If you find yourself in downtown Berlin, New Hampshire, take a glance at the Androscoggin River. There, in the middle of the water, you’ll notice a long, straight line of small rocky islands poking through the surface.
It’s almost like the Androscoggin, which was the backbone of the city’s once-massive paper industry, has its own literal spine.
In this installment of NHPR’s series Surrounded: Stories from New Hampshire’s Islands, we dig into what these man-made structures were used for.
(Editor’s note: We recommend listening to this story)
Barry Kelly is driving around a field of waist-high grass in Berlin, like he’s a safari guide stalking a rhino.
“We can go through this field, and there is a spot down there where we should be able to see some piers.”
He’s hunting just east of the Androscoggin River, on the property of his family business, White Mountain Lumber Company. (We’re in a red pickup truck; its vanity plate reads ‘LOG.’)
“That’s one right there covered with trees. And there is another one,” he says, pulling up to a clearing on the riverbank.
Kelly is pointing to one of 90 or so small rocky outposts that run up the center of the Androscoggin River: the Boom Piers.
How these islands came to be requires some explanation.
“The way to get their product here was to put the wood in the water and float it down,” explains Paul ‘Poof’ Tardiff, a historian and columnist for the Berlin Daily Sun.
To set the scene, Tardiff says picture the banks of the Androscoggin lined with mills. Wood harvested north of Berlin would be dumped into the river, and then, during the annual spring river drive, sent down the waterway.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of cords were shipped this way.
“As a matter of fact, there were so many logs in the river, you couldn’t throw a line in to fish,” says Tardiff.
All that wood, however, had different owners. Big players like the Brown Company and International Paper needed to access what was theirs. So they came up with a plan.
“They had to divide the river cause they both had the right to use it,” says Kelly. “So they built these islands of rock out of hemlock framing, and divided the river.”
In the 1890s, these companies started building piers: rectangles of different sizes, but generally around 10 feet wide, made of hemlock timber. They were then filled in with rocks.
It took years to complete, but when finished, these piers stood like a row of traffic cones, spaced a few hundred feet apart, depending on the depth of the river, stretching north for eight miles, where the wood was sorted in Milan.
“And when they were built, they had chains hooked to big long logs from one pier to another, and those logs were called booms,” explains Tardiff. “So that’s where we get the name ‘Boom Piers.’”
Once the Boom Piers were in place, one company could now send its wood down the left lane, the other down the right lane. Other mills, like Barry Kelly’s own family sawmill, could also use these lanes. It was an organized highway.
But by the early 1960s, the economics of sending wood down the water shifted. Bigger trucks and better roads made autotransport more economical.
According to ‘Poof’ Tardiff, the last still-floating log was pulled from the Androscoggin in November of 1964. The Boom Piers, since then, have been left to the elements--most of the hemlock surrounding them has disappeared. But the rocky centers still poke up through the water.
“We got one up here that has as a nice American flag on it, makes it look good,” says Tardiff.
Like vertebrae on the river, the Boom Piers still help give this city its shape.