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The Colorful AuSable Riverhog

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Logs floating down numerous creeks and emptying into the main stream of the AuGres and AuSable Rivers (Michigan) soon covered the water for miles. Rivermen employed by the booming companies ensured that the logs moved with the current – coaxing them along with back-breaking labor in times of low water, or pitting strength and agility against tons of moving weight in times of high water by balancing themselves atop the fast moving logs, all the time keeping a practiced eye alert for potential jams.

The rivermen, or “riverhog” as he was known on the AuSable, was the most colorful character of the lumbering era; one whose feats of daring have been recorded in song and poem of legendary proportions. While a few of the woodsmen traded their axes, crosscut saws or cant hooks for the peavey of the riverman, once a stream reached the required “driving pitch”, the majority of jam crews working the AuGres were expert rivermen brought in from the Saginaw-Tittabawassee River and hired by the booming company.

My maternal grandfather Alexander Wargstrom worked in a sawmill on the AuSable River, and his son Emil was a riverman, or “riverhog”, riding the logs on the AuSable. This picture of the Lumbermen’s Monument on the banks of the AuSable River shows Emil standing at the left with his peavey. It was said that Emil could handle any of the riverman’s jobs. Lumberman's Monument, Huron National Forest, Michigan
Logs floating upon the AuSable River carried their marks in a pell-mell descent downstream and it was no accident that the Lumbermen’s Monument was raised some 50 years later on a lofty bank of this stream to commemorate the daring exploits of these young stalwarts. Although it may have been a stretch of the imagination in the autumn of his life, one old riverhog claimed that often, while working in this part of the state, he “had to turn his head to catch his breath, the logs he rode travelled so fast.”

Standing on the bank of the stream near Lumbermen’s Monument today, it is difficult for one to picture the AuSable River as it was prior to construction of hydroelectric dams which have constricted the stream since the early 1900s. The hundreds of acres of backwaters above the dams now hide the original river bed with its ox-bow bends, the cause of so many dangerous jams when white pine was king. A cross erected on a bluff overlooking the river marks the spot where the mangled body of one riverman was buried after losing his life in the breaking of a log jam.

Standing along a lonely stretch of the river and using a bit of imagination, a picture forms in one’s mind which transforms this seemingly languid stream into a roaring torrent of its lumbering era heyday of 100 years ago. At one bend, a jumble of logs has blocked the river and the jam extends upstream for a full 25 miles. From your vantage point high above the river, the tiny specks moving about cautiously on water-soaked logs, tumbled like jack straws below the main, creaking mass, are the riverhogs earning that $4 to $5 paid by the booming company for this dangerous work.

One of the rivermen has moved dangerously close to the towering mass of logs. A veteran of many a log drive, his practiced eye has detected the one log which, if moved in the right direction, could prove to be the key to sending its hundreds of neighbors on a merry chase down the river. One end of a long line is attached to the key log and the loose end is taken quickly to shore and fastened to a team of horses. A teamster whistles his harnessed chargers into action and, after much straining, the log is pulled free. After a momentary hesitation, the jam breaks with a roar heard for miles, sending a maelstrom of logs on their swirling descent downstream.

The rivermen quicky scamper out on the mass of logs to keep them moving and are off on another wild ride. At a bend some miles downstream, the scene will be repeated. The drive was not always full of such excitement, but the colossal jam described here actually drew several wagonloads of spectators from as far away as the Tawases and the heroic work of the riverhogs was described by the editor of the old Iosco County Gazette.

Along the winding river, other rollways spilled logs into the river. Floating downstream at the rear of the main drive, a huge raft topped by a shanty (called a wanigan) carried the cook and his supplies. This was the headquarters for the workers and where meals were prepared for the rivermen. Lunches were sent to those in the lead of the drive, when they could be reached, but most of the jam crews carried extra rations with their tools.

Nearing Oscoda, the logs began to flow into the booming grounds where rows of piles along the river banks held long flat timbers, chained end-to-end, formed a wooden “sidewalk” in the middle of the stream. Work of the riverhogs ended at this point and other boom company employees took over, using pike poles to move the logs through a sorting gap. There, the mark on each log was noted and tallied, then poled to smaller pocket booms or enclosures maintained for each lumbering firm contracting the service. Logs were rafted together with “log dogs” – a length of chain about a foot in length with a pointed wedge of iron attached to each end – and the “bracelets” of logs were quicky moved to the hungry downstream mills.

In 1872, the AuSable River Boom Company rafted out 86 million feet of logs and, that same year, 63 million feet of timber was handled by the AuGres River Boom Company.

The swaggering jam crew leading the drive now headed for the bright lights of AuSable and was soon joined by the sackers, who had trailed the main drive by several miles to coax along any laggard logs. Unlike many streams of the state, history does not record a single season during the lumbering era when the AuSable lacked water for driving logs. But, at the end of the long drive, the thirsty rivermen were not thinking of water as their calked boots crunched into the wooden plank sidewalks of AuSable City. A row of saloons was ready and waiting there with a beautiful supply of “red eye” and there were other forms of entertainment available in nearby brothels. Oscoda was strictly off limits for its original incorporation charter prohibited the sale of alcoholic spirits.

After a few days of carousing and brawling, some of the men had blown their entire pay and, bleary-eyed from strong drink, boarded a passenger boat at the Oscoda steamship dock or cars of the Detroit, Bay City and Alpena Railway, with a one-way ticket for a trip to another part of the state and another log drive. Others saved their money, returned home to their sweethearts or wives and often purchased a small farm to raise families and lived to an old age.

To the end of their days, the gnarled survivors of the river drives were always treated with awe by their neighbors – feats of their youth seemed to take on an added luster of daring with each passing year, but there was no discounting the fact that the man who was privileged to wear the sash of a riverhog was in a class of an exclusive few. Many paid for that tribute by limping on legs which had been broken and set improperly, or complained of their rheumatism-racked bodies, always said to have been caused by standing up to their armpits in the ice cold water of some Northern Michigan stream.

Neil Thornton, "Log Marks”

June Pelo


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