Thursday, February 19, 2015

What happened at the 1949 log drive drownings, as told by someone who was there

By Ione Kingen Smith, as told to John Bradbury

There have been several accounts of what happened on the 1949 log drive, when three of the loggers drowned. The most repeated story is that of the drive foreman that year. He said the men panicked and jumped from the bateau (a shallow-draft flat-bottomed boat).

That could not be further from the truth. He wasn’t there. I was. This is how it happened.

It was May 15, 1949. The Clearwater River was raging because of the snowmelt from the huge snow fall that winter. And when I say raging, I mean raging. The water took out the Peck Bridge that I saw pushed upside down under the Lenore Bridge. Stumps, trees, buildings and countless other types of debris were floating down the river. The Kooskia dump was even flooded and contributed to the mess.

My 29-year-old husband, Al Smith, was in the drive crew at Lenore that morning. I was standing alongside the road with my two-year-old daughter and Mary Kiskilla, known as Finn Mary. Her husband, Tom, was in charge of the bateau at Lenore, where some logs had jammed up against some trees that were jutting out of the water 10 to 12 feet out from the bank.

Tom had told the foreman that morning he didn’t think they should be on the river with the water like it was, but was told to get to work. The crew didn’t like the drive foreman, who they called Doe-Doe.

Frenchy Dupee, Michigan Bill, and a third man were on the shore, and the rest of the crew were in the bateau. They were Walt Anderson, Leonard Chase, Ray Fitting, Ben Larson, Oatie Oatman, Tom Kiskilla, and my husband, Al. The bateaus were not yet mechanized; they still used oars for power. Tom was at the bow and Al was at the back helping steer with a pike pole. I forget who was working the oars.

All of a sudden the current pushed a large, uprooted tree that was submerged, called a sweeper, under the boat.

As quick as a flash the limbs of the sweeper tipped the bateau. Tom and Al were thrown off each end of the boat and the other men were flipped into the river toward the main current. Tom, Al, Ben Larson, and Oatie Oatmen made it to a tree that they climbed to get out of the water. Walt Anderson and Ray Fitting didn’t make it to the tree.

I last saw Walt flailing in the water like he didn’t know how to swim, and Ray was trying to shed his heavy work clothes, but almost immediately they were pulled under the water. Leonard Chase was hanging on to the bateau as it went downriver. I never saw him again.

It took an hour and a half to get the bateau from Cherry Lane up to Lenore so the men in the tree could be taken to shore. When it arrived the drive foreman told the crew to use a 100 foot three-inch diameter hemp rope to pull the bateau to shore. Tom told Al to cut the rope or it would tip again. He cut the rope and the bateau made it to shore.

When the men got off the boat the foreman told Al he was fired. Al told him he was too late—he had quit while he was waiting for him in the tree.

The bateau in this picture is the one that was later hit by a submerged tree on the raging Clearwater River, near Lenore, which led to the deaths of three log drive workers.

Here is the 1949 log drive crew working at Dick’s Creek.

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