Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Last Log Drive in America

Once upon a time, most young men who grew up in this area worked at least once for a sawmill, logger, farmer, rancher or in the mines. I did some time at the Potlatch Rutledge mill which is now the CdA Resort Gold Course (see previous entry for photos). I went to school with a number of guys who were 2nd and 3rd generation loggers. Fellow CHS Class of 73 twins, Bart and Mark Turnbull, were both killed logging. Anyone who's ever cut firewood in the forest can identify with the work, and peril, that goes into falling and removing timber.

Logging has been big business in North Idaho since the late 1800's. While modern equipment has improved safety and efficiency, olden times saw very dangerous and difficult work. Timber was often felled in the winter and logs run down flumes to a river where they would be floated toward sawmills. High waters of spring were when most of these log drives were run. But with a wild river ran and receding waters, lots of logs were hung up along the river.

To free these logs, river rats worked from the head of the drive, down river. Using boats to move workers, these hearty men stood in ice cold waters and worked peevees and pike poles (see photo) to roll logs back into the flow. Often jams were so tight they had to blast them with dynamite.

The men lived on Wanigans, 2-3 connected barges that had a kitchen/mess hall, sleeping quarters and equipment. The Wanigan was moved down river along with the drive, drives lasting anywhere from a week or two to a month or more.

Dad was contracted by Potlatch to make a 16mm film called From Forest to Home which started with felling and ended with lumber ready for construction. This was 1966 and Dad filmed what would be the last log drive in America, on the Clearwater River. By that time, flumes were out and trucks were used. The above photo is from that excursion and shows men trying break free a jam.

I was maybe 11 and got to go with Dad on this trip and I will always cherish the memories of this long gone operation. We got to tour and have lunch on the Wanigan (good cooks were highly valued and the fresh banana cream pie was the best I ever had).

Also filming during this drive was Walt Disney Studios for the movie Charlie the Lonesome Cougar that was released in 1967. It was the tale of a cougar raised by loggers and the misadventures of this combination. The filming was complete and while I didn't see any Hollywood activity, I did get to visit Charlie who was in a big cage on the back of the Wanigan. The movie was narrated by cowboy singer Rex Allen who did a number of similar films for Disney. Rex was a friend of my dad's and I remember him as a very warm and funny man. He'd always stop by when he was in the area and he always clowned around to my delight.

Anyways, I've been reading local history books and about the lives of loggers, and of the many lives lost. Looking back I am blessed to have had a father with whom I got to experience so many wonderful things. I ran across this photo recently and felt compelled to write this blog. If you find this interesting I urge you to read the books Hardships & Happy Times, Caulked Boots, Swiftwater People and North Fork of the CdA River by Bert Russell (buy at the Museum of North Idaho) and/or White Pine: King of Many Waters by Clarence Strong and Clyde Webb.



  1. I worked for Diamond International in the mill and building roads out of St. Maries. Both were great jobs for a young guy paying his way thorough college.

  2. My grandpa and great grandpa worked there. My mother, as a very young girl would ride her bike to visit my grandpa during his security guard shift, she'd stop off at a local store on Sherman and get him a can of his favorite beer! I'm sure no one even suspected the little girl was planning to drink it herself. Dem's were the days. Apparently drinking on the job was not a huge thing either.. back in the day circa mid/late 1930's.

  3. I remember the Turnbull twins Dave, I went through grade school to graduation with their little sis Tana. We were all Dalton Mavericks from the Dalton Elementary School.I remember when Tana was the "new" girl and the twins were the new cute boys.
    Dalton Gardens was an awesome place to grow up

  4. Potlatch, the worst days at work I ever had and a couple of the funnest days I ever had at work. Just depended on what job I was working on what day. Turning slabs between two headrigs in the sawmill sucked major.

    Tana, what a cutie with a personality to match. Now it's the Dalton Dragons. I've been a HEART reader there for 9-10 years.

  5. I love that book North Fork of the CDA river!
    Some incredible stories there that they documented from the old timers when they were still around.
    Good to know that book is still available!

  6. Dave, I'm not sure why more people haven't posted here since '09. Are you still doing this? I recall working for one week at the Potlatch mill in 1973 in the summer. I was as green as the boards on the chain. They tried me out on the sorting area, but I was too slow and clumsy. A guy got his leg hurt on the green chain one day when the chain shut down and he thought they did it so he could clear a hangup. Nope, they didn't know he was out there. They put me down below in clean up. I kept bumping my head. After a week I was useless and so I went to work at Fernan Ranger Station, and ended up on a pickup crew that fought that forest fire on Canfield Mountain that year. That was a hot one.

  7. Just did a film to DVD project for Potlatch Corporation and found both these old movies. Awesome stuff and great history. They will be going to the University of Idaho with all the old 35mm film slides. Thousands of great old pictures of al their camps and mills and river operations too. The U of Idaho library should know about them all.

    Jeff Sayre

    1. I am looking for a movie, preferably DVD, on the log drives on the Clearwater. My family logged in the Weippe area for 50 years. Please let me know what is available. Respond to Thank you

  8. Potlatch Corporation produced a very good 28 minute film in 1970 titled "Last of the Log Drives". The Library of Congress number is 72-703907. The copy I purchased was on VHS tape, so I've converted it to DVD, but if you can find it in DVD format, I'm sure the quality would be better. Good luck. Ron

  9. I remember the log drives down the Clearwater in the early 1950's. One in particular was the log jam at Lenore, which was pushed up against the shore line. My Dad and brother explored the jam, and it was all my mother could do to keep me from going out on it too! I believe that jam was dynamited.
    The memory of that log jam is one I will never forget.
    Thank you for this interesting blog.

  10. Nice story but the last log drive in America was on the Kennebec River in Maine October 1st. 1976.