Chapter Four

The Log Raft


The first logs run down the Mississippi were rafted.  This operation was quite expensive and detrimental to some of the lumber cut from the logs.  The chief tools used were an augur, about one and three eighths inch in diameter, and an ax.  The materials were poles, usually ironwood, or oak saplings 16 feet long, lock downs, slips of tough hardwood, some one and one-fourth inch wide, three-eighths thick and eight or ten inches long, and plugs square pieces of wood about five inches long that could be driven into the augur holes.

The logs were corralled together, side by side, a pole laid across them, a hole bored in the log on each side of the pole, one end of the lock down inserted in each hole, the plug driven in and Mr. Log was well on the way to being fast!  In making a string of logs, the width of which was 16 feet, logs of different lengths were sandwiched together in such a manner that each log was crossed by not less than two poles.  Strings were usually about 500 feet long and coupled together with short poles covering three or four logs, placed as frequently as deemed necessary. 

So many holes in the logs meant holes in many boards and much damage so it is not surprising that before long the scheme was changed and some progressive raftsman devised the brail idea.  Logs were enclosed in a boom consisting of the longest logs, the end of the bow or front log overlapping the one behind it some 30 inches, and fastened together by a short three link chain the end links of which were large enough for a two inch wooden pin, with a good strong head, to be driven into a hole in each boom log six inches deep and one and seven eighths diameter.  This scheme was worked on each side of a brail so that in case of a raft hitting the pier of a bridge, end of a dam or any other obstruction on the side, the raft would slide past and its side not be torn open.

Logs of different lengths were run into the brail, straightened up and held together by cross wires every 60 to 75 feet.  The process of “lining up” by the crew to run the raft to its destination consisted by putting a number of cross lines to hold each piece firmly together, the proper number of “A” lines running diagonally across and back to stiffen the piece and keep it straight and fore and aft lines on the outside booms to strengthen them.  In fact to make the pieces as rigid as rigid as lines could make them, each line was tightened by a Spanish windless, and in this manner there was little damage to lumber by holes and while the raft might not be as stiff as that made in the old way it handled very nicely.

A Stillwater brail was about 60 feet wide and about 550 feet long, making two brails for a “piece” and four for a raft.  Those from the St. Paul, Beef Slough and West Newton booms were about 45 feet wide and 600 feet long, making three to a “piece” and six to a raft.  The terms “piece” and “half a raft” mean the same.

“Butting Blocks”- logs against the side of which the boat shoved-were arranged at the middle of each piece and at the middle of the raft and “check works” constructed about the middle of each piece and some making these works a good sized log, about 12 feet long, is placed cross wise of the raft, the under side of each end having been cut away enough to enable a two and one half inch line to pass under it easily for a distance of 18 inches.  This log was solidly fastened to the logs across which it was laid by grub pins passing through the log and into the logs beneath and lightly wedged.  Across these log, lengthwise of the raft were two oar stems, of large poles of about that size the large ends being on the log and exited in some 18 inches over toward the stern and about 18 inches inside each end of the log.  These poles, or stems, also were solidly fastened to the logs.  It was necessary to have these works reliable for there often was a terrific strain on them when landing a raft, especially when there was no boat to assist in the process.  After the end of the line was made fast on shore the bight of the line was placed around the “Horns” of the works and the “checking” began.  This was an immense weight to be stopped and it must be done carefully and slowly.  A too sudden stopping in the “paying out” process-through an error of judgment or fouling of the line-would result in the pulling out of the works or the parting of the line-usually the latter if the works were properly constructed.  Sometimes in paying out too rapidly the line would burn the friction around the horns being so great, so care and judgment were especially essential.

The only material used in forming a crib of lumber, aside from the lumber itself, was in the pins and wedges that hold the lumber together.  We have been told that the term “grub pin,” the name applied to this very necessary article in the construction of the crib, came from the fact that originally-at least in the state of New York-when lumber was first rafted it was held together by small saplings, usually white oak, actually grubbed out of the earth the root forming the head of the pin, which could not be pulled off, and that hey were known as “raft-grubs” their only name in this section was “grub pins” and they were turned from hardwood and were about 42 inches long, two and one-fourth inches in diameter and had a head, like a pin, about three inches in diameter.

In all the material used in the construction of the frame of a crib holes were bored a short distance from each end and in the middle of each piece eight feet from each end.  Two pieces of 2 inch by 10 inch b 16 feet long were laid end to end to form each outside of the crib and two pieces 2 inches by 8 inch by 16 feet were similarly as runners.  Grubpins were placed in all the holes, the head down of course.  Then the same number of pieces –generally 2 inch by 6 inch by 16 feet-known as binders were laid across and at right angles to the runners.  The pins were drawn into the holes of the runners and binders as far as possible by a lever with a clamp on one end especially constructed for the purpose-usually called a “witch”-and wedges inserted to hold the pins upright and solid.  A short piece of dimension or light slab was used to couple he two 16 foot sections of the crib together, holes being bored in these pieces so as to take in the pins on the corners.

Then two courses of one inch boards or one course of two inch dimension, 16 feet long, was laid crosswise of the crib, which brought the floor to a level with the top f the binders.  Lumber of different thickness and lengths and width as desired was then placed in the crib, the courses being alternated, fore and aft and crosswise, until the proper number of courses-or inches-were laid.  This number depended largely upon the stage of water over which the crib was to be taken and varied from 12 to 26, the latter being about the maximum, a good average being about 18.  The top course was generally crosswise and of 16 foot boards in order to better hold the crib together.  When completed, the frame-work on the bottom was duplicated on top, the lumber tightly pressed together by the “witch” taking hold them in place and the making of the crib was completed.  The cribs were built on a tilting platform, or on rollers in such shape that they were easily delivered on t an incline on which they slid into the water.

In forming a string of lumber the cribs were put together endwise, the ends being coupled in a manner similar to the joining of the two sections of the crib, except, of course, the coupling operation was only on top of the crib rafts were formed by coupling strings together in a similar manner.  Snubbing works were constructed on each half of the raft in a manner similar to those on a log raft.

In floating days an oar was placed on each end of a string of logs or lumber.  A string, as we have said before, was 16 feet wide and the length of the raft, the average during floating days being from 400 to 500 feet.

The stem, or handle, of the oar was made from a pine reed about eight inches at the butt and some 30 or more feet long.  The blade was a plank some 14 or 16 feet long, about 14 inches wide, three inches thick where it was spliced to the stem, with wooden pins, and about three-fourths of an inch thick at the extreme end.  At the proper place in the stem a hole was bored so the stem could be slipped on to a grub pin, in the middle of the string, to hold it in place while in use.  The hole on the upper side of the stem was mortised sufficiently to allow for the lowering of the blade into, and the raising it out of, the water.  When properly made and hung it was well balanced on the head block and easily raised and lowered after one “got the hang of it.”  When in use the operator took hold of the small end and walked to the right or left side of the string, depending on which was the raft was to be guided.  He then raised the small end of the stem high above his head, immersing the oar blade in the water, and walked to the opposite side of the string; not steadily, but with a surging movement at each step until the opposite side of the string was reached, which took usually five steps, and the stroke completed.  He then lowered the small end of the oar, retraced his steps to the first position and repeated the process until the pilot was satisfied with the position of the raft, which usually took not over ten minutes at a “session.”  However it was strenuous work while it lasted and one had to be toughened to it and know how to take advantage of the various movements, so it is no wonder that Jerome Short after being able to make a few strokes on his first attempt was unable to get the stem above his breast.

Oars were used on the bow of the rafts towed by the early day small boats.  A little later, with stronger boats, some of the more adventurous pilots discarded the bow oars and still later, with the heavier tow oats and he bow boats, oars disappeared entirely on rafts on the Mississippi.  With the coming of the bow boat the length of the raft increased and the width diminished and much better time was made with a long narrow raft than with a short wide one for reasons apparent.


Transcribed by Georgeann McClure