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River Drivers

April 24, 2022

Log Drivers Working Below Fenelon Falls

Running the rivers was an occupation that was not for the faint of heart. Most river drivers were young men, generally poorer than average. John Langton, himself a prominent gentleman, characterized them as “a light-hearted set of dare devils and the greatest rascals and thieves that ever a peaceful country was tormented with.” It was not a job for anyone who was overly concerned about their own safety. Most drivers could not swim, the water was freezing cold, and a lot of the work was done around rapids and waterfalls.

The drive began each spring as soon as the rivers were clear enough of ice to float logs. Where possible the logs would be piled on the ice, otherwise in a great heap on a steep hill above the water. Getting the mountain of logs rolling would be the first death-defying feat of the drive, as a crew of men worked together, some of them standing on the face of the pile. Whoever started it moving would yell, warning everyone else to jump free—failure to do so was considered tantamount to murder.

In the nineteenth century the Gull and Burnt River system were filled with logs from many companies, all trying to manipulate the spring freshet with a series of dams to get their drive down to Cameron Lake while there was still abundant meltwater. With these controlled torrents, the logs would generally float down the river fairly well on their own, until they got to an obstacle like a rapid or waterfalls. There they often needed to be guided through.

To work on the logs, the drivers wore caulk (pronounced “cork”) boots, which had spiked cleats on the bottom. They were also a fearful weapon for bar fights—drivers were notorious for frequenting taverns on their way down. It took a great deal of skill, agility and balance to manipulate logs with a pike pole while standing on a slimy, rolling log in the frigid river. Their light-footed grace was immortalized in The Log Driver’s Waltz.

Despite the drivers’ best efforts, sometimes great jams formed at the cataracts, some piling up for miles. Often, just at the precipice of the falls, there was one long holding the whole shuddering mass back. Then a daredevil volunteer would climb out over the logs, pry the key log free, and then (hopefully) hop like a squirrel back to shore before the block disappeared downstream. It was a very exciting thing to watch, and it was a testament to their unbelievable abilities to scamper, that most of them made it back alive. But practically every rapid has an unmarked graveyard somewhere on its shore.

To transport the logs across a lake, a capstan crib was used, which was essentially a huge horse-powered winch on a barge. By dropping anchor or running a line to a tree, the horses could wind in the cable pulling it across the lake. Then by keeping the barge fixed, a boom of logs could be pulled across behind. Later on, they were superseded by alligator tugs, which substituted a steam engine for the horses.

Once the logs arrived at Cameron Lake there was a sorting jack to divvy up the produce by owner. From there they would generally be moved as booms of logs, rather than singularly. Later the train was used for long distance transportation as well. As time passed, most of the young men matured into less dangerous occupations, but would never forget their adventures on the drive. Though it was stereotypically a sport for young daredevils, some braved the icy waters at a surprising age. Sixty-seven-year-old George Cloot made his 51st drive for the Gilmour Company in 1894. Anyone ran that the rivers for that many years, was special indeed.

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