The Log Drivers
By Garry Ferguson
Come all you bold young shantyboys, And listen while I relate, Concerning a brave young river boss And his untimely fate, Concerning a young river boss So handsome true and brave, T'was on the jam at Gerry's Rock That he met with a watery grave.
My parents taught me these lines from a ballad that stayed on the Ontario Top Ten for at least a hundred years. The Jam on Gerry's Rock(s) is a tale of tragedy from the days when our ancestors floated timber down the wild rivers of Eastern Canada. These river drivers were more daring, suffered more hardships and probably lost more lives, per capita, than those from most Canadian endeavours outside of war.
From the square timber days, in the early nineteenth century, until the advent of modern machinery, "the winter cut" was hauled onto lakes and creeks which drained into rivers. When spring came, the log drivers made use of the runoff to drive their timber down these swollen rivers to market.
Portable camps were usually set up near rapids where several days would be needed to put the logs through. It was here that the drivers encountered their worst nightmare - the log jam. With peaveys and pike poles - sometimes dynamite - they'd work to break these jams. It was here also that rivers turned timber into match sticks and men's bodies into "pieces the size of your hand" (old folk song).
Only rough wooden crosses marked the graves of these casualties. They were wrapped in blankets and buried near the chutes and rapids that did them in. My father, and several men of his generation, told me of seeing old crosses in the bush around the treacherous Colton Rapids on the Madawaska, but by my time, they had rotted away.
One of my ancestors, who drove the Madawaska, was more valuable to the lumber barons than most because of his skill with a broadaxe. He was taken to Quebec City, each year, to reshape square timber bruised and gouged on rocks, but most were "paid off" by the time spring floods had subsided.
We seldom hear of the river drivers now that we're inundated with Hollywood hype and our educators appear hesitant to teach much Canadian history in case they offend someone. It would be a crime however, to let this romantic part of our heritage become as forgotten as the unmarked graves along the Gatineau, Miramichi and hundreds of other rivers from Ontario to Newfoundland.