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Log Drives (and River Pigs)

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Photo batteaus during a log drive.

Lumbermen faced the problem of moving huge pine logs from the stump to sawmills miles away. Oxen and horses moved the logs to streams and rivers that carried them to the mills.

Logs cut in winter in the woods were stacked on frozen waterways. As spring arrived and the rivers opened, the logs jostled downstream. Left alone, the newly cut pine logs would run aground on sandbars, deadhead on the riverbanks or jam in river rapids.

To assure that logs reached the mills lumbermen formed log-drive companies to guide the logs downstream. The area's first organized log drives began on the St. Croix River, to move logs to mills in Illinois and Iowa. As the logging frontier moved northward, most rivers carried logs.

Photo of river pigs on logs pushing other logs.

Log drivers, called "river pigs," began in the spring and worked as long as logs remained in the river. They worked in three separate work roles: a drive crew that pushed, pried and pulled the logs off rocks, roots and rapids to keep them moving downstream; a rear or sacking crew to find the logs that had stalled on obstacles, or floated back into bogs and swamps; and the elite jam crew ahead of the main drive to clear the river of obstacles and break small jams before they became large enough to block the flow. The river pigs were ferried up and down stream in a double-bowed boat called a batteau, which rode over logs and rapids.

A floating cook shack and warehouse called a "wanigan" supplied the drive crews. This barge-like boat carried hardware and food for the men. Supplies could be restocked at villages and farms along the way. While the men were going through the wanigan to get their food, the cook often slipped into town to purchase all the available meat and poultry. Photo of wanigans.

River pigs ate four meals a day: breakfast before dawn, first dinner, second dinner and supper. Dinners were packed for the men in canvas sacks called "nose-bags," named after the grain bag hung under the nose of a horse when he was fed on the job. Men ate breakfast and supper on the riverbanks where the wanigan tied off at night.

River pigs held the most dangerous and unhealthy positions in the industry, but the pay was attractive - about $2 a day, nearly $1 more than lumberjacks. Because drives began as soon as the ice broke in the spring, log drivers often waded between ice flows. They were in the water before dawn and, after dusk, they walked back along the river bank where the wanigan moored for the night. They slept in their wet clothes and began the ordeal again at dawn.

Men greased their legs and waist with lard to ease pain of cracked and chaffed skin and to battle the icy water. Men could easily slip and disappear between the turning and bobbing logs on which they worked. If the logs closed above him, his body may never resurface.

Men on special jam crews broke up logjams. This task required men to work at the head or face of the jam prying and pulling logs from the tangle and moving them downstream. Once enough logs were moved, the jam would groan and creak, signaling an impending break. The jam crew then rushed to the bank, hoping to make it before the jam gave way, sweeping them to their deaths.

Many logging camps moved timber in the same stream, making some drives chaotic. "Stamp hammer marks" and "bark marks" identified ownership. Logging camps were issued a stamp hammer - a heavy sledgehammer with a cast symbol on its face that was used to stamp the mark into both ends of the log. Bark marks were identification marks cut into the bark of logs with an axe to help identify logs that rode low in the water.

Mill hands at saw mills used these marks to credit the logs to the appropriate company. The marks were registered with the State Surveyor General and were bought and sold as companies changed hands.

Besides danger, log driving threatened financial risk. Logs deadheaded (sank) or became stranded on riverbanks. Generally, about 10 percent of a winter's cut was lost on log drives. Unpredictable water levels complicated log driving. Floods carried logs back into the timber. If rivers were low, logs could be stranded upstream far from sawmills and a winter's cut could be lost.

After the dry winters and springs of 1899-1900 and 1900-01, nearly the entire winter's cut remained "up-north" and sawmills stood silent because rivers lacked enough water to float the logs over rocks and through rapids.

Desperate timber interests worked with railroad owners, like James J. Hill, to get preferential rail rates for hauling logs. With pine logs reaching saw mills by rail, timber owners built narrow-gauge railroads into the woods, increasing the harvest of old growth pine and hastening the end of the saw log era.

The last major log drive in Minnesota occurred on the Little Fork River in 1937, ending the era of river pigs, wanigans, batteaus, and nose-bags.

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