Bangor log driver navigated NYC’s Hell Gate with fanfare

Posted June 06, 2010, at 4:52 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

THROUGH HELL GATE ON A LOG.” That provocative headline appeared in The New York Times a century ago this week. Maine river driver Edward A. Chase was about to run the devilish currents in the East River’s fabled passage between Astoria and uptown Manhattan. Chase could spot a good publicity stunt. Thousands of people were waiting in the rain for his arrival at East River Park at the foot of East 89th Street on the afternoon of June 12, 1910, to see whether a Bangor Tiger would survive the evil Hell Gate or soak his new suit and straw hat in the river.

The story of Ed Chase is contained in snippets in several old newspapers of the day. Lean and wiry with graying hair, Chase used to drive logs on the Penobscot and Piscataquis rivers, said The New York Sun (as reprinted in the Bangor Daily News on June 14). The former Bangorean had gone to New York City to give exhibitions of log driving in Steeplehouse Park at Coney Island. He also worked in a sporting goods store in Brooklyn, where he made a bet with a “press agent” that he could ride a log through the infamous Hell Gate and not get wet.

The Bangor newsmen seemed a bit reluctant to confirm Ed was a Bangor boy. The day before his harrowing stunt, the Bangor Daily News stated, “No one ’round Bangor seems to know Ed, but he’s probably one of the boys who hail from Bangor on general principles.” Hundreds of loggers from distant dominions camped out in the seedy boardinghouses along the waterfront for part of the year and called Bangor home between jobs. Maybe Ed was one of these squatters.

The epic voyage began at a place called Scaly Rock in Astoria up in Queens. Chase found an old log 20 feet long and 16 inches in diameter in a lumberyard. He donned spike boots and grabbed an 8-foot pick pole. Crews from United States Volunteer Life Savings stations along the way agreed to keep an eye on him in a half-dozen launches. The crowds, including a fleet of pleasure boats, were guaranteed by all the press coverage. In fact, there were so many boats following Ed’s progress that The New York Times claimed that even among the swirling eddies he was “as safe as if he had been in the cafe of the Mauritania drinking Scotch.”

The beginning of the trip went well.

“He preserved his balance while jumping about on the log and dexterously using his pick pole now on this side and now on that.”

Then, Chase ran into trouble. Two large dredges were anchored just south of Ward’s Island, on the other side of the river. In trying to keep his log from running into one of these, Chase broke his pole and ended up falling or leaping into the bow of one of the lifeboats following him.

This fateful event put only a momentary damper on the expedition, however. Chase repaired his pole by wrapping rope around it, and leaped back onto the log as it came out from under the dredge or a bit farther down the river, depending on which newspaper account you believe. Chase resumed his journey at a rapid clip unscathed and still dry in the new suit and straw hat one paper claimed he was wearing. The crowds, some members of which hooted at first when they thought he had fallen into the river, forgave him.

Chase had said before the run that he would end his journey at East River Park. Directly east of there, he jumped into a lifeboat and was taken to the Yorkville Life Saving Station at the foot of 89th Street, where “he was surrounded by almost as many admirers as greeted the Abernathy boys [two youngsters who rode their horses across the nation].” He had ridden the log for somewhere between three-quarters of a mile and 1½ miles, according to various estimates. He admitted the trip had been a hard one because of crosscurrents. He apologized for jumping off the log, blaming his broken pole.

Exactly how difficult was this much-ballyhooed trip compared with the dangers faced by your average Maine river driver on a daily basis?

“It was difficult, but I have gone through much worse places,” Chase told The New York Times and The New York Sun. “Squaw Falls in the Penobscot in Maine for instance is about as bad as anything could be. There are sheer drops of four feet, to say nothing of rocks everywhere. Hell Gate is pretty easy for a man who can stand on a log in a river like that.” (The New York World located the difficult falls in the Piscataquis River.)

Even before the stunt, some wise old editor at the Bangor Daily News had questioned whether Hell Gate was much of an obstacle for a seasoned log driver. “Hell Gate may be something of a place, but there’s some rips and rapids up river where the water runs ‘like the mill-tail of hell,’ so the river drivers say.’” “Up-river,” of course, referred to the Penobscot and its tributaries.

My trusty Wikipedia also raises some questions about the perils Chase faced: “Though Hell Gate is still considered difficult to navigate due to strong tidal flows, its reputation is based on myth more than fact. … Even at peak current, competent kayakers and canoeists pass through without trouble.” It doesn’t mention logs.

I don’t know what other strange directions Ed Chase’s career took after this adventure. Perhaps we should give him credit for being the genius who first made the connection between logging and showbiz. But it is not clear from the various newspaper accounts whether he actually performed at Coney Island or he was just thinking about it. For at least a while, however, we can assume he was known as the man who had been through Hell Gate and back and survived to tell about it.

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 may be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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