in the end and were better cared for,” said a piece in the Bangor Daily Commercial on April 4. “The Connecticut River still draws many drivers from Maine, but it is said that they are for the most part the young rovers who want to go to a new section of the country for a year or so.”
The most famous of the Connecticut River drives, according to David C. Smith in his history book on Maine lumbering, occurred in 1876 when famed Bangor lumberman John Ross was hired to manage the difficult undertaking, consisting of his own logs and those of other operators.
For many years, Ross was in charge of the West Branch drive on the Penobscot, the most important log drive in eastern Maine. He has been described by various people as “unquestionably the most famous river man who ever lived,” a “genius” and “King of the River” (not to be confused with William Conners, the man the newspapers nicknamed The Log King of the Penobscot). Fanny Hardy Eckstorm immortalized Ross in her book “The Penobscot Man.” Despite all this, I have yet to find a biography of him, even a short sketch to flesh out all the colorful anecdotes.
Ross and his partner, along with a Hartford, Conn., company, had “taken stumpage” and bought land to the amount of 111,000 acres on the headwaters of the Connecticut, according to Smith’s account of the 1876 drive. He employed 30 teams and 50 men from Bangor as well as men from New Hampshire to do the cutting. The plan was to drive the logs to Hartford, boom them, raft them and tow the rafts by tugboat to a rented sawmill.
“By the 17th of April men had begun to leave Bangor to work on the drive, 70 drivers going out to work in the first crew. The Connecticut was low and the 320 miles to Hartford were long and arduous. Ross, who had the drive, took 5 million feet to Bellows Falls, Vt., and 5 million more for Holyoke, Mass., mills, in addition to his own logs. With a few other smaller drives the total in the river was 20 million feet. The first drives arrived in the Hartford booms about September 1, and the second rear, or 750,000 feet, went by Springfield, Mass. on September 19,” Smith relates.
This expedition created quite a stir along the river. It took 150 drivers from Bangor and 18 Indians from Old Town to handle the batteaux. It took dynamite blasting to open up the channel because of low water, and it took deft maneuvering through twisting rapids as well. An estimated 20,000 people all along the river visited the camps to watch the drama. They helped spread the legend of Bangor’s woodsmen. Meanwhile, gamblers in Hartford were laying odds of 5 to 1 that the Bangor Tigers would fail.
How many of the men recruited in Bangor to work on the Connecticut on that day in March of 1910, many years after this legendary event, were aware they were living out the end of the legend? How many had even heard of John Ross, by then an old man, or of Bangor Tigers — an expression that wasn’t used locally? One can only wonder today.
The last Connecticut River drive ended “in a burst of glory” in the spring of 1915, according to another author, Robert E. Pike, in his book “Tall Trees, Tough Men.” Everybody wanted to be part of that last drive. “It was the last chance for the young men to carve their names on the North Country totem pole of glory … while the old timers wanted to give it one more whirl.” Pike’s colorful account says, “Bangor Tigers came all the way from Old Town, and some of the old ones among them had been with John Ross in 1876.”
By then John Ross had been dead for two years. The Bangor Daily News had declared in his obituary, “For more than half a century, Mr. Ross was unquestionably the most prominent and successful lumberman on the Penobscot waters where his land holdings and business interests were extensive and important.” He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery up on a hill near the Cassidys and William Conners, and some of the other men who helped make Bangor the lumber capital of the world.
Thanks to Pauleena MacDougall of the Maine Folklife Center for pointing me to a photograph of John Ross. Comments about this column may be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.