Sowadnehunk Falls

This song tells a surprising true story from an 1870 Maine log drive.

Before the days of trains and trucks, only rivers could transport massive amounts of timber from snowy logging camps to downstream sawmills. Things went fine where the river ran steady and straight, but rapids, rocks, shallows, waterfalls, and windy lakes meant countless problems for the crew.

Log drives in Maine were known as the most challenging—and the toughest was the West Branch of the Penobscot River, carrying millions of board feet of timber down to Bangor every spring.

Author Fannie Hardy Eckstorm grew up along the Penobscot in Brewer Maine, with lumbermen and river drivers as frequent family visitors. She saw the inner workings of logging camps and river drives first-hand on north woods expeditions with her father, finding the men remarkable for their wide-ranging skills, cavalier bravery, and deep-seated work ethic. She tells some of their (true) stories in her 1904 book Penobscot Man.

This song tells one of those stories, Lugging Boat on Sowadnehunk, about a log driving crew and their boats at a West Branch waterfall.

For my discovery of the story I thank Chrissy Fowler, whose family's house on the West Branch saw many decades of log drives. Her great-great-great-grandparents were the first white settlers of nearby Millinocket, and her grandmother's impressive shelf of local logging lore holds a copy of Eckstorm's book.

I invite you to listen to the song, read the lyrics below, see the notated melody, and click on the pictures (from log drives on many rivers) for a larger view. And the story itself is well worth a read, full of fine detail and color.

I've worked this river all my life, the woods down to the mills
I've ridden logs and broken jams and had my share of spills
But the day that I remember clearest even when I'm drunk
Is when Big Sebattis Mitchell ran the falls at Sowadnehunk
We'd carry past the falls, you can't go over and survive
Twelve men to lug two heavy boats our fourth haul of the drive
The last at three full miles left us aching shoulders all
Imagine our excitement for another lovely haul
We'll drive 'em down, we'll drive 'em down
We'll drive 'em down to Bangor town
River fast or river slow, every log is bound to go
All the way on down to Bangor town
Beneath 400 pounds of boat it's not your Sunday tea
Joe was crowded on a rock so hard he fell and banged his knee
That dropped the weight on Jim and took a strip of skin from Jack
On water boats get treated rough, on land they pay us back
Finally at the bottom in the welcome shade we lie
With the racing rapids roaring and the logs all tumbling by
We knew Sebat would take his time bringing up the rear
When impossibly above the falls we saw his boat appear
Sebattis and his bowman and their boat were swept away
As they landed down among the waves and rocks and logs and spray
And how they bent their paddles, whipping them from side to side
It was Left! Right! In! Out! to steer that wild ride
Sure that they would swamp or smash we raced down through the trees
But found them leaning on their paddles, smiling and at ease
No man said a word or gave a thought that we might fail
Shoulders to the boats again we hauled back up the trail
But the skill or luck that saw them through was not for us that run
We all were thrown and soaked & banged as through the rocks we spun
The boats were smashed to kindling, which most upset our boss
And one among our crew was drowned, a far sadder loss
Now you might say we were foolish but it's why I love the drive
This crew will not stand second to any man alive
Without a word they hauled on aching shoulders every one
To fight another round with death before they'd be outdone
Alternate Chorus:
We'll drive 'em down, we'll drive 'em down
We'll drive 'em down to Bangor town
Hardest river, toughest drive, best damn logging crew alive
All the way on down to Bangor town

Copyright © 2017, Rick Mohr