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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Accidental Polar Plunge

Last weekend's polar plunges in Oshkosh, Madison and other Wisconsin cities called to mind the involuntary dunkings of the workers who long ago harvested Wisconsin forests. Here, for example, is a recollection by John E. Nelligan (1852-1937), head of a logging crew in northeastern Wisconsin, concerning a novice lumberjack who got too near the edge of a jog jam in the spring of 1878:

"We finally arrived at Oconto Falls, after running the logs through the Lindquist Dam, and there we began cleaning up the timbers which were stranded around the head of the falls. Paddy [the new logger, who was in fact not Irish but German] kept working closer and closer to the danger spot, where a tremendous volume of water thundered over the edge and took an abrupt plunge of forty feet to the riverbed below. I warned him repeatedly of the danger there and told him to keep away from the place and let more experienced men do the dangerous work. But he persisted, probably feeling that he should share the danger with the rest of the crew. The inevitable finally happened. Paddy made a misstep, was thrown into the terrific current, and carried over the falls before anyone could raise a hand to help him.

"We were all quite dumbfounded, stood paralyzed for a time. When we regained our wits, we realized that it was useless to have any hopes. No man, we were sure, could live after going over the falls and being battered about in the seething caldron below. He would be either lost under the wing dams, or smashed to bits among the rocks. We all felt the loss of Paddy keenly, but the work had to go on and we continued silently, thoughtfully, and perhaps a bit more carefully."

But that was not the end of the story.

"About an hour later Paddy appeared on the scene again," Nelligan continued. "We stared at him in awe, for it was like welcoming a person back from the dead. His clothes were torn to shreds, but his bones were unbroken and, aside from the shaking up he had received, he seemed none the worse for his experience. It was little short of miraculous. He had been swept over a forty foot falls into an inferno of water, had been carried down a treacherous rock-studded rapids a mile long, and still had come out alive and unbroken. His tremendous vitality and strength, the high water, and plain, blind luck had combined to save him.

"'I'm all right boys,' he said in a voice which sounded a bit shaky, 'but I lost my hat.' Mr. A. Cole, superintendent of the Holt and Balcom Lumber Company happened to be there. 'Paddy,' he said, 'when I get back to Oconto I'll find you the finest hat money can buy and send it up to you.' And he did. Paddy wore it with great pride."

As that excerpt attests, Nelligan's memoir is a marvelously readable account of life in the northwoods before bait shops, time-shares, tourists or even roads had been built. His 3-part autobiography consists largely of stories about death-defying escapes, vicious brawls, camp life, holidays, log-rolling, greedy tavern owners, widespread prostitution, drunkenness, theft, intimidation and the occasional appearance of nuns in the logging camps. He also gives a step-by-step explanation of logging from the lumberjack's perspective, including everything from cruising an uncut forest to driving logs downstream to the mill, and describes his encounters with bears, wolves, porcupines, deer, woodchucks and skunks. The final section, "Human Nature in the Woods," is a devastating indictment of the greed and avarice that underlay the logging industry, in which he criticizes not only lumber barons and railroad companies for dishonesty and deception, but also corrupt land agents and contractors.

If you'd like to get better acquainted with Nelligan and the lives of Wisconsin lumberjacks, head over to our new online version of the Wisconsin Magazine of History. Select the Author field, put his name in the adjacent box, and click the search button.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on February 19, 2007

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