June 19, 2018
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‘Death hovered near’ on Penobscot

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN


50,000 feet of Logs From East Branch Reach Boom


West Branch Logs Here in a Month

This four-tier headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial a century ago announced the arrival of the important log drive from the East Branch of the Penobscot River. Low water had threatened the drive’s progress earlier in the spring. The drive from the West Branch of the river would be coming in about a month.

The log drives had once been the very lifeblood of the Queen City of the East. They were still important, but not nearly as much as when Bangor had been the lumber capital of the world in the late 1860s and 1870s. Now many logs went to pulp and paper mills farther upriver, and much of the lumber, sawed in portable mills near where the logs were cut, traveled by train around Bangor to Searsport, where the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad had built a port. There were still some local mills, however, employing hundreds of workers that depended on the drives, although nothing like in the old days.

The newspaper described this latest chapter in the annual logging epic in two stories a century ago on July 15 and 16, 1910. “The rear end of the East Branch drive came rollicking down the river into the Penobscot boom Friday and from now until the steam mills close along the latter part of October, there will be no danger of a scarcity of logs.” The “front end” of the drive had arrived three weeks ago.

The East Branch logs had left the dam at Grand Lake on June 19, making “excellent time” despite head winds. John E. Kelley of Bangor was in charge. The “old-time rivermen” were saying the drive had never been done better. Experienced drivers had been plentiful, and there were fewer accidents than usual.

The booms were the places where the river drivers stored the logs until they could be sorted for owners. “All three of the sorting gaps at the booms, the Nebraska, Argyle and Pea Cove, are now well filled with timber. And when the West Branch logs come in a month hence, there will be but little room there to spare,” said the Commercial. Rafts of logs were already going downriver from the booms to feed the hungry mills around Bangor.

Part of the excitement for Bangor was the arrival of the river drivers in town. They were expected to appear that night or on Saturday. “Their arrival doesn’t cause the excitement along Exchange Street that it once did, however, and the police are not planning for anything very strenuous this year,” the newspaper announced in a dispirited sort of way. The loggers’ antics always produced good copy.

The entire crew of 135 men were paid off in Old Town that night. Some of them immediately headed back up the river for the West Branch drive “and others will pull out for the poplar camps and bark peeling operations.” But dozens of them arrived in the Queen City. “Many of them had $200 or $300 each and will stay in town until the last red cent is spent or stolen. Dozens of them bought new outfits at the clothing stores,” the newspaper reported.

Every drive produced its tales of adventure and death, and this drive was no exception. As the Commercial put it on July 16 in its second-day account, DEATH HOVERED NEAR. The story of Tommy Knowles had already reached ballad status, as reported by the newspaper.

“The devil he called — for Tommy Knowles,

Above the Stair Falls roar;

But the standing luck of the East Branch drive

Brought Tommy safe to shore”

Stair Falls was one of the legendary spots on the East Branch drive, “eight miles this side of Grand Lake.” That was where the first serious trouble was encountered. “The falls are from 10 to 15 feet in height and the timber was piled up wickedly by the raging white plumed torrent which races over them,” said the Commercial. Kelley sent two daredevil rivermen out in a bateau directly under the overhanging mass of trapped logs, “which towered over them.” In a few minutes these two heroes had placed some dynamite and lit the fuse. The log jam was broken up with a tremendous roar and a shower of shattered timber.

Now it was time for Tommy and a second man, a fire warden who goes unnamed, to face death. They lurched over the raging falls in “a wagon raft” that soon swamped. The fire warden got to shore quickly, but Knowles was seen swirling around in the whirlpool, bobbing up and down, for five minutes. Finally, the shifting current set him free and he made land, exhausted and nearly drowned.

The Commercial’s reporter caught up with Tommy somewhere along the Bangor waterfront. “Tommy has been on the river for more years than he cares to remember, but he came nearer to death this season than ever before.” Said Tommy, “It was just luck and nothing else” that he survived.

Knowles had been luckier than Joe Parrish, a cook. Parrish drowned a few days later “at Monument Line above Whetstone” when his canoe capsized. He was returning from calling in an order for some supplies on the woods telephone strung along the bank on the opposite side of the river. “This was the only fatality on the East Branch drive this season,” noted 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 wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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