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What is Log Driving?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

Log driving is the process of transporting timber down a waterway, most often a large river. Rivers are used for log driving because the current will naturally propel the logs downriver, making the drive easier and quicker. River drivers, or log drivers, were workers who would help guide the logs downstream using pikes, or long poles used to push logs and free them when they jammed. Log driving was a very dangerous profession, as a driver was often required to walk across the logs as they floated to free up jams. Many drivers died by falling between logs and getting crushed.

As logging in Europe and North America began to boom, the need for transporting timber from the isolated sources downriver to more populated areas increased. Log driving was very often the fastest way to transport the timber, especially considering the timber mills tended to move regularly as supplies of trees dwindled in a particular area. The logs were transported to the river to be floated downstream, and teams of river drivers would tend to the floating wood to ensure log jams did not develop. If a jam did develop, a driver would have to nimbly run from the shore of the river onto the floating logs to address the jam.

Transporting timber down a waterway is called log driving.
Transporting timber down a waterway is called log driving.

These jams were often very difficult to remedy, so the river drivers had to be quite strong and knowledgeable about the best ways to leverage the heavy timbers in the unsteady conditions. Once the jam was freed, the driver would need to get away from the jam quickly to avoid falling in the water or between two timbers heavy enough to crush him. Many drivers died this way, but many men also sought these dangerous jobs because they were relatively high paying. Men who ran across the logs during log driving processes were often smaller and lighter in stature so they could be quick and nimble across the timbers, yet strong enough to move the logs once they reached the jam.

A lumberjack working.
A lumberjack working.

The practice of log driving is obsolete now, as other safer and more efficient methods of transporting lumber have been developed. The culture that developed around the practice, however, lives on in many parts of North America and Europe. Folk stories and songs were borne from the practice and the men who participated in it, and many places in North America and Europe host river driving festivals that celebrate the practice and the stories that came out of it.

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    • Transporting timber down a waterway is called log driving.
      By: Lars Johansson
      Transporting timber down a waterway is called log driving.
    • A lumberjack working.
      By: Val Thoermer
      A lumberjack working.