If you get a sample of what it really was like during the hey day of Maine’s Great Age of Logging, make plans to visit the Ambejejus Boom House, on Ambejejus Lake, near Millinocket and Baxter State Park.
It’s been 35 years since Maine’s last logging drive, 35 years since trees felled in the northern forests were cut into four-foot lengths and floated down rivers such as the Kennebec and Penobscot to the lakes below. There, they’d be corralled and chained into boom bags, each holding between 3,500 and 5,000 cords of pulpwood, and towed onward by boat. If it weren’t for Chuck Harris, the Ambajejus Boom House likely would have been lost to history.
Sited northwest of Millinocket, where the West Branch of the Penobscot River flows into Ambejejus Lake, this National Historic Register-listed property is the only structure remaining from the West Branch drives. Its heritage as a shelter for river drivers and boom workers dates back to 1835. “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 is a soft-spoken man who has river water running through his veins. He’s worked in Maine’s woods and rivers since he was 18, first as a deck hand 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 Harris and Kidney 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 boarded until Harris began repairing it in the mid- to late-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’s 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 didn’t 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 capitol 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 Ambajejus Boom House to educate a younger generation about what their forefathers did and what the area is all about. He’s dedicated it to the men he worked with 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. ” There was no safety equipment back then. A lot of the old timers I worked with couldn’t even swim.”
Harris doesn’t guide people through the boom house, but he’s often on site, either working on the house or building a birchbark canoe. He’ll answer questions from those who’ve taken the time to go through the house and read the signage. Sometimes he’ll relate stories from his experiences or passed down from other river men. “Cowboys are nothing but river drivers on horseback,” he says. “When the logs jammed during the drive, sometimes there would be hundreds of cords piled up on rocks. You’d have to get it moving again, then jump back in a boat and get out of the way. If it happened in a gorge, a man would be lowered down with a rope tied around his waist carrying about a six-foot stick with dynamite tied to the end. He’d jam that into the jam, and get hauled out of there before she blew.” And like cowboys, after a drive, many river men would head to Bangor. “They’d be broke within a month, just like the cowboys off a cattle drive. They’d whooped it up, spent the money, and be back on the drive again.”
There is no admission fee to visit the Ambajejus Boom House, but Harris is mighty 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 Maine site.
Note: Summer access to the Ambajejus Boom House 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 via 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 via canoe or kayak on a windy day.
The Big Moose Inn, Cabin & Campground offers a two-hour pontoon boat cruise to the Ambajejus Boom House on the first and last Saturday of June and August. It also offers canoe and kayak rentals.
Guided paddles can be arranged through the New England Outdoor Center. 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.