September 22, 2019
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Log drives employed thousands a century ago

Courtesy of Bangor Public Library
Courtesy of Bangor Public Library
Log drivers on the Penobscot

Even though the Queen City no longer was the “principal lumber depot on this continent,” as Thoreau famously put it in 1846, Bangor still was a “star on the edge of the night” for thousands of men seeking jobs a century ago.

After the ice left the Penobscot each spring, two major events attracted attention around Bangor. One was the startup of the sawmills. The other was the beginning of the log drives that supplied the voracious mills.

“Sawing on the Penobscot will begin today, when the Sterns Lumber Co. will start its mills at East Hampden with the usual crew,” the Bangor Daily Commercial announced April 19, 1915. “The Sterns company has about 1,500,000 feet of logs in its pond and on the shores near the mill, or enough for four or five weeks sawing.”

When those logs were gone, more logs would be acquired from the Penobscot Boom, north of Old Town, where logs were stored from drives the year before.

Meanwhile, lumber shipments already were underway, now that the ice was out of the river. “The schooner Gilbert Stancliff is loading at the Sterns mills for Boston, and the bay coasters Itasca, William C. Pendleton and Inez also are loading there,” the reporter wrote.

Also included in this story were the plans of several other Bangor-area mills: Morse & Co., located on the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor, and the Bangor Lumber Co. and the Eastern Manufacturing Co. in South Brewer.

The list was getting shorter every year. Where once, back in Thoreau’s day, there were 200 sawmills stretched along the river between Hampden and Old Town, according to Paul E. Rivard in his book “Maine Sawmills: A History,” today there were just a handful.

The Commercial’s reporter named two other mills that would not be sawing lumber this year. “There is no prospect that either the Dirigo mill in Brewer or that of McNulty, Pierce & Townsend, formerly the Engel mill, at East Hampden, will be operated.”

Morse & Co. would begin operations Tuesday with a full crew, planning to saw about 10 million feet of “largely hemlock” that season.

The other two mills mentioned, however, were on hold for a few weeks. The Bangor Lumber Co. was delayed because of the strong Penobscot River current, which was making it difficult to tow logs it had bought from small logging operators downriver for early sawing. Its saws probably wouldn’t start until logs were available from upriver.

The Eastern Manufacturing Co. would be delayed until mid-May because it had chartered some of its schooners to haul lumber from Nova Scotia to New York.

Meanwhile, operations had begun at Pea Cove, part of the aforementioned Penobscot Boom, where about 20 million feet of last year’s logs were to be rafted and brought down to the local sawmills. Pea Cove Boom was located behind Orson Island just above Old Town where the Penobscot splits into two channels, according to David C. Smith in his book “History of Lumbering in Maine, 1861-1960.”

William Conners Jr., who had the rafting contract for the Bangor Boom, which kept the mills in Bangor, Brewer and Hampden supplied with logs, would be bringing them down. Conners’ father had the same contract for many years. One of the papers called him the “Log King of the Penobscot” when he retired a few years ago.

A few days later, on April 22, another Commercial story marked the beginning of the drives that would bring the new logs cut in the winter to the saw and paper mills up and down the river. There had been little snow that winter or rain that spring so the challenges ahead were formidable for the driving crews.

Most of the log drivers had left Bangor, where they had been recruited from all over New England and the northeast. Log drivers made a little more money than loggers, so competition for jobs was more intense than it was in the fall, when logging crews entered the woods. Contractors were looking for experienced rivermen, but they often complained they had to settle for recent immigrants who were not equipped, physically or mentally, for the hard work.

Great Northern Paper Co. in Millinocket in just a few years had become a major employer. “Reports received in Bangor Thursday were to the effect that the Great Northern drive on Russell Stream started Sunday and those on Cuxabexis, Black Brook and Pine Stream began Monday,” the newspaper scribe reported.

Conditions were less than desirable because there had been so little snow during the winter and the spring had been dry so far. “The drivers are doing the best they can under the circumstances. It has been rather cold up river this week, which has not tended toward melting what ice and snow there may be up there,” the story continued.

“One of the last of the large driving crews to leave the city was that shipped to the American Realty Co. at Kineo Thursday morning.” Forty men had shipped out for the Moosehead region to “drive its extensive log cut to headquarters.”

Another 60 men had been sent out the same morning to Island Falls to carry on F. W. Hunt’s drives on the Aroostook River.

The biggest employment agency in Bangor was operated by Sam Golden and Charles Largay. The Golden & Largay Co. recruited and sent many large crews into the woods.

They received requests for workers from all over the northeast. The most distant shipment of drivers that season had come from the Quebec Land and Log Co. for work on the Black River in New York State, the Commercial reported.

Four days later, another story about the lack of rain warned “water low everywhere.” Millions of feet of logs might have to be left in the lakes and streams because there was not enough water to float them downstream.

A representative of one of Bangor’s largest lumbering companies said his men had cut 6.5 million feet on the Passadumkeag River, “not over one-third of which will reach the dams this season unless heavy rains are forthcoming.”

The reporter, after checking with several other companies, concluded, “The situation is unlike any that has confronted the operators in years and the only remedy will be heavy and protracted rains, which must come in the near future.”

Within a few days, however, the logging men got more than they bargained for. The headline on a Bangor Daily News story on May 4 declared, “Big Rain Swells the Pitch an Inch an Hour — Millions of Logs in Danger.”

Within a short time, the heavens had opened and the loggers were afraid thousands of logs might break free from the booms and head for the sea.

It had been raining now for nearly a week. “When the storm began the depth of water flowing over Bangor dam was not much more than three feet, but on Monday night this had increased to about nine feet, with the pitch constantly rising,” the reporter wrote. “The current in the river opposite Bangor is becoming too swift for the safe handling of boats and rafts, while steamers have difficulty in turning.

“No damage has been reported from up river as yet, but any further rise of water, which seems altogether likely, would endanger millions of feet of logs that have lately been rafted out of Pea Cove boom and moored below.”

A report from Lincoln said the river was rising an inch per hour up there, and “rivermen feared trouble.”

The annual log gamble was on with large amounts of money at stake. The good news was the forest fire damage had been “removed … for a month or two.” The Bangor newspapers kept close track of such events as long as thousands of men’s jobs were at stake.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.



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