The legend of Joe Mckiel and Cunliffe Depot

Posted May 14, 2014, at 1:21 p.m.
A steam-powered Lombard log-hauler helped revolutionize logging in the Allagash region.
Kale O'Leary | Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands
A steam-powered Lombard log-hauler helped revolutionize logging in the Allagash region.

The Allagash River has long been synonymous with the rich lumbering history of the great state of Maine. Over the years, many interesting personalities have laid a claim to or left their mark on the Allagash. They still remain in the form of place names, artifacts or just as stories shared from generation to generation. Unbelievable courage, determination and hard work changed the course of history along the Allagash River forever. If you listen and look carefully while canoeing down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, you will find remnants, remains and artifacts that are lasting reminders from the golden age of logging in the Allagash.

The Allagash River and the virgin timber resources along its shores remained an untapped natural resource until the late 1800s, when softwood logs were in high demand at lumber mills in Bangor and Van Buren. The promise of big money and fortune for anyone who could deliver these logs to market was enough for men to brave its extreme winters and remote location. Determination, ingenuity and hard work are only a few of the words you could use to describe the men who transformed Maine’s working forests of the early 1900s. Men like Eduaord “King” LaCroix, William Cunliffe, J.T Michaud and A.O. Lombard were up to the task.

LaCroix was a well-known figure and his legacy lives on in countless books and publications about the history of logging in Maine. However, there is not much in the way of recorded history on the other lumber barons who set up along the Allagash River to seek fortunes in the Maine woods. Their contributions are just as important and meaningful to what the Allagash would become and the lure that surrounds it today.

Cunliffe settled on the banks of the Allagash River in the late 1800s and ran his logging operation there until the 1930s. His base camp was only two miles upriver from Michaud Farm. His camps, called Cunliffe Depot, sat along the east shore of the river, atop a high bank. An AWW campsite is located at this site today. Cunliffe Depot housed the men that worked in the woods throughout the fall and winter seasons. The men cut trees with axes and crosscut saws, then hauled the logs out onto the ice by horse. This harvest method continued until the arrival of a new groundbreaking invention.

In 1903, Lombard invented a state-of-the-art technology that would transform the lumbering industry of the day. Lombard invented steam-driven track technology, which he would use to power his Lombard Log Hauler. The log hauler was an expensive, groundbreaking invention that had an astounding 100 horsepower rating. The Lombard factory developed a strong reputation in Canada and on the Allagash selling many of these haulers to lumbermen.

During peak production, Lombard employed 22 men at his Waterville factory. He would eventually develop a gasoline-powered, 6-cylinder model which was sold until the company was bought out in the late 1930s. One of the gas-powered log haulers and a steam hauler remain today, like cast-iron ghosts from days long ago. They are located just upstream from Cunliffe Depot campsite. Both machines are more than 100 years old, and were left at their present location when Cunliffe Depot was abandoned. Lombard’s patents would later be sold to the U.S. military and used to develop the first track-driven tanks.

In the spring, when the ice would break or “run,” the payload of logs that had been stockpiled on the ice would be driven to their final destination, the lumber mill in Van Buren. The annual log drives were a much anticipated event. Logging tools were put away for the winter in favor of bateaux and pick pole. Log driving was an extremely risky job; the task was to keep the logs moving steadily downriver. Men would be stationed at certain bends in the river with pick poles to keep the logs moving. In the event of a log jam, the river drivers would work feverishly to free things up before the pile of logs got so entangled that dynamite had to be used to get the logs moving again. Many an Allagash lumberjack lost his life on “the drive.”

During the summer months, the lumberjacks who worked at Cunliffe Depot would return home, many to subsistence farming or guiding on the Allagash and St. John rivers. Cunliffe hired a caretaker each year to look after the Depot over the summer. In the summer of 1874, Cunliffe Depot’s caretaker was a big burly Canadian named Joe Mckiel. Joe was said to have worked at the depot for several years prior to his untimely death, most likely of natural causes. My fourth great-grandfather, Daniel O’Leary, frequently traveled upstream to Cunliffe Depot from the Moir Farm to check in on Joe. On one particular occasion, he found the body of big Joe Mckiel.

O’Leary couldn’t find any boards to make big Joe a proper casket. After looking around, O’Leary decided to bury the man in two salt pork barrels. Daniel O’Leary made the makeshift casket by nailing the two barrels together and transporting McKiel’s body in the barrels to the opposite side of the river from Cunliffe Depot. It would be here, under the giant white pines that lined the shoreline, that Joe Mckiel was laid to rest. After some confusion throughout the years as to the exact spot of the grave, a rock headstone with “Joe Mckiel —1874” was erected where it can be found today, at the base of a giant pine across from Cunliffe Depot Campsite.

The gravesite can be reached by entering the North Maine Woods via the Allagash checkpoint. You can drive to Michaud Farm in about 30 minutes from the town of Allagash. Six miles in, on the “Old Farm Road,” you will arrive at historic Michaud Farm. Many pictures and artifacts are on display at the Michaud Farm Ranger Station through the operational season — May through October. A short drive past the ranger station will bring you to Ramsay Ledge Campsite. From there, it is a short quarter-mile hike to the gravesite of Joe Mckiel. Watch closely on the left side of the old road for a small clearing and well-worn trail that will lead you to the headstone.

During October, if you look closely in the water along the shore in front of Joe Mckiel’s gravestone, you will see hundreds of native brook trout spawning in the gravel bottom of the river. These are two amazing sights that you will never forget.

The Allagash region’s long and colorful logging history, featuring men with heart, will and determination to conquer the vast forests of the early 20th century, echoes through the ages.

Today, the lumbering industry has evolved so far from its early days of log driving and horse teams that I often wonder what William Cunliffe would think if he saw the logging operations of today. No longer do men work all day out in the elements, felling trees with a crosscut saw, sawing up pulpwood with a bucksaw or pulling logs to the yard with horses. In respect for these brave men and their accomplishments, we must make sure their stories are told from generation to generation.

Kale O’Leary is assistant warden of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

 

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