Plenty of history lies at bottom of the CT river

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

Some of the region's most fascinating history lies resting and ready to tell its story on the bottom of the Connecticut River and Ed Klekowski is a film maker who is bringing those stories to us.

Klekowski has explored the Quabbin Reservoir in his first film and relived the Great Flood of 1936 in his second. Now, he'll tell television viewers about an era on the river that is forgotten: the great log drives from Vermont to Massachusetts.

His new film, Dynamite, Whiskey and Wood Connecticut River Log Drives 1870-1915 will make its debut at 8 p.m. August 7 on WGBY.

Klekowski is a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who views the documentaries as an extension of his role as a teacher. An experienced diver, he explained to Reminder Publications that a long-term grant from the National Geographic Society to survey the bottom of the Connecticut River inspired his interest in the history hidden there.

"We kept finding stuff from the dives," he explained. When you come across huge metal clamps driven into stone or see what appear to be log cabins that were really the base of artificial islands, "it prompts your interest," he added.

In the new film Klekowski describes an era in which the Connecticut River was a unified "economic engine." Although the river's waterpower was used in many locations, the Connecticut has never been a navigable river. Only during the annual log drives from 1870 through 1915 was the river used as means of transportation for goods from its head waters in northern Vermont to sawmills in Turners Falls and at the Ox Bow in Northampton.

The log drives on the Connecticut were the longest in America. After spending the winter sawing down trees in northern Vermont and New Hampshire, loggers would then drive 250,000 spruce logs the 300 miles from the river's headwaters near Quebec to sawmills in Massachusetts.

Along the way, the loggers had to contend with dams, bridges and white water that could create huge logjams that posed life-threatening dangers to the loggers. It took from April to August for the logs to reach sawmills at Turners Falls, Mt. Tom and Holyoke in August. Much of the lumber from these drives was used to build the Massachusetts cities of Greenfield, Holyoke and Springfield and Hartford, CT.

If your home was built during this time, Klekowski said there's a good chance the buildings framing is made of the spruce that came down the Connecticut River.

The river that existed during the times of the log drives isn't the same river today, Klekowski said. New dams have changed the river and he noted that has been a good thing for the preservation of the river's history. The artifacts left by the loggers and others have remains intact underwater.

And Klekowski has left them there as once they are removed from the water, unless they are properly treated, they begin to deteriorate immediately.

Klekowski said that there were several reasons for the end of the drives. The development of wood pulp paper technology meant that paper mills sprung up along the river and used local wood.

The other reason is that the old growth spruce forests in Vermont had been depleted.

"They skinned the land," he said.

The drive in 1915 was the final hurrah. Klekowski said that some loggers who had participated in the first drives came back to be part of this end of an era. So many logs were cut in this last drive, that it took the sawmills two years to process the lumber.

Klekowski is now developing several other ideas for documentaries on local history and said this story was too big for an hour-long program. He hopes to put extra footage on the DVD that will be eventually released.

Dynamite, Whiskey and Wood Connecticut River Log Drives 1870-1915 will premiere Aug. 7 at 8p.m. on WGBY. It will also be shown on Aug. 12, at 7:30 p.m., Aug. 13, at 3 p.m. and Aug.14 at 1:30 p.m.