Sunday, June 6, 2010

River Drivers: Workers of Water

A month ago I was invited to Carrabec High School to speak to several groups of students as part of their "Diversity Day" forum. During the lunch break I wandered the halls, looking at students' artwork and their writing assignments, which were posted throughout the school. I came across a piece of artwork with a poem written on it... and it caught my attention. It was written by three Carrabec students who'd graduated several years earlier. I am acquainted with two of the young ladies and their parents, and I'm sure that detail added to the reason I was drawn to the poem. First and foremost, however, was the fact that my grandfather, Arthur "Bappa" Bessey, was a river driver; memorialized in print by John Gould and remembered in my heart. They were tough, rugged men on the outside. But Bappa, at least, was a kind and loving grandfather. He was shaped by the harsh life of the lumber camp and yet, he and others like him had their own impact on this land, this state, and our heritage.

River drivers... workers of water.

No one ever told them it would end
Their place in the world
Was secure—
They were the workers of water
They were defiance in wind
They were who no others would be,
And now they are no more.

A casual flick of the wrist
Patient, yet watchful eyes
Death whistled in the rapids,
One wrong step and darkness came before night
For reward, merely past due glory.

They were the champions of the waterways!
Yet no one fought their battles—
Now they’re just ghosts—
Chronicles of the way it was…

Anna Drummond
Sara Beane
Melanie Anderson

The top photo is of river drivers picking the rear of the drive and getting strays out of the eddies and logans to join with the rest of lumber as it headed downstream to the lumber and paper mills.

Bottom photo is of "Bappa" Bessey, rear-picker extraordinaire! 1905-1979


  1. Those men were something alright. Although the River Drives were over long before my time, I have been lucky enough to know a few of those men. They were, and are, something special.

    Whenever I look out and see the old stone piers in The River, or have to dodge some newly dislodged stick of ancient, waterlogged, pulp wood durring flood time, I can almost see the red flannel, hear the clanking of the boom chains, and feel the excitement of The Drive.

    Yup, they were something; maybe gone, but not forgotten.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, DC. Unlike you, I AM old enough to remember the river drives, and I recall the very last one in the Kennebec...a way of life was going passing by. The transportation of those logs is all done by over-the-raod halers, now. It's ironic... we discontinued the drives to stop "polluting" the rivers. I wonder how that has balanced against the pollution emitted by those massive tractor-trailers?

  3. Oops, didn't mean "going passing by"... duh... alos spelled "road" wrong...

    Where's my proof-reader/editor???



  4. I'm not even going to comment on your spelling tonight. Mine is no better, and besides, you might hurt me!

    But back to The Drive; Yes, I know men who were on that last pulp drive in 1976, and I also know men who were there when another era ended--- The last Long Log Drive, in [I believe] 1936.

    After that, all the wood going down The River was stricly pulp, bound for the paper mills. All the Long Logs, bound for sawmills, were hauled by truck. Ironically, in those days, most of the actuall toting/sledding/hauling to the road, was still done by horses.

    Place names like 'Spencer Rips,' 'The Hulling Machine,' 'The Eel Pot,' 'The Forks' and 'The Big Eddy,' really meant something in those days!

    Days when 'Spider' Ellis danced across the floating logs, Clarence Jones could run the roughest water in a Batteau, and Choppers/River Men like Glenn Wing and 'Snowball' Hutchins were just 'boys' because they were not yet 40 years old!

    Maybe we cleaned up The Rivers, but Maine lost something when it lost its Lumber Camps and its Log Drives.

    Glad to hear that those Carrabec kids haven't forgotten............

  5. Yesterday was a day to make you remember the old River Men.

    We had several days of big water on the Kennebec over the holiday weekend. Flows of over 6,500 cubic feet per second for several days, and then the anual 8,000 cfs 'turbine check' out of Harris Station on Sunday.

    By yesterday, Wyman lake was full of ancient four foot pulp wood. Hard to believe that every stick that was floating out there had been cut before I was even born!

    Makes me wonder how many more years we will see this pulp wood coming to the surface, and how many future generations will be reminded of Maine's logging heritage every time we have big water on The Kennebec?

    Surely, as long as we can see a single stick of pulp, we won't forget those men who shaped our State; back when 'working in the woods' was something to be proud of and meant working with the woods, not destroying them for a quick buck, which seems to be todays philosophy................

  6. Big grins, kiddo. Thanks for sharing.