“MAINE LOG DRIVERS BRAVE DEATH DAILY,” declared a large headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 6, 1910. The West Branch Drive was now well past Millinocket on its way to the Penobscot Boom above Old Town, where logs were sorted for the downriver mills. A reporter sent into the woods to see how the “knights of the cantdog” were faring found “SCENES OF RECKLESS DARING.”
The breathless headline writer topped the story with these words: “The River Has Taken Its Toll of Lives This Season and Many Others Have Hairbreadth Escapes — The Romance of the Penobscot.” Death and romance — what better formula to draw readers!
Despite the dime-novel flavor (the author compares river drivers to cowboys), most of what was written was accurate. Many of these river drivers were from the Bangor area. Everyone knew or was related to someone who knew what went on in the woods and on the drives. The newspaper had very little leeway in stretching the details: “[T]he lives which many of them have lived would furnish material for a score of romances,” the reporter wrote.” That’s the way it seemed to many.
“From the time the logs leave the landings on the small streams way up in the woods above Chesuncook, until they reach the boom, there is constant danger to life and limb on the part of the river drivers. For weeks they daily run the risk of drowning or of death from the grinding masses of timber which pile up upon rocks and obstructions in the river like piles of straws against a barn door,” wrote the scribe. “They are a daring lot — these stalwart, nimble, wind-tanned rivermen — and they think nothing of taking chances which the average man would regard as sheer madness. Frequently they pay for their daring with their lives.”
The river drivers enjoyed taking risks. One could die a legend. “They vie with one another in acts of daring and, unless the bosses were constantly on the lookout and ordered them back, the list of dead and injured would at least be doubled. It is a sort of game — this flirting with death — which most of them delight in playing,” wrote the Commercial’s man. Examples followed.
In the middle of May four men were dumped into the roll dam at Seboomook Falls. “Only two of them came out alive,” recounted the reporter. However, most of his stories were about daring escapes from impossible circumstances — the kind of stories most people prefer.
The reporter described the epic struggle to safety through roiling rapids of G.L.C. Andrews, a paymaster, Harry Lavers, who was in charge of the telephone lines along the river, and Bill Peters, their expert canoeist. They were upset when logs broke out of a jam three miles above Pittston Farm.
The reporter told about Allie Price’s miraculous escape from death at North Twin Dam. Price lost his balance and fell into the sluiceway of the dam where water was “roaring through at the speed of an express train.” He was swept down the rapids and under the railroad bridge, bobbing up and under the water, until he finally reached a calm stretch and was able to swim ashore.
One river driver trying to dislodge some ice with dynamite was blown 10 or 15 feet into the air. He fell back into the hole he had blasted, and his fellows were able to fish him out none the worse for wear (after spending a week in the hospital). That same season, however, another man at Pollywog Stream on Namhakanta was trying to plant a charge of dynamite to break up a 20-foot-high logjam when the key log gave way, crushing him to death.
The drive came in that August, and in September men started heading back into the woods to start the logging cycle all over again. Bangor employment agencies were supplying 1,000 men a week to the lumber camps, the Commercial reported on Sept. 26. Then, a month later, the migration was about over along with the demand for men, the paper said on Oct. 26.
Accidents in the woods in winter were not uncommon. Falling trees, broken lines and slippery axes took their toll. For the most part, however, if they were reported at all, these events were seldom discussed with the same romantic ring as those that happened while driving on the river.
On March 6, 1911, a century ago this week, the Bangor Daily News reported one of the most spectacular logging accidents ever at the top of its front page. Born of carelessness with perhaps a bit of the liquor that haunted many of the camps, the circumstances were bleak and unromantic.
FIRE, EXPLOSION AND DEATH IN LUMBER CAMP, said a giant headline. “Miraculous Escape of McKeen’s Logging Crew on Great Works Stream — Louis A. Summer [Sumner] of Amherst Killed by Flying Log.”
Another man was injured, and 15 men barely escaped. They “tumbled out of their bunks, fought their way through the flames and smoke to the open air, not a second too soon to escape a terrific explosion of kerosene and dynamite, which blew the camp to splinters. That the entire crew was not wiped out was a miracle.”
Reuel McKeen of East Eddington was a contractor for Morse & Co. of Bangor and other firms that sawed lumber. Everyone had escaped the inferno around 4 a.m., but Sumner was struck by a flying log in the explosion.
The blast occurred when the fire reached a barrel of kerosene, setting off three sticks of dynamite. “The destruction of the camp was complete — supplies, gear, records, clothing and everything was lost,” reported the newspaper. “The hovel where the horses were kept was intact, the teams were harnessed to the sleds and the half-clad men reached another camp, two miles away, owned by Mr. McKeen, badly chilled.” Once again, death and “romance” had taken their toll in the Maine woods.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org