Vol. LII. JULY, 1901 . No. 3.






AFTER saw logs are cut and hauled to the banks of a river, they rest until the spring floods. Then they are floated to the mills.

To accomplish this apparently simple feat a large crew is required. The men work twelve, sixteen, even eighteen hours a day in ice water; sleep in temporary camps; and constantly expose themselves to a hundred dangers. One of the greatest of these is encountered while breaking jams, which, contrary to general belief, are of common occurrence.

In a swift stream running through an accidental bed, great masses of logs pile up with astonishing rapidity. A little obstruction, a sudden narrowing or shoaling of the channel, an instant's check of any kind, at once the advance guard tumbles together, the following timbers grind down on the obstruction thus formed; the water banking up quickly behind the temporary dam, presses the locked pieces immovably together. Then it becomes a question of working with peevy, axe or even dynamite, under the sheer face of timber, until a sudden crack! warns the rioermen that the mass is about to vomit down on them. They escape at the last moment over the logs floating in the slack water below the jam. A single mis-step means death. I have seen men save their lives by diving from before a breaking roll-way into the icy river, and allowing themselves to be carried down stream through the rush of waters.

Ordinarily it is expedient to break a jam as soon as possible. Once the river begins to fall, the logs settle, and so press the more firmly together. A very slight decrease in the volume of the water-will lock the timber immovably. On the other hand, if the jam happens to form between high banks, sooner or later the river will back up sufficiently behind it to flow over it. Naturally, when this happens, the logs on top are lifted, floated down, and precipitated over the breast of the jam into the stream below, where they either kill the men working at the breaking, or stick upright in the river bottom as a further obstruction. The formation of a jam, then, is a signal for feverish activity, and the man who is "driving" the river never breathes freely until his logs are once more racing down the current.

Probably the biggest jam in the history of logging occurred in the Grand River of Michigan in the summer of 1883. It involved over one hundred and fifty million feet of logs. It is a little difficult to convey an idea of an hundred and fifty million feet. Such a mass would weigh, for instance, about thirty-seven million tons. If piled evenly ten feet high in a river bed a hundred feet wide, it would extend about ten miles. Singularly enough tremendous day and night efforts were put forth, not to break the jam, but to hold it. The men in charge knew that, once this tremendous force should get beyond control, nothing short of a miracle would prevent it from sweeping through everything and scattering abroad over Lake Michigan. That would mean total loss, for salvage would cost more than the lumber was worth. As a matter of fact, the jam did get beyond control, and such a miracle did manifest itself. The way of it was this:—
The first intimation outsiders received of the possibility of danger came to them on June 26th. Three of the pile-driver men in the employ of the company which had contracted to do the driving, asked for two days vacation in order that they might take in Barnum's circus at Muskegon.

"Can't let you off, boys," said the bookkeeper in reply.

At the refusal the men grumbled somewhat and loudly considered the advisability of going anyway. One of the company's officers here interposed.

"We need you, boys, every one of you," said he, "and if its worth anything to you to give up your holiday, I guess the company will make it right. We're going to have all Grand River down on us in no time."

That evening a tug took the men back to the boom, where, early the next morning, they and their companions began a three weeks' struggle.

The company's booms, or enclosures, contained about fifty millions of pine logs. The enclosures were made of piles driven upright in the river bottom, close together, and bound at the top by timbers bolted strongly to either side. The main boom occupied half the channel for a distance of two and one-half miles, and was supplemented at the upper end by a floating swing 150 feet long, entirely closing the river. This swing was operated by means of a winch and an endless chain, exactly on the principle of a Harlem clothes-line between two houses. In the narrow strip, so divided off, the logs of all the sawmills of Nortonville, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg and Grand Haven awaited sorting and distribution. Besides this, above the main boom various temporary booms had been put in to accommodate the extra amount of timber which an immediately preceding dry season had accumulated. Immediately below was Lake Michigan and total loss.

When the three men reached their driver, they found that the river had already swelled greatly in volume. Heavy rains were partly accountable; but cloud-burst floods from Crockery Creek district, above Grand Rapids, had rolled the streams to freshet volume. A man stood all night on the swing, reporting at intervals the progress of the water as it crept up the piles. By morning it was very near the top. Men were at once set to raising the height of the boom by tying logs firmly to the bolted timbers. At other places the pile drivers drove strengthening buttresses here and there where weak spots showed. Still other men stretched from the boom piles to the shore, strong cables across the field of logs, in order that the swift current might not jam them all at the down-stream end of the enclosure. The cables were borrowed of a barge company, and were of fifteen-inch manila rope.

So, although the water was boiling through at mill-race speed, affairs were going well. The logs bound to the bolted timbers would prevent the saw logs from jumping or flowing over the top of the boom; the buttresses would keep them from breaking out through the piles, and the cables would hold them, in sections, from too great pressure below.

While this comforting conclusion was being reached at Grand Haven, the Grand Rapids booms had broken, and one hundred million feet of logs had rushed down stream to jam at the Detroit & Milwaukee railroad bridge near Grand Rapids. Suddenly the affair had become serious.

The D. & M. bridge, fortunately, was a new structure built entirely of iron. Should it be carried out, however, nothing could prevent the jam from sweeping away the other and lighter structures down stream. Then it was a clear race from Grand Haven. No one was sanguine enough to imagine for a moment that the wooden defenses at Grand Haven would oppose even a momentary barrier to the shock. The result would be that all the hundred and fifty million feet of the combined booms would sweep out into Lake Michigan, there to be irretrievably lost.

The blow to the State's prosperity can hardly be estimated. Besides a loss of some millions of dollars' worth of sawed lumber—which would mean the failure, not only of many of the mill companies, but also of thebankers holding their paper, and so of firms in other lines of business—thousands of men would be thrown out of employment; and, what was quite as serious, the destruction of the bridges would mean the total severance of all railroad communication between eastern and western Michigan. For a season, industry of every description would be practically paralyzed.

The most strenuous efforts, then, were concentrated on the new iron bridge. It was a massive structure, each of whose bents weighed over a hundred tons. Braces of oak beams were at once slanted where they would do the most good; chains strengthened the weaker spots, and on top and all about ton after ton of railroad iron held the whole immovably. It did not seem possible that any force could stir such a mass.

The jam extended up river for over three miles, but fortunately floated. If it had jammed to the bottom of the river, the water would have backed up behind it as behind a dam; but now, luckily, the river had a clear channel below the log's and the bridge. A slight fall of the stream would suffice to lock the affair beyond the possibility of accident. This fall, of a few inches only, actually occurred. As the local paper jubilantly expressed it: "It's a hundred dollars to an old hat she holds."

Then, without the slightest warning, in seven minutes, the jam gathered its might and carried away the elaborate defenses as though they had been made of straw. Old man Jinby rode frantically into Grand Rapids, like a second Paul Revere, screaming out that the flood had broken loose. The other railroad bridges with the exception of the Lake Shore, did not even offer a check. Five hours later about half of the logs boiled into sight at Grand Haven, fifty miles away.

It is impossible to describe the excitement and consternation that reigned in Grand Rapids as the rushing timbers shot down the current past the city. No old-established country could ever understand it. Destruction threatened not only men's fortunes, but their very life-work in building up a community. As the heavy iron bridges one after the other crumpled up like matchwood and were borne out of sight down stream on the very top of the jam, no one for a moment entertained the hope that anything could stop the rush this side of Lake Michigan.

The first period of security at Grand Haven had been of but short duration. All that day and the following night the water had steadily risen at the rate of an inch an hour. Soon it became evident that the boom piles would never suffice to hold the enormous pressure when once the full force of the freshet should bear on them. Especially was this true of the temporary booms up stream. In order to hold the logs from pressing against the main boom it became necessary to shut the swing across the river. Before doing so, however, the pile-driver started to drive three clumps of piles in the opening, against which the swing, when shut, should rest.

Two of the clumps had been driven, and bound together by cables. The third was in the process, when, with a crack and a roar, the upper booms, giving way, projected their logs upon the opening and the driver. Fortunately, the man in charge of the swing did not lose his head. He succeeded in starting the long arm; the logs, rushing in back of it, hurried it shut, jammed, and heaped up in a formidable tangle behind the barrier.

The huge driver was lifted bodily in the air and deposited with a crash half on the bank and half in the water.

For the moment all was safe. But the pressure had begun. Behind the swing the logs were banked solidly to the bottom of the river, and behind them the water gathered power every instant. Already the main boom was feeling it. The great fifteen-inch cables tightened slowly but mightily; some of the piles began to groan; here and there a log up-ended across the level.

Now for four days and nights ensued a grim struggle for supremacy that has probably never been equalled in industrial history. Twenty million tons of logs and a river of water pushed steadily and relentlessly; seventy-five men threw before them the ingenious obstructions invented by determination and desperation. The pile-driver worked day and night placing clumps, each of sixteen piles, bound to solidity by chains, and so arranged in angles and slants as to direct the enormous pressure toward either bank. Another drove similar clumps here, there and everywhere that need arose. Men stretched hawsers. Others did nothing but watch for the weakening places. The groaning and creaking of the mass was said to be especially terrifying—it must have been so to the devoted band who worked without sleep under the frowning brow of destruction.

Not an instant of those eighty-four hours was wasted. By the most tremendous exertions the men seemed just able to keep even. It appeared that a breathing spell would bring the deluge. Piles quivered, bent slowly outward—at once, immediately before the logs behind could stir, the driver must do its work. At night it was the worst. No man could tell, while bracing one spot, how soon another might give way to let loose his destruction. The water rose steadily; the logs grew more and more restive, the defenses weaker and more inadequate. Spectators marveled how the jam held, yet hold it did, and without rest the dogged little insects under its face toiled to gain an inch on the waters.

So tremendous was the pressure at this time, that here and there over the surface of the jam single logs could be seen popping suddenly into the air, propelled as an apple seed is projected from between a boy's thumb and forefinger. Some of the fifteen-inch manila ropes stretched to the shore parted. One, which passed once around an oak tree before reaching its shore anchorage, actually buried itself out of sight in the hard wood! Bunches of piles bent, twisted or were cut sheer off as though they had been nothing but shocks of Indian corn. The current was so swift that the tugs could not hold the drivers against it; and, as a consequence, before commencing operations, especial mooring piles had to be driven.

The excitement was intense. Men who have served in the war tell me that the intoxication of battle was nothing to it. In this combined the elements of desperation and the spirit of the American pioneer bent on victory.

The crew worked marvels. Few of them thought for an instant of quitting. Once, after two nights without sleep, they began to grumble a little. John Walsh, who had charge of No. 4 driver, did not make the mistake of commenting or of raising objections.

"Boys," said he, irrelevently. "Let's have a smoke."

So they sat down on the logs, while every moment cried out for its labor, and for ten minutes puffed tobacco into the air.

"Now," said John, knocking the ashes from his pipe, "come on and let's get something done!"

They responded to a man. It was the consummate art of leadership.

John Walsh wore a hook in place of one hand, but he was a wonder for all that. His resourcefulness, courage and unbending firmness had much to do with winning the battle. He was there for one thing—to drive piles in the right places—and nothing could turn him from his purpose. If a man was not actually working, he had no business on the No. 4 driver, even though he might happen to be one of the owners. One intruder refusing to leave quickly enough, John promptly knocked him overboard into the shallow water between the driver and the bank. Then as the fellow did not rise, John fished for him in the most matter of fact manner with his iron hook, threw him on the bank, unconscious, and went on driving piles!

Another time, the jam broke suddenly just as John had a pile in the carrier ready to hammer into place. The driver was picked up bodily and carried some distance. The crew were pretty well frightened, but the instant the craft came to a standstill, Walsh cut loose the hammer and drove that pile. He had placed it in the carrier for the purpose, and he was going to finish the job if he were carried to Jericho!

At this point the men in charge originated one of those daring and original plans which take their conception peculiarly in the American genius. As the reader can see, the main difficulty lay in that the flood was denied an outlet because of the logs jammed to its very bed. Already, although the pressure was but slightly relieved by it, the river had begun to spread laterally, thus carrying many of the upper logs past the jam to the lake. The plan was to dig a new channel for the river around the jam! Think of the magnificence of the conception!

A dredge was at once floated down from Grand Rapids. So swift was the current that when the tug which accompanied and guided the dredge, accidentally turned broadside to the channel for a single instant, she was at once thrown so far on her beam ends that the water poured into her main hatch. The dredge finally got to work. In two days she had completed above the swing a new channel some thirty-five feet wide. A great part of the river immediately began to flow in this new bed; the pressure was relieved, and so the danger point was passed for the moment.

Now ensued the breathing space, during which the Grand Rapids logs hung at the iron bridge near that city. For some reason, in spite of the local confidence above, Grand Haven never doubted for a moment that the bridge would go eventually. Defenses were strengthened. After a time, since nothing happened, it was resolved to clear another channel through the jam.

To accomplish this men had to venture under the very breast of it, to pry at the key logs until a portion of the face started, and then in some manner to escape out of danger. While engaged in this work, news arrived from Lowell and Plainfield, above Grand Rapids, that the waters were again rising. It became necessary at once to close the opening already made in order that the logs might not break through it to the lake. To do so the driver had to creep up into the very jaws of death. The tug captain refused to tow the craft to her station.

"It isn't safe!" he expostulated.

"You get right off this tug!" cried the owner. "Go over to the middle of that ten-acre lot and lie down on your face! See if you'll feel safe there! Here, Jim, you take this tug."

A long line was made fast to the stern of the driver and tied to a tree out of danger around a down-stream bend. As the craft crept up between and under the threatening timbers, men paid out this line, so that always they retained connection with a point of safety. In case of necessity they could let go forward, drop down with the current past the bend, and swing themselves out of peril with the stern line. The tug would have to escape as best it could.

As has been stated, the piles were driven in bunches of sixteen, bound together by chains. The clumps were further connected by a system of boom logs and ropes to interpose a continuous barrier. The driver placed and bound the clumps, the tug attended to the rest.

Shortly before venturing on this hazardous undertaking, they received word from Grand Rapids that the bridge had gone, and that the logs were on their way down the river. At this the rivermen gave up hope. Many of them ceased their exertions. The Government driver, which had been placing five extra booms at intervals down stream, unmoored and quit. The case appeared quite hopeless. If Grand Rapids could not hold a hundred millions with iron defenses, Grand Haven could certainly do nothing against them with wooden! The mere impact would suffice to jar them loose.

"That settles my fifty thousand dollar house!" said one lumberman. "Twenty dollars a month is good enough for me now."

One firm alone refused to yield. They were the owners of driver No. 4, the employers of John Walsh, and had retained the generalship during the long battle. A last stand was offered.

"Boys," said the two members of this firm, "if she starts to go, save yourselves the best way you can. Never mind the driver, stay on top!"

And so the tug and the driver crept slowly up the boiling water under the jam.

A pile was placed in the carriage, the hammer descended. At once logs commenced to shoot out of the water end foremost all around them. The pile had been driven into the foot of the jam, so loosening timbers at the bottom of the river. Luckily none of them hit either of the boats squarely, or the craft would have been stoved in and sunk. The fault of position was remedied, and the work begun.

Four times the jam quivered. Four times it paused again on the brink of discharge.

"One more'll hold her!" said Walsh, anxiously.

The pile was placed. Without delay the heavy chains were thrown around the winch, and the steam power began to draw the clump together. On the other side of the little channel the tug lay moored fore and aft. John Walsh stood on the boom coolly tying the last cumbersome knot of the system of defense. Clark Deremo, all alert, grasped the spokes of the wheel. In the engine room, Norris, his hand on the throttle, stood ready to throw her wide open at the signal. A man at either end watched the owner's upraised hand, prepared to cut the mooring lines when it should descend.

"Look out, John," said the owner, quietly, "she's getting ready."

The man addressed folded the knot over without reply.

Up-stream the jam creaked, groaned, settled deliberately forward, cutting a clump of piles like straw.

"She's coming!" warned the owner.

"Give me every second you can," replied Walsh, without looking up.

He was just making the last turns.

The mass toppled slowly, fell into the swift current and leaped with a roar. The man in the waist of the tug watched with cat-like attention.

"Jump aboard!" he cried to the man on the boom, and his raised hand descended at last.

With the motion the two axes severed the mooring lines, the wheel whirled, the little craft shot from its leash like a hound. And so fine had they cut it that the first logs smashed their stern rail! But the opening was closed.

The driver had escaped around the bend, as planned. If either craft had been fairly caught, it would have been overwhelmed. Subsequently Walsh and his brave crew ventured in to strengthen some neglected spots. They took the places on No. 3 driver of a crew which absolutely refused to undertake such perilous work.

Thanks to the new river channel which had been excavated around the head of the jam, the logs from Grand Rapids could be awaited with some degree of confidence. The logs would simply be shunted into the new opening and scattered over the broad marshes of Stearn's Bayou. The hope seemed reasonable. But with the very first rush came an iron bridge, which jammed square across the channel, effectually blocking it.

This looked like the proverbial last straw. The bridge was fearfully and wonderfully twisted. It took two days to remove it, nut by nut, bolt by bolt, piece by piece. During that time the old scenes had all to be relived. Men worked as though mad. Excepting them, no one ventured on the river, for to be caught meant to die. Old spars, refuse timbers of all sorts—anything and everything was requisitioned that might help form an obstruction above or below water. Sleep was forgotten. Food was brought directly to the scene of work.

Other men were equally busy hunting for piles. They took them where ever they found them without attention to their owners. Farmer's trees were cut out, and the farmers held at bay with peevies; pines belonging to divers and protesting proprietors were felled and sharpened; Holland and Muskegon furnished their quota by rail; even Uncle Sam, the inviolable, was commandeered in a most cavalier fashion. The D. & M. railroad company owned a fine lot of piles which, with remarkable shortsightedness and lack of public spirit, they refused to sell at any price. A crew of men took them by force. Once, when other means failed, John Walsh was found up to his waist in water, felling the trees of a wood, and dragging them to the river by a cable attached to the winch of his driver.

And so, finally, for the second time, the auxiliary channel was cleared. Gradually the pressure lightened. In three days more the danger had passed. The impossible teas achieved.

All the rest of the summer was spent in the hardest kind of work. The tangle had to be straightened; the logs which had been carried inland a mile or more, to be restored to the river. All must be sorted. Grand Rapids had to ship its cut back by railroad. The Boom Company expended in all over sixty thousand dollars, but it saved the community millions.

The men connected with this mighty crisis are to be found still in western Michigan. The owners are wealthy business men; John Walsh is considered the most reliable contractor in his town; the seven members of No. 4's crew have risen to various posts of responsibility afloat and ashore. And this again is characteristically American. The fire that carried them through the weeks of the "Big jam" was no momentary flicker; it has shone steadily to guide them to success.

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