The River Pigs of Logging
The remote virgin forests of northern Idaho represented a fortune in timber--if it could be brought to market. In areas not immediately adjacent to a railroad, the fast-moving rivers offered an economical way to get timber to the sawmills. However, it was not as simple as it sounds. Logs would get stuck on rocks, lodge in bends in the river, or snag on the bottom. Untended, a single stuck log could quickly become a vast logjam, difficult to remove. The men who undertook the dangerous task of guiding the logs downstream were known as “river pigs.”
River Pigs had three roles: (1) the driver pushed, pried and pulled the logs off rocks and debris. (2) the rear (Sacking) crew searched for logs that were stuck along the way. And (3) the elite jam were in front of the flow of logs clearing any initial jams or obstacles. The tools of the trade for the river pig was a pair of sturdy cork boots with rows of spikes on the soles to help the driver to walk on the slippery logs, a 12 ft pole used to push logs, and a peavey. The peavey was a special tool consisting of a 30 inch to 50 inch handle with a metal spear on one end and a moveable hook slightly above the spear. It enabled the driver to grasp the log to move it downstream. The crews were ferried up and down the river by a large, flat bottom boat called a bateau, when they weren’t in the icy water directing logs.
A River Pig had to be remarkably sure-footed to move across the bobbing logs without falling in. Contemporaries often referred to River Pigs “waltzing” across the rolling logs in the white water. Their fancy footwork appeared graceful as they glided from one log to the next. It sounds dangerous and it was. One slip and a log driver could be drowned or crushed between a moving log and an immovable obstacle. But each day the brave men gracefully balanced on the moving timber insuring the progress to the mill. They were the key to a successful river drive.
North Idaho lumber companies utilized the creeks, rivers and lakes as modes of transport from 1900 to 1948. Timber was sometimes harvested in the winter when it could be skidded with oxen or steam donkeys across the ice and snow to the riverbanks. There it would be stacked waiting for spring run-off to sweep the logs downstream towards the mill. When multiple timber companies used the same drainage, the logs were either branded on the end or a mark was cut into the side allowing them to be sorted as they arrived downstream. Similar to cattle ranching on the open range, each company had its own unique mark that had to be registered through Idaho State.
The era of the River Pigs came to an end before 1950 with the depletion of timber, pending law suits from land owners over damages, and environmental concerns. The river of logs created flooding to nearby farmland and altered the course of the rivers. Several land owners and farmers filed law suits against the lumber companies for the damage done. As governmental offices became more aware of the environmental impact of the river logging and especially the splash dams, regulations and restrictions were put into place. The last log drive on Priest River was in 1949 and the last log drive in Idaho was on the Clearwater River in 1971. Logging techniques modernized with the invention of trucks, heavy equipment and helicopters and the River Pig became a part of history.