A former South Waterford man recently recalled the timber salvaging operations the U.S. government conducted after the Hurricane of 1938.
“I remember them quite vividly,” said 85-year-old Clarence W. Brown, a retired licensed master plumber who now lives at the Fryeburg Health Care Center in Fryeburg.
Brown was an 11-year-old boy living in South Waterford village with his grandparents when the remnants of one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit New England blew through. It took down thousands and thousands of trees.
The U.S. Forest Service reported at the time that even with the large-scale responses to the hurricane, it was the single storm that most greatly influenced the long-term makeup of the New England forest landscape.
“I remember it coming up,” said Brown whose house lay at the foot of one of the mountains. “I could hear the wind blowing up by my bedroom window. I could hear the noise of the wind. I pulled the shade for the night but it let go and rolled up and woke me.”
He stayed in his bed listening to the storm.
Earlier in the day it had killed more than 250 people when its 100-plus-mile-per hour winds smashed into Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The highest winds recorded in Portland were about 70 miles per hour.
“I'm not so sure it might have been a little bit of a tornado,” Brown said.
Local reports at the time said Maine faced two grave problems in the storm's aftermath — mitigating the fire hazard caused by the downed trees and salvaging felled timber to help retain the economic lifeline of the state.
“Valuable stands of lumber were reduced to a shambles, a twisted uprooted mass of debris,” the Lewiston Evening Journal reported about the salvage operation two years later. “Thousands of acres were thus affected, it being nearly impossible to accurately determine the real loss suffered.”
By November 1938, U.S. Forestry officials in Boston were saying there were up to 20 ponds with a capacity of 38,000,000 board feet available for storage, according to the Lewiston Evening Journal at the time. More storage areas were to be designated as the months went on. Similar sites were established throughout New England, the biggest in Concord, N.H.
Timber Salvaging Begins
Salvaging began in December 1938. Field headquarters were established in Bridgton and 35 receiving stations throughout the hurricane area were approved. These storage sites were located for the most part at ponds adjacent to sizable areas of salvageable timber. Preparations were made to preserve the logs, should it become necessary to hold them. Hundreds of lakes across New England were designated as timber reservoirs.
Logs were driven down rivers and ponds using booms to get there, Brown said. Those that weren't driven by boom to the mill for immediate cutting remained on the surface of the ice-covered ponds and lakes until the spring. When the thawing began they fell to the bottom and were preserved.
One such site was at Bear Pond in South Waterford, where the U.S. Forestry Service set up a temporary saw mill at the outlet to the pond about a half a mile from Brown's home on the Bridgton end of the pond.
The Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration was formed to oversee the operation. In Oxford County, the system of lakes and rivers became important not only as storage reservoirs but as the path to Sanford where the Saco River carried millions of logs to port.
More than 2 million board feet of felled timber were swept through the white water of the Crooked River in Harrison to a storage basin at Scribner's Mill.
Using a network of planks and piers, more than 2 million board feet were sluiced through the bridge at Norway to complete a storage basin in Pennesseewassee Lake. Dry sites were established at Fryeburg and Harrison to store the less important trees such as Norway and red pine and hemlock.
The site of the temporary government sawmill on Bear Pond is gone. Brown said a few years after it was abandoned in the early 1940s, all he could find was a little pile of sawdust. It was that way across New England.
“They were gone after they finished cutting those logs and boards,” he said.
Today, there is still an ongoing effort to salvage the hurricane timber. Two companies in Scarborough have been permitted by the Department of Environmental Protection to attempt to locate and recover some of the timber from Maine's lakes and ponds.
The River Drive Lumber Co. is expected to harvest hurricane timber in Bear Pond next summer. The company owner is also looking for other places to harvest timber in Bridgton and Bethel.