New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Poor Fellows Shook as if They Would Fall to Pieces!

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John S. Springer had already explained how to set up a logging camp, in his book Forest Life and Forest Trees, … Camp-Life Among the Loggers … on the Various Rivers of Maine and New Brunswick (New York, 1851). Now, with winter closing in, it was time to bring in the rest of the crew, and the teams of oxen. The following is excerpted to describe the logging operation and the work of the oxen.

Oxen Logging

Oxen Logging in the 1800s

(complete with the bobsled described in the story)

From Library and Archived Canada, public domain.


The Poor Fellows Shook as if They Would Fall to Pieces!

The introduction of the team to winter quarters is always attended with more or less trouble; much less, however, of late than in former years. Then, all the chains and other implements connected with the business, together with provisions for the crew and provender for the oxen, enough to last until the swamps, rivers, and lakes were frozen, so as to allow teams to pass over them, were boated in …, which required many trips, and were continued until a late period in the fall.

To the latest trips an additional and most uncomfortable inconvenience is added to the many hardships of boating provisions. This is when the ice makes on our poles while in the act of passing up over rapids. Often our hands become so cold and stiff as to render it very difficult to hold on to the icy instrument. The mariner may stop a moment, even in a gale, while at the yard-arm, to blow his freezing fingers; but not so with the lumberman with a loaded boat in a rapid current: every finger is needed every moment, as life and property would be endangered by paying even slight attention to cold fingers.

Where the nature of the route will allow it, and an early start is desired, our teams are attached to a long sled, lightly loaded, which is dragged over miry, rough roads. In crossing large streams, we unyoke the oxen and swim them over. If we have no boat, a raft is constructed, upon which our effects are transported, when we re-yoke and pursue our route as before. Our oxen are often very reluctant to enter the water while the anchor ice runs, and the cold has already begun to congeal its surface. But an ox hardly knows how to refuse compliance with his master’s wishes, so submissive is he in his disposition.

Of late, since roads have been cut, and even “turnpikes” made a considerable portion of the distance up the main rivers, such as the “Calais and Houlton Road” on the St. Croix, and the “Military Road” on the Penobscot, which connect with other less perfect thoroughfares, and finally terminate in common swamp roads, our conveyances are much easier, and the business of taking the team on to the ground is, and may be safely deferred until frosts and snows admit of a more agreeable mode of travel.

What is called a team is variously composed of from four to six, and even eight oxen. During the months of November and December, after the ground and swamps are frozen, and early snows fall, our team is attached to a “long sled,” loaded with provisions, tools, &c., accompanied with a new recruit of hands. Leaving home and the scenes of civilization, slowly we move forward to join those who had preceded us to make preparations for our reception. After several days’ journeyings, putting up at night at places erected and supplied for the convenience of such travelers, and at suitable distances on the route, we finally reach our new home. Our arrival is no less agreeable to ourselves than welcome to our comrades. But there are incidents scattered all the way along, and seldom do we perform such a journey without experiencing something worth relating.

On one occasion, late in the fall, we started for our winter quarters up river. We had traveled about one hundred miles, passing along up the military road, then south upon the Calais road to Baskahegan Lake [Washington County, Maine, near the Saint Croix and about 40 miles above St. Stephen], which we were to cross, our camps being on the opposite side. We reached the borders of the lake late in the afternoon. The ice was not so thickly frozen as was anticipated, so that the practicability of crossing seemed exceedingly problematical. Having been long on the way, we were anxious, if possible, to arrive in camp that night. The shores of the lake were so swampy that it was deemed impracticable to perform the route around it, and it was finally determined to make an effort to cross upon the ice. We had twelve oxen, which were disposed of in the following order: the lightest yoke of oxen was selected and driven in yoke before to test the strength of the ice, and, in case the loaded teams should break through, to be used to pull them out. These were our reserve. The next in the line of march was a pair of oxen attached to a sled, with hay, &c. Next in order was a four-ox team; these were also attached to a sled, loaded with hay and provisions; and, finally, to bring up the rear, still another four-ox team, with a loaded sled—all of which were strung out at suitable distances, to prevent too much weight coming upon any one point, thus rendering our passage more safe. The word was given, when we all moved forward, intending first to gain a point which ran out into the lake, covered with a thick small growth. The ice cracked and buckled beneath our feet at every step. Proceeding in this way, we gained the point in safety. It had by this time become late, and the last rays of the setting sun gilded the tops of the towering pines, which peered far up in the air above the surrounding forest.

The night was very cold, and the wind swept up the lake with a penetrating chill, which made us button up our garments closely to prevent its too ready access to our bodies. Having gained the point in safety, we were emboldened to set forward again upon the main body of the lake, which was yet to be crossed. Here the ice seemed less capable of sustaining our weight than in the cove, which, from its protected position, had probably congealed sooner than the main lake, which was more exposed to the action of winds.

Here the ice gave more alarming indications of its incapacity to hold us. We had not proceeded more than three fourths of a mile when the hindermost team broke through, sled and all, which was very naturally accounted for, as the teams which proceeded cracked and weakened the ice. The alarm was given along the line, when the other teams stopped; and while we were preparing to extricate those already in, the next team of four oxen dropped in also; and finally they were all in at once, except the reserve pair. Had they kept in motion, probably the foremost teams might have escaped; but, upon stopping, the ice gradually settled, when in they went. There we were on that bleak spot, with the shades of night fast settling down upon us, and ten oxen struggling in the benumbing waters: business enough, thought we.

Standing upon the edge of the ice, a man was placed by the side of each ox to keep his head out of the water. We unyoked one at a time, and, throwing a rope round the roots of his horns, the warp was carried forward and attached to the little oxen, whose services on this occasion were very necessary. A strong man was placed on the ice at the edge, so that, lifting the ox by his horns, he was able to press the ice down and raise his shoulder up on the edge, when the warp-oxen would pull them out. For half an hour we had a lively time of it, and in an almost incredible short time we had them all safely out, and drove them back upon the point nearly a mile. It was now very dark. We left our sleds in the water with the hay, pulling out a few arms full, which we carried to the shore to rub the oxen down with. Poor fellows! They seemed nearly chilled to death, while they shook as if they would fall to pieces.

We built up a large fire, and, leaving the principal part of the crew behind to take care of the oxen, I, with several of the hands, started to find, if possible, the camps, where were waiting those who had been previously engaged in making arrangements for the winter. This was esteemed by some rather risky, as it was getting very dark, and we did not know exactly which way to shape our course. But the prospect seemed gloomy and uninviting to remain upon that bleak point all night, and, besides, we wished the assistance of the camp’s crew in taking our teams over next day. Delay was not to be thought of. We therefore started. A squall of snow came up when we were midway across, which completely bewildered us, and we became divided in opinion as to the proper course to steer. Tenacious of my own views, I resolved to pursue the course which appeared to me right, when the others consented to follow. Finally, after several hours of hard travel, we gained the shore, not far from the road which led back to the camp, about half a mile distant in the woods. We were here, again, puzzled to know whether the camp lay at the right or left. Settling that matter by guess, as Yankees often do other things, we traveled along by the shore about one fourth of a mile, when, to our great relief, we came to the road, up which we passed, and reached the camp a little after midnight, hungry and fatigued. We found our comrades snugly quartered and soundly sleeping. Refreshing ourselves with hot tea, bread, and beef, we turned in and slept until daylight, when, after breakfast, all hands started to rejoin those left behind. We were with them in a few hours. Poor fellows! they had had a pretty uncomfortable season, not one moment’s sleep during the night, and scantily provided with food, while the oxen fared harder still. We succeeded in getting out of the ice all but one load of hay, which we left behind. Not venturing to cross directly, we now followed round the lake, close in shore, and finally reached our winter quarters in safety, and without further accident.

The task of taking oxen on to the ground every fall is very considerable, especially when we go far into the interior, as we frequently do nearly two hundred miles. This labor and expense is sometimes obviated by leaving them in the spring to shift for themselves in the wilderness and on the meadows, where they remain until autumn, when they are hunted up. During their wilderness exile they thrive finely, and, when found, appear very wild; yet wondering, they seem to look at us as though they had some lingering recollection of having seen us before. It is often very difficult to catch and yoke them; but, with all their wildness, they evidently show signs of pleasure in the recognition. When turned out in this way, however, instances have occurred when they have never again been seen or heard from. In some cases they probably get mired or cast, and die; in others, they doubtless stray away, and fall a prey to bears and wolves. Bears as well as wolves have been known to attack oxen. An individual who owned a very fine “six-ox team” turned them into the woods to browse, in a new region of country. Late in the evening, his attention was arrested by the bellowing of one of them. It continued for an hour or two, then ceased altogether. The night was very dark, and, as the ox was supposed to be more than a mile distant, it was thought not advisable to venture in search of him until morning. As soon as daylight appeared, he started, in company with another man, to investigate the cause of the uproar. Passing on about a mile, he found one of his best oxen laying prostrate, and, on examination, there was found a hole eaten into the thickest part of his hind quarter nearly as large as a hat; not less than six or eight pounds of flesh were gone. He had bled profusely. The ground was torn up for rods around where the encounter occurred; the tracks indicated the assailant to be a very large bear, who had probably worried the ox out, and then satiated his ravenous appetite, feasting upon him while yet alive. A road was bushed out to the spot where the poor creature lay, and he was got upon a sled and hauled home by a yoke of his companions, where the wound was dressed. It never, however, entirely healed, though it was so far improved as to allow of his being fattened, after which he was slaughtered for food.

After a few days’ respite and as soon as a sufficient quantity of snow has fallen, we commence hauling the logs. As there are several departments of labor, each man is assigned to some one of them. In most cases, indeed, every hand is hired with the distinct understanding that he is to perform a particular part of the labor, and the wages differ accordingly, being regulated, also, by the ability with which they can severally fill those stations.

First, then, comes the “boss,” or the principal in charge. Then the choppers, meaning those who select, fell, and cut the logs, one of whom is master chopper. Next the swampers, who cut and clear the roads through the forest to the fallen trees, one of whom is master swamper. Then comes the barker and loader, the man who hews off the bark from that part of the log which is to drag on the snow, and assists the teamster in loading. Then we have the captain of the goad, or teamster, whom we have already alluded to; and finally the cook, whose duty is too generally known to require any particular description. Every crew is not supplied with the last important character; this deficiency, I believe, is much more common on the St. Croix than on the Penobscot, where the mode of camp life and fare is much better attended to. When we have no person specially set apart to this work, the crew generally take turns, to do which there is an obligation imposed by usage and common consent on some rivers, and each man, therefore, must comply, or furnish a substitute by employing some one to act for him. In those instances where no cook is provided, we take turns, a week at a time, or each man consents to perform some particular duty in cookery; for instance, one makes all the bread, another the tea and coffee, and so on through the routine of camp domesticism. A slight degree of rebellion sometimes manifests itself touching this business, especially before matters receive their regular winter mold. One refuses to cook, another says he “was hired to do something else,” while another says, “I’m d—d if I cook any how.” ….

In the process of taking logs to the landing from the swamp, the first thing in order is to select the tree. The direction in which it is judged likely to fall is determined by circumstances. First, the inclination of the tree as it stands; and, second, the direction and power of the wind. Sometimes this matter may be governed, where the tree stands very erect, by under-cutting one side more than the other; to which an expedient is added, when necessary, by falling one tree against another. Choppers can, if skillful, lay a tree, in falling, with sufficient accuracy to hit and drive a stake into the ground. When, however, a tree stands upon an abrupt hill-side, we are apt to get deceived. It is thrilling business to bring those giant Pines down. The ground trembles under the stroke, while the reverberating echo of its fall, as it rings through mountains and valleys, may, on a still morning, be heard six or eight miles. Before felling the Pine, small trees are cut for bed-pieces, the Pine-tree falling across them transversely, to prevent it from becoming too deeply imbedded in the snow. This also facilitates the barking and loading operation. The proper place being selected, the trunk of the tree is cut off while the “swampers” have been directing their road to the spot. The “barkers”—like whalemen leaping upon the back of their prize with their cutting spades—are at once at work with their axes, hewing the bark from that portion of the log which is to be drawn along on the snow, while the other end is to rest upon the sled. The “teams” next approach the scene of action, drawing after them a short sled, called a “bob-sled;” probably so named from the bobbing motion it has while drawn over the rough ground. It would be an insult to every New Englander’s intelligence to attempt a description of this sled; I therefore pass it, remarking, by-the-way, that, considering the service for which it is designed, it is made very strong, as it is required to sustain one end, or more than half the weight of the largest trees upon a single bar: in some cases several tons burden rest upon a single point. While this bar alone sustains one half the entire log, it is also the only part of the sled to which the heavy trunks of those massive trees are bound; it therefore draws as well as sustains the load, challenging the powers of six and even eight of the stoutest oxen.

In the process of loading, the bob-sled is placed several feet from the side of that end of the log which is to be placed upon it. Then a large skid, from four to eight inches in diameter and several feet in length, is placed near the large bar running under the log. A chain is next attached to the bar, passing now under, then over the log, back to the sled, crossing it. It is then attached by other chains to one or two yoke of oxen, whose united strength is requisite to roll one end of it upon this big bar, to which it is bound with strong, heavy chains. Of late, the tackle and fall has been introduced in loading, which very much facilitates the operation.

The six oxen are now attached to the sled, one pair of them to the tongue; the others are attached by chains in advance as leaders. The teamster now arranges every ox in the most advantageous position, passing through several evolutions with his goad stick; then giving the word of command, they settle to it. Slowly it moves forward, while the vociferations of the animated teamster, the squatting-like posture of the hard-drawn team, indicate the importance and interest of the occasion; and the bobsled, as though it were a thing of life, actually screams out at every joint as if in keenest agony beneath its ponderous load.

The reader has perhaps been present at a “launching;” the nervous emotions experienced in the process described, including the felling of the gigantic Pines, the skidding and hauling, quite equal those awakened at the launching of a vessel. This process is gone through with several times each day during the winter (Sundays excepted); really it is like going to launching every day, and the pleasurable excitement of the labor renders it extremely delightful to most who are engaged in it.

The general custom is to take the whole trunk of the tree to the landing at one load, when its size will allow, where it is sawed into short logs from fourteen to thirty feet in length, to facilitate the driving down river. I have cut one tree into five logs, the shortest of which was not less than fourteen feet. I have seen them hauled eighty-two feet in length, resembling, in their passage to the landing, immense serpents crawling from their lurking-places. Thus we continue to fell, clear, and haul until the “clump” is exhausted, and our attention is again directed to another school of these forest whales, and so on until our winter’s work is completed.

Formerly, Pine-trees grew in abundance on the banks of rivers and streams, and the margins of those wild lakes found in the interior. Thousands were cut and rolled into the water, or on the ice, and perhaps a much larger number were so near the landing as to require merely to be dragged out, thus avoiding the labor of loading, in which case, from the massive size of the trees, it was necessary to cut them into short logs. Such opportunities, however, for lumber have gone by, and the greater portion has now to be hauled from a considerable distance. A greater scarcity is too evidently at hand.


Written by johnwood1946

July 2, 2014 at 9:50 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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