We are pleased to present below the 3rd place winner of our 2014 “Your Maine Home” essay contest. This year we asked to hear about defining moments in the history of your Maine home or neighborhood. The contest ran in the summer and the winners were announced in the fall print newsletter, which was mailed to MHS members last week. You can see the first and second place winners on this blog. Congratulations to the winners, and many thanks to all the entrants. We received many wonderful stories.
Log Drives on the Kennebec
By Alice True Larkin
Every spring when I was growing up in Skowhegan, logs cut in the north woods were floated down the Kennebec River to the paper mills. Cut to four-foot lengths, with the company’s brand on the end, they erupted through the sluiceway at the Central Maine Power Co. dam, raced down a deep gorge to the Big Eddy, where they bucked and tossed in the rapids, then spread out to blanket the river from bank to bank. My friend and I, sitting on her porch at the river’s edge, would spend hours watching the logs float down the river, sometimes picking our favorites and racing them. When they backed up in Wesserunsett Stream to our swimming hole, we would each grab a log, straddle it and ride it like a bucking broncho.
I lived not far from the Eddy and about a half mile further down was the river-driver’s camp, a sturdy orange building with a sheet-iron roof. In the winter, with other neighborhood children, I slid down the roof into a snowbank. Then we crawled up through the foundation to play in the bateaux stored there, scrambled in and out of the narrow bunks with their stained mattresses, and poked around in the tiny kitchen. When the drive came through, we hid in the bushes to watch the men, sun-browned, muscular fellows in plaid flannel shirts, who chanted woods ditties as they brought in supplies or pulled the clumsy boats down to the river.
In 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold made his tortuous way up the Kennebec on his march to Quebec, using the same bateaux, although his were hastily constructed, of green wood, which caused untold problems and greatly impeded the expedition. These bateaux are sturdy, double-ended, and propelled by pushing long poles against the river bottom. The river drivers scour the river’s edge for logs that have stranded on the banking, and coax them out into the river again with pick poles. Nimble fellows, they skip over the massed logs to break up a jam or, just for fun, spin one under their cleated boots in log-birling competitions.
The last log drive on the Kennebec took place in 1976, after companies found it cheaper to move the logs by truck, and environmentalists complained that sunken logs polluted the river and killed the fish. Now the Kennebec runs clear and free, the fish have returned and white-water rafting has become a new industry. But for those of us who remember, there remains a nostalgia for the old days when logs filled the Kennebec every spring and river drivers were our heroes.