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Rescued boom house harkens to log drives of yesteryear

By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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It’s been 35 years since Maine’s last logging drive, since trees felled in the northern forests were cut into 4-foot lengths and floated down rivers such as the Kennebec and Penobscot to the lakes below. There, they would be corralled and chained into boom bags, each holding 3,500 to 5,000 cords of pulpwood, and towed onward by boat.

Northwest of Millinocket, where the West Branch of the Penobscot flows into Ambejejus Lake, the Ambajejus Boom House, a National Historic Register property, is the only structure remaining from the West Branch drives. Its heritage as a shelter for river drivers and boom workers dates to 1835. If it were not for Chuck Harris, the Ambajejus Boom House probably would have been lost to history.

“This one was built in 1907 and transported across the ice in three sections,’’ says Harris, the self-appointed caretaker. It remained in use until the last West Branch log drive in 1971.

Harris has worked in Maine’s woods and on its rivers since he was 18, first as a deckhand on a tow boat on the Chesuncook Lake drives, later on the Kennebec drives, and then for Great Northern Paper. When the drives ended, he helped clean the waterways, salvaging lost boom logs and dri-ki, or driftwood, with foreman Harold Kidney, who lived in the camp adjacent to the boom house. One weekend they returned to the boom house to find the windows broken. “Vandals had made a mess of the property, so we boarded it up,’’ Harris says.

The boom house remained that way until Harris began repairing it in the 1980s. “I knew it was on the National Historic Register, and I’d had it in the back of my mind for a while to fix it into a museum, so the history wouldn’t be lost.’’ He has since replaced all the windows, painted it, replaced bunks that had been burned, and rebuilt the lakefront log restraining wall. “I spent summer after summer working for nothing, I was never paid for being a watchman, it was a labor of love, but it worked.’’

To counter vandalism, Harris stopped locking the door. “Out here in the woods, if someone wants in, they’ll just bust down the door,’’ he says. “In the last 10 years, nothing’s really been harmed.’’ Now property owner Brookfield Power sends crews to help with repairs, including most recently leveling the building and rebuilding the porch.

Harris did not simply save the boom house, he also outfitted the shed, kitchen, main room, and upstairs bunkrooms with artifacts. “When I worked around the dams and lakes, I had the opportunity to go into old barns and boom houses and collect old tools,’’ he says. “I had a little shack, and I kept saving things.’’ He went to local libraries and researched the history, enlarged old photos, and created signage explaining the purpose and often heritage of the items on display. And he used his artistic background to make paintings of different boom houses and structures associated with the drives. Visitors who take the time to examine the exhibits and read the explanations leave with a solid understanding of Maine’s log-driving heritage.

“Lumbering here made Bangor the lumber capital of the world at one time. It also made Great Northern Paper one of the best papermakers in the world, and this is how it got started, driving logs down the river,’’ Harris says. He saved the boom house to educate a younger generation about what their forefathers did and what the area is all about. He has dedicated it to the men who didn’t have a chance to tell their story. “Many died on the drives. For every man lost working the woods, 10 drowned on the drive,’’ he says.

Harris doesn’t guide people through the boom house, but he is often on site, either working on the house or building a birchbark canoe. He answers questions from those who have taken the time to go through the house and read the signage.

There is no admission fee, but Harris is appreciative of those who “slip a dollar or two into the donation box. Every little bit helps,’’ he says, as there is no fund dedicated to preserving this historic site.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at hilary@mainetravelmaven.com.

If You Go

If you go . . .
Summer access is by boat. Experienced paddlers with their own boats can put in at the public landing on Spencer Cove, across from the Big Moose Inn, approximately 8 miles northwest of Millinocket on the Baxter State Park Road; an alternative is to arrange a shuttle and put in at the bridge on Grant Brook Road and paddle downstream to the house, then take-out at the public landing. The trip is not advisable by canoe or kayak on a windy day.
The Big Moose Inn, Cabin & Campground (207-723-8391, www.bigmoosecabins.com) offers a two-hour pontoon boat cruise to the boom house on the first and last Saturday of June and August for $45 per person; other times may be available. It also offers canoe and kayak rentals for $15 per day.
Guided paddles can be arranged through the New England Outdoor Center (800-634-7238, www.neoc.com). Rates vary with number of paddlers, but expect to pay around $350 for two for a fully outfitted, guided, full-day trip with a picnic lunch.