For as long as I can count my blessings, foremost will be my birth certificate bearing the state of Maine seal. Yet I often wish I’d taken my first breath about 100 years earlier. Not only to have partaken of the hunting and fishing that established this state as a sportsman’s paradise, but also to have witnessed the storied 1800s logging era that made Bangor the lumber capital of the world.
Tagging along with a timber cruiser selecting stands of pine to be cut would have been memorable to say the least. Likewise, the rhythmical chunking of axes and sighing of crosscut saws as the trees were toppled with unerring accuracy. Not to mention the rattling of horse-drawn sleds and shouting of teamsters as logs were hauled to riverside landings called rollways. Come springtime and ice-out, the stacked logs were rolled into the rivers, thus starting the arduous drives chronicled in stories, songs and definitive books such as, “Tall Trees, Tough Men,” by the late Robert E. Pike.
Though cooks and cookees, blacksmiths, scalers and watchdog camp clerks were integral to logging operations, river drivers were certainly the most symbolic. And for good reason: their toughness and willingness to risk their lives wrestling logs on freshet-swollen rivers must have been something to see. Imagine them wading hip-deep to remove snags that might cause jams. Think about them picking and breaking a massive jam; and when it “hauled,” as they said, picture them scrambling like squirrels in do-or-die dashes to the shores. Suffice it to say that falling into the unforgiving crush of logs and current resulted in immediate death. Accordingly, the sites of such tragedies were marked by nailing the deceased’s calked boots to a tree, while the drive continued without pause. Obviously, river drivers weren’t bashful about baiting fate — like running a bateau over a falls or through a whitewater gorge, for example, just to see if they could do it.
And so it went into the 1900s, when woods roads and logging trucks replaced the river drives that annually brought hundreds of millions of board feet of lumber to sorting booms and saw mills on Maine’s major rivers. Not surprisingly, the Penobscot was the most acclaimed of that wild and woolly era that wrote the early chapters of Bangor’s colorful history. Nor is it surprising that those chapters typically ended in barrooms, flop houses and other houses where swaggering river drivers left their paltry pay after bringing down the drives.
Tom Hennessey’s columns and artwork can be viewed at bangordailynews.com. Tom’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.