The Heart of New England
Book Review:
Logging Railroads Along the Pemigewasset River by Bill Gove
(Bondcliff Books: paper, 166 pages, $27.95).

Book review by Rebecca Rule

Over the years Bill Gove has been chugging along the rails of New Hampshire
history, producing a steady harvest of books on logging and railroads --
J.E. Henry’s Logging Railroads, Logging Railroads of the Saco River Valley, and Log
Drives on the Connecticut River

His new book is
Logging Railroads Along the Pemigewasset River. As his to-the-
point titles suggest, Gove, a retired forester, says it like it is and was.

The logging industry defined our North Country -- economically, culturally, and
even physically -- from the eighteen hundreds through the first half of 20th
century. It’s influence continues, in places, today. The recent closing of the Berlin
(New Hampshire) lumber mills is transforming that community right now as the
mill faces demolition and residents, some of them third generation mill workers,
try to figure out what happens next.

Years ago, rampant clear cutting by timber barons changed the mountain
landscape forever. You cut all the trees on the slope of a mountain like Lincoln,
and you lose the soil to erosion. Those old growth stands of spruce will never
come back.

Ernest Russell wrote scathingly about one operation in the May 1909 issue of

Between 600 and 700 men are at work there (west of North Woodstock in the Lost River
Area) as I write, butchering the beautiful forest of that valley and doing the most reckless
lumbering I have ever seen in the mountains. Do not lay this at (J.E.) Henry’s door but at the
door of the great paper company (Publishers) that sold the stumpage of that 30,000 acre tract
to a worse than ignorant contractor.

On the plus side, public outrage over the devastation led to conservation alliances
and efforts -- the creation of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire
Forests and the adoption of the New Hampshire Wilderness Act of 1984,
protecting 77,000 acres of forest in the White Mountains. Without the Weeks Act of
1911, which “authorized the use of public monies for the purchase of privately
owned timberlands” there would be no White Mountain National Forest.

Logging Railroads Along the Pemigewasset, Gove limits his subject
geographically, but covers a lot of country just the same. He covers the big players
(including J.E. Henry, George Johnson, George James a.k.a. “The Boar-Constrictor
of the White Mountains). He covers the politics and maneuvering that brought
great wealth to a few and employed generations. He describes life at the lumber
camps, how mills turned timber into lumber, the importance of immigrant
workers, the process of moving the logs by rail and river, and gives us close-ups
of those magnificent machines, the trains themselves.

At the heart of the book are the stories of individuals like Jimmy King, a cookee
(cook’s helper), who started working in the camps. He cooked for 120 hungry men,
three meals a day, seven days a week.

When their plates were empty we loaded them right up again. Bread, biscuits, donuts, bacon,
eggs, cake. . . . I used to cook up a bushel of beans at a time. Was the cook good? Oh, I wish
you could have had a meal of his.

The cookees started at 3:30 AM making breakfast for 5:00. The men had to be in
the woods at daylight. They’d come back for the noontime meal, and again for
dinner, then out into the woods again until dark while the cookees cleaned up the
kitchen. No talking was allowed at meals except to ask for food to be passed. “If
they talked, they’d sit and visit, you know.”

We had French fellows, Canadians and Polish, who couldn’t talk English. The Polish fellows
didn’t know how to eat. We had to show them how. They’d grab a dish of meat, pull it right
in front of them and eat the whole of it. They’d do the same with a dish of potatoes. They’d
never peel them.

The work was tough and so were the men. In 1913 contractor Jerry Matson got
caught in a gale while walking from Woodstock to a mountain camp to pay his
men. But forty-two below and hurricane force winds didn’t deter him.

To cross the mill pond in the Pemigewasset River he, as usual, headed across the logging
railroad trestle, which had no cat-walk for foot travel. The cold wind was so strong that
Matson had to crawl on his hands and knees from tie to tie... Breathing was difficult against
the full force of the wind, pellets of ice stung badly on impact and great blocks of crusted
snow torn loose from the pond surface were hurtling through the air.

Once over the pond, he continued to craw for half a mile until he got into spruce
woods, which seemed warm by comparison. At camp, he found the men inside.
The camp boss, Bill Curtis, thought the weather was too harsh to send them out. “I
never thought you’d find me sett’n round the stove,” Bill said. When Matson took
off his coat and wool shirt, he found that the wind had driven powdered snow
through two layers, “ packing it onto his flannel shirt underneath.” Later he
admitted that if he hadn’t been in good shape “physically and mentally, the
experience might have been serious.”

Gove includes more than 225 vintage photos as well as maps and charts, and he
works in a good many dates and statistics, but the stories were what kept me
reading. To see pictures from Bill Gove’s vast collection check out  

To purchase book click below:

About this article's author: Rebecca Rule is a humorist, author and storyteller, who is the
author of two collections of short fiction, including The Best Revenge, winner of the NH
Writers Project award for fiction.

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