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Timber tales

If logs could talk, these would tell of an era when the Kentucky River was a loggers’ highway that mountain men rode on rafts.
By Jeff McDanald
Special to the Herald-Leader

George Dean stood beside a log cut more than 100 years ago and given to the High Bridge museum after it was found last fall. The museum also houses an exhibit of logging tools from the days before the Kentucky River dam and lock system was built. Photo by David Perry.

Mickey Humphrey is no lumberjack. He wields neither ax nor saw. There’s no plaid shirt and suspenders. As site project manager for the ongoing reconstruction of Kentucky River Dam No. 9 in Jessamine County, his requisite gear includes walkie-talkie and floatation vest.

Yet Humphrey and his crew have been responsible for harvesting more than two dozen 100-year-old logs that are drawing interest from historians.

To Humphrey, a stray log is nothing but a minor hindrance to keeping his $14.7 million project on track.

“We started finding the logs about 20 feet down in the river mud,” Humphrey said. “A log on the bottom means that it takes us longer to drive the sheet pilings into the bedrock. The logs and other debris have to come up and out. It wasn’t long before we had a stack of seven or eight logs ready to be hauled off for disposal. We didn’t realize what they were.”

This log at High Bridge Kentucky River Museum shows the "R" identifying logs cut for W.J. Roberts Co. sawmill and floated downriver.

Enter George Dean and Bill Grier. On a summer evening last year, Dean, a Jessamine County Magistrate, and Grier, a retired engineer who sits on the Kentucky River Authority, were a few hundred yards upriver from Dam No. 9 attending a Valley View Ferry Authority meeting.

As the meeting adjourned, they made an impromptu decision to venture down to check out the progress on the new dam. The site was shut down for the day, save for a few workers that were finishing up. They ran into a State Engineer making his rounds, and he showed them around the site.

The group stumbled upon the stack of grayish mud-caked logs, most of them about twelve feet long and two feet in diameter. The logs looked mysteriously out of place. Upon closer inspection, they noticed a clue -- the Circle “R.” brand on the log ends. The kind of marking that loggers were using at the turn of the century. The brands served dual purpose -- warding off log poachers and identifying the sawmill that the logs were bound for.

In his book, “The Kentucky River,” author William E. Ellis identifies the Circle “R” as the mark of the W.J. Roberts Company, one of the five large sawmills that were operating in Frankfort in the early 1900s.

“Logging was a vital part of Kentucky’s economy,” Ellis said. “It was a big business that was a livelihood for many folks, and the Kentucky River was the logger’s highway.”

Riding the tide.

In the halcyon days of logging between 1870 and 1920, logs poured out of Eastern Kentucky down the north, south, and middle forks of the Kentucky River past Beattyville. Sometimes the logs were destined for sawmills in Irvine, Ford (near Boonesborough), Valley View and High Bridge, but often they were headed for the long-established sawmills in Frankfort. Typically logs were lashed together with saplings or chains in rafts of 12 to 16 feet wide and 60 to 70 feet in length.

To float well, the rafts would be interspersed with “floaters” like yellow poplar among the heavier “sinkers,” such as oak, walnut, beech, and hickory. Not surprisingly, the Lock No. 9 logs have been identified as red oak “sinkers.”

Mickey Humphrey showed some of the 100-year-old logs pulled out of the Kentucky River during the construction of the new dam near on the Kentucky River.

The late Kentucky Historian-Laureate Thomas Clark described the rugged men that rode the rafts down river as “mountain men” in his 1942 book, “The Kentucky.”

According to Clark, “Every logman knew that the necessary equipment for his run down with the big tide consisted of a peavey (a long wooden shaft capped with a metal hook), a sixty-foot cable, a frying pan, an ax, a half-dozen hickory linchpins, and two well-oiled forty-fours tied with strong buckskin thongs to his britches top.”

The Big Freeze of 1905.

Jerry Raisor, curator of the Fort Boonesborough River Museum, poses a theory about how the logs came to rest in the mud at Dam No. 9. He thinks they may be artifacts from the big freeze of 1905.

“In February 1905 all travel on the upper Kentucky was paralyzed by a freeze,” Raisor said. “A quarter-million logs were encased in ice from Beattyville to Irvine. The ice expanded and rose 20 feet into a tangled mass. They used dynamite to try to break it up, but that only made things worse.”

An early March thaw released the logjam and sent hundreds of thousands of logs rushing. They crashed over the Corps of Engineers’ newly constructed locks and dams at Boonseboro (No. 10) and at Valley View (No. 9). Mickey Humphrey showed some of the 100-year-old logs pulled out of the Kentucky River during the construction of the new dam near on the Kentucky River. The effect of the wild logs and the rushing water “flanked” or scoured a new channel around the dam abutments at Nos. 10 and 9.

River travel was disrupted for the next year while repairs were made, and the Corps of Engineers district commander lost his job. “The flanking was how the beach was formed at Boonesborough,” Raisor said. “I would say that the logs that the construction workers are finding at No. 9 today were deposited in the rush after the thaw.”

Jessamine County magistrate George Dean has been instrumental in procuring logging tools like this one-man cross-cut saw for the High Bridge Kentucky River Museum.

Well-preserved relics.

According to Ellis’s book, the combination of the river mud and the cooler temperatures of the river bottom act to preserve the wood of the submerged logs.

“These are rare old-growth logs,” explains Raisor. “These trees are different from what you would find today. The trees in the dense dark virgin forest faced fierce competition. They would characteristically grow straight and tall with tighter rings than today’s hardwoods. The logs could potentially be worth hundreds of dollars each in today’s market, but that is surpassed by the historic value.”

Like Raisor, Jessamine County Magistrate George Dean is keeping the focus on the historic value of the logs. He found a home for some of the logs in the museum at High Bridge Park, where a collection of logging implements was already on display.

“These logs represent a part of Kentucky history and Jessamine County’s history that is nearly forgotten,” Dean said. “I think it’s important that we remember the spirit and courage of the log runners.”

The north fork of the Kentucky River about 1900, when it was a major logging thoroughfare.

If you go To see the logs from the Valley View Ferry:

Ride the ferry at no charge Monday-Friday, 6:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Saturday 8:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; and Sunday, 9 a.m.-6:00 p.m.

To visit the logging exhibit at High Bridge Park and Museum:

High Bridge Park is open daily 8:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. The park features a modern playground, picnic areas and a view of the historic High Bridge. The museum will be open during the High Bridge Homecoming Festival August 15-17. Otherwise, it is open by appointment only. Call (859) 885-4500.