“To ensure that logs had sufficient water to be floated downstream, dams were built to hold back water, which was released when the time was right. Where necessary, a series of dams was constructed on long streams and the logs were floated or “driven” from pond to pond through dam after dam until they reached their destination. (Wilson, 2001)”
Understanding and learning about the logging camps was only the beginning of the story. In the Fall of the 2013, I was assigned to a new Field Team under Team Leader Amy Freund. We served in Baxter State Park, creating a reroute for Mt. OJI. During some off time in Millinocket, I connected with a former River Driver and caretaker of the Ambajesus Boom House. Chuck Harris certainly intrigued me, with his utilitarian clothes and Maine accent. We got talking about what I was doing, and he shared his history. He also invited my Team to the Boom House for some of our education hours.
We waited on the land, just below the bridge on the Golden Road that Chuck had directed us to. We heard a motor start in the distance, and after a few minutes saw a figure coming up the river. Clad in a yellow rainjacket and accompanied by a collie dog, our guide skillfully made his way upriver. Greeted in such a gallant fashion, we hopped into the boat. Along the way to the Boom House, Chuck shared his knowledge of the river, and recollected how the logs would come down.
I think I started to understand when Chuck showed us some of the tools, many of which had been found in Ambajejus Lake one year when the water was very low. He spoke about the boom chains that held together the logs, and I began to envision a circle of logs floating on the water.
In the winter the logs were hauled out upon the lake and placed as compactly together as possible. Around the mass was placed the boom—a contraption composed of largest and longest logs chained together end to end. When the ice had melted, the logs rested upon the waters of the lake, surrounded by the restraining girdle of the boom. Then, boom and all, they were towed to the outlet of the lake and sent on their way down stream (Wood, 1961).
Steamboats would take the logs from one end of the lake to the other this way. Chuck has pictures of this process in the Boom House. Acres of logs, huge islands of timber, made their pilgrimage to the sawmill in this fashion. The iron remnants told a story, but I would not have understood if not for the guide.
The log remnants I had seen as a child were explained as well. They were piers, built to guide the logs down the river. “Note the piers that hold the booms, confining logs toward shore and leaving the middle of the river free for the passage of logs to other companies farther down the river (Wilson, 2001).” There had to be some way to control the lumber coming down, and a way for those who cut it to get credit. Chuck mentioned that if all was well, the drivers would be on the shores. In the event of a jam, the men had to get to work. Sometimes it would be finding the key log with an ax, other times dynamite would do the trick. Life threatening work, many drivers lost their lives keeping the flood of spruce and fir flowing.
Should one false step be taken, a nerve falter, and eye miss its calculation, to powder would be ground the being who fell among the tumbling mass. But see the bravado of yonder Frenchman. He dances about on the logs like a cat on hot coals. There is twenty feet of water between him and the shore, and the logs are moving ten miles an hour. If he goes another hundred feet, over the next pitch he shoots and is lost. How can he escape? Look! There comes a log just outside the mass. He jumps upon it, swings his pole quicker than lightning, steers the log toward the shores, catches a hanging branch, and is jerked up the bank by his shirt-collar, by the hands of his admiring comrades (Wood, 1961).
Each operator made their mark on the logs. Some even made new marks every year, to tell the how old the wood was. “The marks were cut into the sapwood with axe or auger, and were deep enough not to wear off during the drive, but not enough to injure the timber (Wood, 1961).” For all the risks and hard work these men of the woods took, their companies wanted to be paid appropriately for the wood provided. They had costs and profits recorded right down to the penny. In 1930, the Wage Scale in the lumber camps in the Millinocket area ran from the Cookee and Feeder earning $5.00 to $7.00 per week plus board, to the Foreman who would earn $12.00 to $15.00 per week plus board (Caron, 1994). Chuck Harris related that they were usually paid at the end of the season. During the season men could get items on “credit” from the clerk, and at the end of the season they were paid and their debts taken out of what they were owed.
My time at Maine Conservation Crops helped me to gain a better understanding of the kind of work the lumberjacks did, and through the education time I became more acquainted with the history as well. Connecting the pieces from my childhood, and sparking interest that still is strong today, logging history is a little less of a mystery for me.
Caron, S. J. (1994). Lumbering in the Millinocket, Me. Area 1930 Thru 1950. Millinocket, ME: In-House Printing.
Coolidge, P. T. (1963). History of the Maine Woods. Bangor, Maine: Furbush-Roberts Printing Company, Inc.
Wilson, D. A. (2001). Logging and Lumbering in Maine. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Wood, R. G. (1961). A History of Lumbering in Maine 1820-1861. Orono, Maine: University Press.