THE BIG DRIFT
A watercolor by Winslow Homer
He was a boy living a new life in a new land. And one day, from a hill overlooking Pine Eddy, Charley Kilgallen watched rafts of big logs flowing down the Kinniconick. Until that day in Spring, several years after the Civil War, no vast logging had occurred in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky; but on that day in the headwaters of Kinniconick, virgin timber was being cut. Most of the big logs were hardwoods, white oak and chestnut, maple and hickory and walnut.
Charley loved his new home in Kentucky. He marveled every day at the verdant forest and newly cleared pastures, and from his folk’s house perched high on a hill, he could glimpse the virgin stream that flowed at the foot of his hill. On that day, the roar of the creek, the wreckage of its banks, the tumult of the logs….this was an invasion not unlike the forays of Confederates into Kentucky during the War Between the States.
A Spring flood carried most of the logs all the way down the Kinniconick to its mouth at the Ohio River where they were milled and shipped and eventually became new homes and factories. On Charley’s hikes downstream he found many lodged in overhanging trees. And in one deep hole in Pine Eddy he discovered a log-jam, where dozens of giants virtually blocked the stream. Perhaps it was Charley who began to call this stretch of the eddy “the Big Drift”.
Charley had been born in County Mayo, in Ireland. His family survived the great Potato Famine that ravaged their country for five years and then ended in 1850. No record exists of the date when his parents decided to escape the hardships that continued in Ireland, so I will venture a guess. The Kilgallen family settled in their new Kentucky home in about 1860 when Charley was seven years of age. The adjacent farm was owned by the McCarty family, and it’s possible that those folks were related to the Kilgallens. McCarty is a famous Irish clan surname that traces back to the early kings of Ireland.
Rivers and streams and creeks are ever-changing. If Charley could speak to us from his grave, below the crest of the hill where he lived almost seventy years of his life, we might learn about the log-jam, how long it floated and then sank to the bottom of the Big Drift. When my Dad first paddled a scow up Pine Eddy, in the early 1920s, he looked down through clear water and saw big sunken logs, some three or four feet in diameter, at a depth of about ten feet. In all of my years at Kinney those logs remained at the bottom of The Big Drift.
Hardwood trees eventually sink because the wood is dense and much heavier than softwood. Once entombed they exist for hundreds of years, petrified in a sense; and in the last 50 or so years many of them have been recovered by scuba divers, with the help of chains and tractors. The wood is prized and extremely valuable. I have no way of learning the fate of those giants in The Big Drift, but would like to think that they remain just as Charley and I saw them long ago.
followed my lure to the boat, and when he turned away Larry cast ahead of him. The fish struck, he was hooked and a battle ensued.
In retrospect, we were foolish to overload the john-boat. When the fish was ready to net, I placed the wooden net’s opening closer to the stern, knowing that he could not come aboard mid-ships where Peggy and Bobby were situated. As Larry attempted to maneuver the musky into the net, some of the hooks on his lure caught up on the frame. When I attempted to lift him the frame broke, the fish became unhooked and the twenty-pounder was gone. The memory of that day has been bitter-sweet. On one hand, I regret that my old friend Larry failed to land a big fish, but in my heart I’m glad that the lunker got away. Perhaps the thrashing fish would have caused a tragedy if boated, the john-boat overturned and a life lost. The adventure itself, not the prize, is worth remembering.
When Charley Kilgallen died, in 1926 , he must have had thousands of memories about his farm and the creek. Hopefully he remembered fishing in the Big Drift and catching big muskies. Many years ago, in 1958 or 1959, I visited his old farm when Jim Stafford and his wife invited me to lunch. That wonderful couple had acquired the place after the last of the Kilgallens moved on, sometime before the Second World War; and when my cabin was built they welcomed me as a neighbor. I recall standing on the knoll not far from the house and viewing the mountains and the Kinniconick valley. I remember the house, old but warm and inviting, and the view from the dining room window. I know that my thoughts were leading me back in time to the days of the pioneers, like Charley Kilgallen, and to all of the happiness and tears that filled his life
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This photo was taken by Sharmon Davidson. The old cemetery is not far from Shabomekaw, about half way up the hill toward the Kilgallen house site. Needless to say, my account is based on some unproven incidents and assumed dates. It would be great to hear from anyone who may be related to or knows of the Kilgallen family.