American Elephants

The Clearwater River Log Drives: File Under Extinct Occupations for Labor Day Weekend by The Elephant's Child
Previously published in 2014
Northern Idaho once had a splendid stand of white pine. Logging on the upper Clearwater river began in North Central Idaho in 1928 and continued until 1971. That last great Log Drive, was an historic ninety-mile river trek from the upper reaches of the North Fork of the Clearwater down to the Potlatch mill, the world’s largest white pine sawmill,  at the confluence of the Clearwater and the Snake River at Lewiston, Idaho.The 1971 Log Drive was described as the last major white-water sawlog river drive in  the United States. In 1971, the completion of the Dworshak Dam meant the end of log drives and inundated the stretch of the North Fork of the Clearwater. Most drives started about May 10th and lasted about 21 days. In the spring, loggers prepared for the snow melt and rising waters. The Wanigan was assembled— a floating cookhouse with two bunkhouses that would follow the drive down the river. Food, tools, safety equipment and work-boats were prepared. It was a cold, harsh and dangerous environment for the river men. Their job was to recover any logs hung up on the banks, sand bars or islands and send them on their way again.

In the early years of the drive, flumes were built from the woods to the bank of the river. Tree lengths were skidded down to the river then bucked by sawyers into saw logs about 16½ feet long. Peavey crews accompanied the logs, keeping them moving, breaking up jams and sometimes having to dynamite jams to get them moving again.

clearwater log driveThis picture gives you an impression of the mass, and the potential for jams. The men  wore heavy caulked boots with thick leather soles and steel caulks for traction on the logs.A slip could not only send you into icy water, but the logs were dangerous. Work boats were originally bateaux with oars, then outboards and  they eventually developed jet boats with powerful engines that could help to pull logs out of jams.

After a day of cold, hard dangerous work, three hot meals a day were important and the number one priority on the drive was a good cook. The company furnished the best cook and the best food they could get. Hearty meals meant a lot, and the work developed good appetites.


Here a wanigan hits a patch of white water — this wanigan will have a bunkhouse on each end, with double steel framed bunks, with warm wool blankets and an Arctic heater that burned presto logs for warmth at night, and in the middle the cookhouse with a smaller stove than most kitchens, and a cook who also had to pilot the raft.

log drive

Here’s a good shot of the peavey men at work. They still make peaveys, and there are still lumber mills and lumber mills have mill ponds, but the big log drives are gone forever.

On a Labor Day weekend, take a moment to honor hard work and  real men who once did very hard jobs.

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