Strange hat isn’t it! One of the community-building activities on our lake in Big Moose, New York, is a Fourth of July “Poet’s Potluck,” an event hosted by the Conable family.
Amazingly, Dan Conable has gotten twenty or thirty of us camp owners writing poems, now in the fourteenth season! I must admit, when my wife and I started attending, I said I was NOT going to write and recite poetry publicly, but now I have become one of a handful of “hyper-competitors.”
One of my Laureate responsibilities this year was to compose and read a poem for the Labor Day “Camp Musical Evening,” another special event, this year’s theme being one hundred years of Disney music.
I tossed about for several weeks on a topic for my poem, then remembered a series of articles that ran in Lewis County newspapers in 1913 about a logger who performed an amazing feat on the Beaver River in the spring flood stage of that year when logs were run. Yes, that would make a great poem, I thought. It was a true story, it picked up on the most dangerous job in the world, and it happened in the Adirondacks, nearby.
That settled, I went to work on my research, which began with a reread of the three articles I had saved on the event. The longest one ran in Watertown’s Re-Union, under the title “Log Driver Risks Life for $25” (April 30, 1913).
A second article ran a day later in Lowville’s Journal & Republican, adding information under its title, “Log Driver Shoots Rapids on Beaver River on a 14-inch Log, Thrills for Spectators” (May 1, 1913). And then a third shorter article also on May first, in the Black River Democrat.
Those reports gave me the basic scoop on this fascinating story, but I needed some background info to make sense of all the details. The author of the exploit, Harry Martin, was a Michigan logger with experience driving logs in Canada, too.
He was on vacation in upstate New York, his destination a tannery and logging center named Belfort in the town of Croghan– 14 miles northeast of Lowville and 23 miles downstream from the Stillwater Reservoir.
The articles gave no indication of why he chose this location where the Beaver River flowed through a narrow gorge. Maybe he was visiting a relative. Belfort hosted a large tannery from 1857 to 1895 when the vast stands of hemlock nearby were exhausted. With its first hydro-electric plant established in 1895, its dam collected logs on the annual spring river drives from the Adirondacks to mills below, especially those of “Logging King” Theodore Basselin.
It can be inferred from Martin’s interactions with fellow loggers in a Belfort inn, that he had experience as a “river rat,” the term used for men who do the riskiest of lumbering tasks, breaking up log jams. The articles clearly state that the lumberjacks exchanged stories of the most challenging and dangerous tasks they had faced.
Those included sawing and chopping skills later featured in area Woodsmen’s Field Day competitions. Also, there were the champion log sled loads, each camp competing to pile the greatest number of logs on for each season.
Then, the notion of running the rapids on the Beaver River just below Belfort dam was broached, with this reaction from the visitor: “Martin rather scoffed at the idea of that being much of a feat and said he could do that himself.” Which immediately led to the $25 wager from his fellow loggers.
Martin’s preparation for the feat detailed his dress and selection of a log to ride the rapids on, a 14-inch diameter one, probably the most buoyant conifer – a spruce log. He was probably wearing his lumbering clothes already, which typically consisted of heavy pants with suspenders, a long-sleeved flannel shirt, and hat.
Martin put on his “calked boots,” part of outfitting every “river rat.” These were special full-length leather boots studded with short sharp spikes. Martin most likely borrowed “a pike pole” from his comrades, a 10-foot wood pole with sharp iron tip and curved prong or hook near the end. That pole would have been used for breaking up a log jam, but in this case used for balance.
My pencil sketch here shows Martin holding this pole amid the rapids, boots gripping his chosen log, the splash of the raging river partly disguising that foothold.
One of the articles described the scope of the challenge: The rapids at this point are nearly a fourth of a mile in length and as the water is still considerably above its normal height it seemed an impossible thing to do.
Martin dropped his log into a quiet eddy below the falls, inviting the onlookers to “push him out into the rapids,” while collectively the crowd “held their breath.”
That prepares the reader for my poem, “Running the Rapids.”
In the vast annals of lumbering lore,
are some feats that flat take the breath away,
biggest load or best cut on a Woodsman’s Day,
or a river rat breaking a logjam, they say.
In nineteen thirteen a logger by trade,
his name Harry Martin, from Michigan came.
His boast that he lumbered in Canada, too,
added swagger and strut to his claim to fame.
To Belfort he journeyed, vacation to mend,
up Beaver River, where lumber jacks spend.
‘Twas time of log running, the rapids so high,
below Belfort dam dashing foam to the sky.
Two weeks there scored two jaunts to the bar,
fellow loggers flaunting their razor-sharp skills,
tales of deeds daring they all had seen done:
Oh, shooting these rapids? The ultimate one!
Then up jumped Martin addressing the crowd,
He frowned at this being, eh, that profound?
“Why, I could do that,” he bragged with such ease,
they stared at the stranger, snapping “Oh, please!”
Yes, this was too much for his bar-mates to buy,
they looked at each other and wagered a bet,
twenty-five dollars says, “You are all wet!”
“None could do this, no, it would mean death!”
Up to the challenge, Harry Martin equipped:
driving gear, calked boots, pike pole in his grip,
proceeded to pick out a fourteen-inch pine,
rolled to an eddy at the foot of the climb.
He jumped up upon it and called to the crowd,
“Push me off,” as the group held their breath.
In the blink of an eye vanished into the mist,
onlookers, breathless, heck, having a fit.
“Who is this chap?” called one spectator out?
“A Michigan braggart!” another did shout,
“A death wish, has he,” then hollered a third,
as they scrambled downriver, all sore concerned.
A quarter mile run, and the crowd stopped, awestruck,
at a wet winded man resting safely ashore.
“Martin’s alive,” someone shouted, then spat,
“Our wager he’s won, so we must pass the hat.”
Said Black River Democrat, “Real risky, indeed,”
Journal & Republican, “Impossible, our read,”
printed Watertown Reporter, “Does not compare,
to a high wire walk or a sky dive in midair!”
In the past annals of lumbering lore,
are some feats that flat take the breath away,
biggest load or best cut on a Woodsman’s Day,
No — running the rapids by Martin – I say!
Watertown’s Re-Union and Lowville’s Journal & Republican tried to explain just how “impossible” Martin’s act was: “Those who witnessed the feat say that high wire walking and high diving are not to be compared with it.”
When contemporary readers heard about “high wire walking” they would have visualized high-wire artists in famous circus acts, with Frenchman Jean Francois Granele – otherwise known as “Blondin” – the first to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls in 1859, with repeat performances.
“High diving” clearly evoked Swedish Olympic champion Hjalmer Johansson, who won gold in 1908 for “high plain diving” and silver in 1912 for “high fancy diving.” High diving was typically done from a 10-meter or 33-foot-high board, with a very high degree of difficulty. Johansson was later inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame for pioneering this sport and inventing new dives.
For me, Martin’s running the Beaver River rapids that Sunday in 1913 topped the daring of these other sports, an act that truly takes the breath away! Whether we call it a feat, an exploit, a trick, or a stunt, it deserved the attention three reputable Lewis County newspapers gave it. Martin certainly won that bet!
Lumberjacks are rated as having the most dangerous job in the world, with 133 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers, as compared with 3.4 per that total for all other workers according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That fatality rate or level of danger is thirty times greater for lumberjacks like Harry Martin.
The picture here depicts the first Woodsmen’s Field Day held in Old Forge in 1948, a celebration of the tools and skills of this important but dangerous profession.
These Lewis County reporters (and Harry Martin) moved me to write this poem. I dedicate it now to all the lumberjacks whose guts and courage provide the rest of us with essentials like toilet paper, cardboard, lumber, and paper for books, magazines, and newsprint. They risk their lives to make ours easier and better!
Illustrations, from above: The writer, Noel Sherry, with Twitchell Lake’s Poet Laureate hat on, summer 2023; the Dam at Belfort, on the Beaver River (courtesy of the Town of Croghan) and used in Nick Montalbano’s article “Local History: The Hamlet of Belfort;” (3) Harry Martin running the Beaver River below Belfort Dam in flood stage, pencil sketch by Noel Sherry; and “A Bucksaw Contest” in The Lumber Camp News published in Old Forge in 1948.