Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter III

In August, 1840, when I was little more than eleven years old, I began my career in lumbering. With seven men,—five of whom had blackened eyes, evidence of the rum-drinking and fighting commonly indulged in by the Irish, Scotch, and English along the river at this time,— I set out for my father's camp on the Miramichi road, six miles up the Shiktehawk River, about ten miles from my home in Greenfield. I rode a black horse with which we "snaked" our two canoes around the rocks where the current was swift, and twice swam across intersecting streams clinging to the hames of my mount.

At the camp were fifteen men, with fourteen horses, felling the trees, hewing them into ton timber and piling them on rollways on the banks of the river whence they were floated down the the St. John for the export trade. In accordance with the system of the time Sherman Tapley, an associate of Squire Nevers, as the "supply man," advanced the equipment and provisions for the camp. My father as contractor had full charge of and was responsible for the operations carried on.

The winter of 1840 and 1841 was unusually rigorous. The snow was seven feet deep, and whether for this or some other reason the country was overrun with a horde of wolves which, it was supposed, had migrated from the ice-bound wilderness to the north in search of food. At the camp they did not molest its, but they invaded the sheep folds at the farms in Packs and slaughtered the unfortunate animals by the scores. Some of the poorer families for lack of secure stables were obliged to take their small flocks into their houses at night for safe keeping.

Work at the Camp moved according to a well-measured routine. The men arose shortly before daybreak and went to work in the woods on snowshoes, beginning as soon as the light was sufficient to enable them to see clearly. Except for the brief interval of rest at midday for dinner which I brought to them, they kept at it steadily until nightfall, when they returned to camp. Being too tired for diversion, as a rule, they went to bed shortly after supper. So life moved for them (lay after day until the approach of spring unlocked the fast-frozen streams, and the timber was floated down to market. The only respite from labor was afforded by Sunday, and on that day axes were ground, repairs made, and the camp set in order for operations during the week.

To me was assigned the duty of cooking. Although not very proficient, I managed well enough, as our fare was limited to pork, beans, bread, molasses, tea, and dried apples,—not a well diversified diet but as good as could be obtained under the circumstances. The men were satisfied mainly, perhaps, because the time did not afford a higher standard by which they might measure the shortcomings of their own lot. Nor did their health suffer for lack of luxuries, edible or otherwise. Sickness was rare. In my long experiences in the woods in New Brunswick, in Maine, and in later years, in Wisconsin and Michigan, I discovered that ordinary ailments and diseases were phenomena of community life and that their prevalence was largely in proportion to the complexities of the modern way of living. In the isolated camps in the pine forests they had no place.

Logging and timber making, of course, had its dangers. During this same winter one of the men of our camp, Kinney Landers, was killed, and another, named Hoyt, was injured while breaking out a rollway. Both men, citizens of the United States, were pinned under the rolling logs and Landers was crushed to death. For the funeral, I remember, the activities of the camp were suspended for three or four days when time was most valuable. There were also many cuts and gashes due to the slipping of axes on the frozen timber, but infection of the wounds was extremely rare - I do not remember a case of what has been called blood-poisoning - and recovery rapid.

Most of the lumbering at this time was done by men who, like my father, contracted to fell the trees and hew the logs into square timber. Capital was scarce and the contractors generally were obliged to obtain their supplies of credit, a condition that was unfortunate for those who were most active in the industry. Unscrupulous capitalists, in many instances, took every advantage of the harsh debtors' laws to acquire possession of the fruits of the labor of the men who suffered hardship and privation in the forest and upon whom the burden of production rested most heavily. When the timber had been cut the creditors, under cover of the drastic law, swooped down upon the contractors and seized it for debt before it could be delivered. The contractor himself was thrown into a debtor's cell. Some of tile largest lumbering firms in Canada resorted to this practice, which became a positive evil, and hundreds of the most efficient lumbermen in New Brunswick to escape the sheriff fled across the border and took refuge in Maine, where they contributed much to the prosperity and upbuilding of the country.

In the winter of 1840 and 1841 one Purdy, of the firm of Purdy and Dibble, storekeepers, arrived at our camp with a deputy sheriff of the county, named Craven, on their way to arrest 'William Rogers, a neighboring contractor and to seize his timber and equipment for debt. My father's sympathies were naturally with Rogers and, while acting as host to Craven and Purdy, who remained over night, lie sent a boy, William Coulter, out surreptitiously to warn him of their coming. Rogers entrenched himself behind natural barriers by driving his horses up the byroads and blocking the main thoroughfare by felling trees across it. When Craven and Purdy arrived at his camp on foot they found it deserted and returned home without accomplishing their purpose. Before they could renew their attempt Rogers succeeded in making arrangements to tide himself over the difficulty.

Craven was a spectacular figure in the neighborhood, a duelist of some renown and a picturesque character. A few days before he had visited our camp he had an encounter with William Dustin, at Scotch Corners, just outside of Woodstock, and was slightly wounded under the arm. Ultimately, however, his bravado resulted in his downfall. A few years after this incident he went to California, joining the early rush to the goldfields, and was lynched, I believe, by the vigilantes in 1849.

In 1843, when I was fourteen years of age, my father went to Maine amid settled in township number eleven, in Aroostook County, at a place now known as as Ashland, where he purchased a farm. Shortly afterward he became a citizen of the United States.

Aroostook County, bordering upon New Brunswick and drained partly by the tributaries of the St. John River, was as much a timber region as the adjoining territory though more sparsely settled. The Yankees, whose operations along the headwaters of the Penobscot had made Oldtown with Bangor the most important lumber producing center of the United States, had already penetrated the Madawaska region, where their activities had precipitated the boundary dispute of 1839. They worked in the same camps with the Canadians, floated their logs down the Aroostook and other rivers into the St. John, and at this time began to compete with the New Brunswick firms in the production of square timber for export.

The territory comprising the State of Maine had been originally a part of the State of Massachusetts, to which was reserved, when the division was made, the timber on every Old township. Among others the firm of Sinclair, Jewett and March, one of the oldest and largest of the lumbering concerns of Bangor, which had operated extensively along the Penobscot, purchased tracts of this stumpage in Aroostook County and established a number of camps for the production of square timber.

With the management of the business of the firm Jewett, a capitalist, and March, a banker, had little to do. The directing spirit of the enterprise was Jefferson Sinclair, one of the most honest and practical lumbermen of a time when lumbering was the most important of Maine's varied industries. In this field Mr. Sinclair, to whom I was to owe so much of whatever success I have achieved, was without equal. His operations were very extensive and he directed them with a masterfulness and finality of decision that made him the Napoleon of lumbering in the chief seat of the industry in the United States. His logging camps were scattered over a large area in Aroostook County, in the watersheds of the St. John as well as of the Penobscot, and his logs and timber were floated down both rivers.

The boom at Oldtown, probably the greatest of its kind in the world at the time, where the logs coming down the Penobscot were sorted for the mills which lined the banks of the river from that point down to Bangor at the head of tidewater, was a monument to his constructive genius. He built it in company with Rufus Dwinel, thereby establishing a precedent that has been followed on all of the important lumbering streams of the country up to the advent of the railroads.

In logging the Yankees were probably more expert than the Canadians but had less experience in making ton timber, and for this purpose Mr. Sinclair engaged men who had done work of this kind on the St. John. My father was one of these. He entered into a contract with Sinclair, March and Jewett, and during the winters of 1842, 1843, and 1844 employed between twenty and thirty men in the region around Eagle and Portage lakes on the road from the Aroostook River to the mouth of Fish River. Here I received my first practical experience in lumbering and acquired the knowledge of logging which was to be of incalculable value to me in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Jefferson Sinclair
Jefferson Sinclair

From these camps, where men were trained to meet the rigors of the wilderness and to overcome the obstacles that lumbering entailed, hundreds of pioneers scattered over the timber regions of the West. They were a hardy lot, mostly of English, Irish, or Scotch birth or parentage, who mastered the variety of trades required by their occupation and were at home alike in forest, on farm, and on stream. There were in the older region also a number of French-Canadians among whom were what we designated "jumpers" or "jumping Frenchmen," the victims, to all appearances, of a nervous ailment which subjected them to the whims of sensory impulses. At a sharp command or upon hearing a sudden noise or being struck a sharp blow, they jumped spasmodically, sometimes with disastrous consequences to themselves. I have known them to jump out of a boat into the water when told unexpectedly to do so. Dr. George M. Beard, a physician, who conducted a series of experiments with them a number of years ago, said of them: "These jumpers have been known to strike their fists against a red-hot stove; they have been known to jump into fire as well as into water; indeed, no painfulness or peril of position has any effect on them; they are as powerless as apoplectics or hysterics, if not more so."

According to the methods of logging which prevailed in Maine, when a tree was felled a pathway was cleared through the deep snow to the main road and the log with one end chained to a sled was dragged from the stump. The hauling was done by teams of three yoke of oxen, the driving of which was one of the most difficult and remunerative accomplishments of the lumbering craft. Ox teamsters, who were looked upon as persons of a higher category by the swampers and axemen, were paid in some cases, as much as sixty dollars a month, while the foreman of the camp received only from twenty-six to thirty dollars and their wages were little short of munificent according to the scale then maintained.

The use of oxen in logging can be traced back directly to the period before the American Revolution when the English and French governments began to draw upon the forests of Maine and New Brunswick for white pine for masts and spars. Only the oxen trained for that purpose, with their slow, steady pull, were strong enough to drag the huge trunks, some of them more than three feet in diameter and a hundred feet in length, out of the woods. In 1815 and later it was the practice in Maine to drive them even singly in hauling timber to the rivers.

In my father's camps I set out to master the art, for such it was, learning not only to drive the oxen but to train them. This latter task required about two months for a team of six and could be accomplished at all only by the exercise of the greatest patience and forbearance. The animals were driven with a goad stick, about four feet long, five eighths of an inch thick at the large end and a half-inch at the smaller, with a brad about a half-inch in length. Outside of Maine and New Brunswick whips were commonly used.

The rivalry among the drivers in the Maine forests, of whom there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, was extraordinarily keen. Contests in hauling trees or starting boats laden with stone held as important a place in the diversions of the day as the more athletic sports or races of the present. Fortunately, I made the most of my opportunity. The knowledge I acquired stood me in good stead in after years when we did most of the masting on the upper lakes. At Escanaba, Michigan, sixty-five years ago I ranked among the best drivers; and I took, and still take, a great deal of pride in that accomplishment.

In 1844 I went down the Fish River and the St. John on the first log drive of large proportions in those waters. Before this time timber and logs were brought down from the upper river loose in small quantities to a point below Grand Falls where they were gathered together into small rafts. These were poled as far as Spring Hill, at the head of tidewater, made into larger rafts, and floated down with the tide to St. John.

The Yankee lumbermen first adopted the practice of bringing the timber down the rivers loose in large quantities and established the methods of log driving which were followed in the West. Here again I was to profit by my experience. The lessons I learned from Jefferson Sinclair, who built the boom at Oldtown and superintended this first great drive down the St. John, I applied to great advantage on the Menominee River, which came to be as important in the fifties and later as the Penobscot had been before and produced hundreds of millions of feet of timber every year.

On the St. John drive there were two crews, each consisting of one hundred men, one under the direction of George Lincoln, the other under Henry Colton. My function was to serve as "cookee," or assistant to the cook, in which capacity I accompanied Colton's crew. The position was not so difficult as might be supposed. The cook, a personage of some importance in the environment in which he moved, was not merely, my superior but a very good friend. For three months, or until the drive was completed, we tented together, and during our leisure moments I taught him to read and write while he taught me French. Colton, who afterwards went to Pennsylvania, where he had charge of the boom at Williamsport, also took me under his special protection and asked me to come and live with him. We constituted, if not a picturesque, at least a very congenial trio.

The course of the drive was through Portage, Eagle, and Long lakes to the mouth of Fish River and thence down the St. John. In the hazards encountered,— the breaking of jams and the passage of dangerous rapids,— I, of course, did not share. None the less the journey was eventful. The timber was to have been collected at Glazier's boom, seven miles below Fredericton, and rafted the remainder of the distance; but the boom proved unequal to the strain put upon it and broke, and we were compelled to continue our operations down to St. John.

This enabled me to secure my first glimpse of a city. I and the vessels at anchor in the harbor. It was taken, however, under the protection of some of the members of the crew, as the belligerent Irish boys around the wharves were only too glad of an opportunity to war upon an unsuspecting lad from the country who undoubtedly indicated by his actions that the environment was a novel one. It was July by the time we returned to Aroostook.

I came in contact, more or less, at the camps and on the drive with Mr. Sinclair and, fortunately for me, attracted the great lumberman's attention. This was the beginning of the friendly interest he took in me which was to exercise the most potent influence in the molding of my career. In the fall of that year, 1844, Mr. March fell ill at Ashland. As soon as he had recovered his strength sufficiently he set out, with Mrs. March, for his home in Bangor, and I was commissioned to accompany him as driver with the understanding that I was to be taken into the Sinclair household after our arrival. From Ashland we went to Mattawamkeag and from there down to Bangor, following the old stage road.

This was a famous thoroughfare, through one of the busiest sections of the United States, skirting the Penobscot River. The stages, staunch Concord coaches elaborately finished, were the highest achievement of the craft of the wagon builder and seated more than a score of passengers. The drivers, jauntily attired and wearing kid gloves, were persons of imposing presence. From their lofty position on the box, where they manipulated the reins of the six horses with impressive dexterity, they surveyed the traveling public with an air of tolerant superiority. Nor did they stoop to the care of horses. This function was performed by the hostlers at the stations every ten or fifteen miles along the route.

Eight years later, in 1852, I made the journey from Holton to Mattawamkeag over the military road and down to Bangor over the same route. On this occasion there were two coaches, one carrying twenty-seven passengers, the other an extra with the surplusage of travelers following close at our heels. The driver, named Crockett, turned the reins of the first coach over to me when we arrived at Oldtown, while he went back to take the passengers in the extra coach to their destinations, and I drove in state up to the Wadleigh Hotel, where a hostler came to take charge of the horses.

These drivers were constantly undertaking errands for the people living along the stage route. Women hailed them as they passed and commissioned them to buy calico, thread, or other articles in Oldtown or Bangor, which they delivered on the return trip. Crockett told me that he frequently spent several hours shopping in the evening in Bangor to purchase a variety of things to be delivered to persons along the route the following day.

At Oldtown, at the head of the rapids in the Penobscot, we came to the sawmills operated by water power. For the last ten miles of the journey the banks were lined with these establishments, the flower of the great lumber industry which prevailed there for seventy years.

At Bangor, then a city of twenty-five thousand people and one of the most important business centers in New England, I lived with the Marches for several months until Mr. Sinclair came down in the following spring. This was a turning point in my career, although I might not have been aware of it at the time. It marked the end of my experiences in the older environment of New Brunswick and Maine and the beginning of a series of events which were to take me away from my family into what was then the far West, where the country was in the making. In the interim, however, I saw something of the life of the city as a member of the household of Mr. Sinclair, who included me in his own family circle and treated me as a son, then and afterward taking advantage of every opportunity to put me forward in the way of experience and teach the lessons to which, more than anything else, I owe my success in the field of of practical lumbering. Mrs. Sinclair, too, looked after me with maternal solicitude and sympathy.

For a time I was able to resume the schooling which had been cut short by the exigencies of life in New Brunswick. I went to Miss Merrill's, on State Street, for several months, where I profited, no doubt, by coming into contact with the boys of the neighborhood. But the other aspects of Bangor were more fascinating to me. The shipping in the harbor was absorbingly interesting and under the spell of the romance of the wharves I conceived the ambition to become a sailor, which I sought to achieve afterward on the Great Lakes. The idea was encouraged by Mrs. March's brother, who had sailed before the mast, and Captain Eustis, the owner of a ship, who lived opposite the Sinclairs on State Street. The former taught me how to splice ropes and tie sailors' knots. The latter proposed that I ship on his vessel as a cabin boy with his son George, promising that we would have no other duties than to keep his cabin swept and clean. Every bit of knowledge I picked up of the handling of the big square- riggers, which then shed luster upon Maine's commercial greatness, I garnered carefully; and even the fleet of lobster boats and fishing vessels, which came close to the heart of the city, absorbed my attention. Lobsters at this time were especially abundant. They were hawked about the streets in barrows and the largest of them could be purchased for five cents, with pepper and salt, if one were minded to eat them on the spot.

These experiences were of short duration, a fleeting glimpse of the city as I went from one wilderness to another. Before the year was out I was to start again for the unsettled country.

Return to Contents Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus