River Rats, Whirlpools and Trippers
April 20, 2023 | View PDF
From the April 23, 1982 McKenzie River Reflections
By the 1870s, log driving was becoming a common practice on the McKenzie but it was the 1890-1910 period that old timers recalled as THE DRIVES. Thousands and thousands of logs were floated down the channel to mills in Eugene and Springfield as well as a 1905 drive that extended 150 miles, along the McKenzie and the Willamette, finally ending at Oregon City. With its combination of white water and gravel bars, exposed bedrock, and frequent floods, navigating the McKenzie often posed true challenges to the special breed of men who tamed her. Buying sales at around 25 to 50 cents per thousand, contractors would receive between $4 to $5 upon delivery to hopefully pay expenses for the 30-man crews over the average of 30 days required to make the drive.
During the heyday, some of the best-known contractors included Tom Gilliam & Jack Doyle who finished near Armitage Park and the Montgomery brothers.
Logging crews would spend the winter falling, bucking, and dragging the logs to the water's edge in anticipation of the spring drives As the nearby timber was exhausted the crews would venture further away from the stream banks, often using steam-powered donkeys and flumes to deliver the logs to the water.
When using flumes, the logs were peeled and ‘sniped.’ Sniping involved cutting a rim around the head end of the logs so they wouldn’t dig into the edges of the flume. Flumes were usually well-greased and filled with water to deal with the heat build-up generated. Peeled logs also traveled better in the flumes and were easier to move over the rough ground if they were dragged.
Splash dams were often built to form a storage pool for the logs until the drive began. But sudden rains could spell disaster if the pools swelled and the logs escaped over the top.
Men on the crew ranged from the river boss, roller crews, doggers, trippers, flunkeys, and the camp louse.
When logs became stuck on gravel bars or other obstructions, the roller crews would go to work. Using peavies, a long-handled, large-diameter pole with a spike and hook on one end, they would roll the logs back into the current. Sometimes the jams would take up to 3 or 4 days on one gravel bar.
Horses and teamsters often had to be used to break up particularly tough jams. A job that carried an extra measure of danger, especially for the horses. Deep whirlpools often took the lives of horses and occasionally men.
A bent iron spike or dog was used by the doggers to attach a logging chain to the timber, driven in with a maul, the dog would hold tightly but could be loosened quickly with a sharp blow.
Trippers were the men who would actually ride on the individual logs as they were being pulled out of the jam by the teams and as the log was caught by the current, knock out the dog and head for shore. Tales were told of trippers who would make impromptu white water rides, carefully balanced on a free-floating log. The men working on the drives of course used hob-nailed or caulk boots and the horses were similarly clad. Special river caulk horseshoes were developed with sharp projections on both the heel and toe. Although some of the horses were lost in the water the most common danger was a dose of “Mud Fever.” Working in the water all the time, the horses were subject to loss of hair on their bellies and legs as well as scaly and cracked skin.
Keeping the camps going was a task that fell to the camp louse who kept busy assembling dishes, pots, pans, and foodstuffs for the traveling crew. Following along with 18-24 foot narrow wooden boats, the camp louse, cook and flunkey would feed the crew in the morning, pull up camp and load it into the boats, then meet them again for the mid-day meal and move on to set up camp again for the evening. The camp louse was responsible for getting food for the men and animals, often going to the small stores or nearby farms along the river.
Particular problem areas for the log drives included gravel bars at Redmonds Ferry and Curry Rocks, Martins Rapids, and the break above Hayden Bridge. If the rollers couldn’t break a jam, the teamsters were called in and if they failed dynamite was used to break them free.
The River Rats as they were called, were often the highest-paid timber workers. A top faller in the woods could earn from $2.75 to $3 per day while a typical river rat averaged $5 plus free room and board. Slowly winding down in the early 1900’s the grand old log drives are now only a thing of the past.