Following up on the legend of the death of Moses Gould in 1816, I had some questions. Would a logger’s death have been so commonplace it wasn’t recorded in a local newspaper? Was it likely that Moses was working as a logger? The rest of his family appear to have been primarily ship carpenters and farmers. What was the life of a logger like in this very raw period of Maine life?
Being a librarian I turned to print sources first 🙂
The University of Maine Bulletin, (series 2 #37, 1935, pages 13+) published an entire issue, over 150 pages on “A History of Lumbering in Maine 1820-1861” The following snapshot of the dangers and rewards of a lumbermans life is taken primarily from that bulletin.
In the 1820’s, a lumberman worked 4 months a year during the dead of winter. He could earn, on average, 75 cents per day at a time when a bushel of corn cost 60 cents. The men boarded in a lumber camp at a cost of 25 cents per day. If he was careful with his money, he could come out of the woods at the end of the winter with close to $60 in his pockets. Of course that assumed that he hadn’t spent anything at the camp store. And over a long winter it seems likely that he would need to purchase some items, a new shirt, perhaps or some tobacco. Still, that was a lot of money for the early 1800s. And the work was theoretically seasonal. Young farmers, working hard in Maine’s thin soil and short growing season to provide for their families, may have been lured by seemingly big money. The newspapers and government reports of the 1830’s and 40’s are full of gloom and doom scenarios about lumbering killing agriculture in Maine. They asserted, probably with much truth, that loggers made poor farmers. They planted late and since their oxen had spent the winter in the woods with the logging teams, they had poorly manured fields. So naturally they had poor crop yields and the cycle was perpetuated.
Camp life was brutish. Sabbath was rarely celebrated. The lumber camp consisted of 10-50 men, from several lumber teams. They lived in rough log structures with open central fires. The central fire was used for cooking as well as warming the bunkhouse and was never allowed to go out. Death from fire or smoke inhalation was a constant fear. Meals typically consisted of bread, pork and beans. Consumption of strong liquor was commonplace. It was believed that alcohol would keep off colds and fevers. The men worked as long as there was light with which to see. Fatigue and cold undoubtedly played a major role in the constant danger of the work.
A team consisted of 6-9 men who worked together all winter long and had sometimes worked together for years. The boss set the pace of the work, determined which trees would be felled next and when the felling portion of the season would end. The choppers selected, felled and cut the logs. The swampers cleared for the logs. The barker and leader hewed the bark off of the tree on the drag side of the log and got the logs ready for the teamsters. The teamster looked after and ran the “haul.” They were in charge of the teams of oxen (later horses) who pulled the logs to either the river or a designated storage site. The teamsters usually earned the most money and provided their own oxen and harness.
Once the weather began to break the log drive began. The drive, predecessor of the cattle drives of the 1880’s, was the laborious process of rafting the logs down river to the port of sale, usually Brunswick or Topsham for the Androscoggin River. This was the most dangerous part of the lumbering process. Breaking the landing – rolling the logs into the stream and maybe cutting into the ice to get the logs moving was very dangerous work, so was breaking a log jam which was hard wet work that required agility and good judgment even when very tired. Between 1831-1868 (in just 5 newspapers) there were 25 drownings reported during The Drive. And it is highly probable that the newspapers didn’t report every death.
Whether the unfortunate man was crushed by a tree he was felling or while breaking a landing or he drowned while breaking a jam “such accidents had to be charged up to the hazards of the industry. The victim of a logging accident was usually buried in two flour barrels, his grave was soon forgotten but occasionally his fate might inspire some crude poetic effusions [in the local newspaper].” page 102