The River


1902 - 1990
Excerpted from

Pierce Hill
By Al Stuart

© May, 1981
Published by Pilot Press Inc.
South Portland, ME

The River
(p. 50-57)

Used by permission

Al Stuart was born on Temple Flat in Moscow, Maine. He worked as a log driver and rafter on the Upper Kennebec River and was hired to help build coffer dams and join the rigging crew during the construction of Wyman Dam.

This excerpt from his book tells of his days as a river rafter, his work on Wyman Dam, and the changes the dam made in a way of life that had been so much a part of the Upper Kennebec Valley.

The river played a major part in the lives of the early settlers. It was here that most of them got their livelihood in the Summer, driving the logs down the river to the giant saw mills around Waterville and Augusta. What lumber wasn’t used in this Country was shipped all over the world. I once talked with the skipper of one of the old four-masted schooners and he told me that lumber was so light in a ship, that when they got out of the harbor, they had to fill their holds with sea water or they would capsize. They would go to South America, leave their cargo and bring back salt, rum, bird dressing or molasses.

The first drives down the Kennebec were shipknees. The huge spruce would be felled and left there to rot, and the curl of the roots would be taken to use in building ships. This wasn’t done very many years before there was a demand for lumber and there was no more waste of good logs.

    Raft Building on the Kennebec                  

At first there were large jams of logs on all the islands and gravel beds along the river beds, which in turn required large crews of men to break the jams. After a few years the fin boom was invented and these sheared the logs by the islands and made a large reduction in the number of men required to do the job.

After the fin boom came into service on the river, there were some nice driving camps built along the river. There were about twelve men to a crew at each camp and a cook and cookee. The cooks were the best and food was very good after the first three or four years. I remember one day we had pickles on the table, the whole cucumber type. When the boss, a tough old river man, eyed those pickles, he let out a roar for the cook to come in. “Whoever heard of pickles on a river drive”, he shouted, “send those pickles right back to the store.” The pickles, went back, but it wasn’t long after that we had pickles, steak, ham or anything else we wanted.

The river drivers sang songs in the evenings. They had to make their own music before the radio or television came. Some of the old river songs, that I remember are: The Burning Granite Mill, Dad’s Old Dinner Pail, Little Wooden Shoes, The Jam on Jerrie’s Rock, Willie Weaver the Chimney Sweep, and The Old Mill Wheel.

The shoes of the early days were the copper-toed boot, Dinsmore’s driving shoe, the Bass driving shoe and the Hunky Dory. There were the wool knit drawers, knit with coarse yarn. Ten minutes out of water and you would never know that you had been wet. The river driver was subject to cramps at night, caused by working in the cold water all day. He would have to put his shoes under his pillow to stop the cramps. Also put an alder crotch in his pocket to prevent chafing.

About this time rafting hardwood down the river became quite a good job and paid much more money than driving logs. The hardwood logs are cut and hauled to the river in the Winter and piled in huge piles, so that the high water in the Spring won’t wash them away. Father and I transferred from log driving to rafting. One of the rafts would contain about three to four hundred cord. The hardwood did not float so we would have to catch many of the large spruce logs and mix them in with the hardwood for floaters. When the raft arrived at the mill in Bingham, and when taken apart, the spruce were pushed out into the river again to continue on their way to the mill.

A huge bunter is built up river above the piles of logs to deaden the flow of water where the rafts are built. The logs are laced to cross poles with ropes called lacing ropes. The crotched stick used to shove the rope under each log is called a crow’s foot. The lacer is generally wet all over in cold or hot weather, as may be. The several rows of logs are held together by the long floaters, which are laced to each other the full length of the raft. On one end of the raft a headworks is built to support the sweep, which is an immense oar used to steer the rafts. Some years millions of feet of logs were rafted to the mill in this manner.

              Building A Raft on the Kennebec


When the Wyman Dam was in the preliminary stages, the superintendents watched us go by with those giant rafts, that nearly filled the river, and sent for us to come work for them on the cofferdams they were planning to build in the river, when we were through rafting. It was a good thing for us because the dam halted our work forever on the river.

It was with much regret that we watched the old saw mill and the cove disappear, as they prepared for the foundation for the dam. This area had been our playground for many years of our young life. We thought of all the children we played with, many of whom had gone to other parts of the country. We thought of all the farmers who had to leave those beautiful intervale farms that would be under a hundred feet of water forever. The things we learned here and the memories would stay with us forever.

We had long since moved the graveyards which were up in the basin, to be flooded. We made a large graveyard down at the lower end of Temple Flat. Many of the graves represented a sad story of the past, like the families who died on Pierce Hill with black diphtheria. There would be the names of the father and mother on one stone and the bodies of three or four children in the same grave with no markers. There was nobody to dig so many graves. Then there was a later generation that dies with the flue. I have learned that people involved in that kind of work are always quarantined in case they come in contact with some of these diseases, they will not give them to others. It would make one wonder if we were not taken advantage of especially when we read that people were getting $60 per day for the same work, the that time, in New York.

The little graves of the Hill children, buried way out at Chase Bog, were also moved out to Temple Flat. There were many epitaphs on the older stones of that day. One that I will always remember was on the stone of a young girl in the little graveyard on Pierce Hill on the Peter Pierce Farm. “Death is Nature’s honest due. I have paid and so will you.” How true.

We worked here on the dam three and one-half years. The first year on cofferdams. We were then transferred to the rigging gang where we learned a new trade. It was hard work, but we were young and it didn’t bother us too much. This was one of the largest departments on the dam. We worked from morning until midnight, sometimes three weeks at a time. There were around one hundred fifty men in our department. We had men from all over the country. One man was a sailor from the old four-masted merchant ships. He would tell some interesting little stories about taking a load of ice or lumber out of the Kennebec to South America and returning with a load of salt from Turks Island or a load of rum and molasses from the West Indies. We had four American derricks one hundred fifteen feet high. Each one had thirteen guy wires which were two inches in diameter and nearly a half mile long. There were fifty-two guy wires in all and many would chafe on each other. We would have to climb up to the top of the mast one hundred fifteen feet and slide out on the guy wire and put in a wooden chafing box to protect the guy. There were many small celotex houses built near the dam site. This village was called Daggetville and was to house the people who came here to work on the dam. There was never a dull moment due to a great many boot-leggers and the kind of people who follow big jobs.

The natives were kept about a year after the main crew had gone. We placed the heavy equipment in the power house – four units in all. Each one consisted of a twenty-ton water wheel, a one hundred forty-five ton generator on a thirty one ton shaft. This heavy rigging was very good experience for us, and what we learned here was valuable to us in later years.

I liked the area much better the way it was before the Utilities came into our world. I missed the beautiful eddys along the shore of the river where the trout and salmon used to hang out, and the beautiful float trips for miles down the river, but most of all I missed our jobs every Summer, building the booms and driving the logs. This was when the great depression really started for the people in this area.

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