Rafting on the Creeks
Old Time Tales of Warren County


Rafting on the Creeks

As one journeys about Warren County and visits some of the tiny streams that once furnished power for saw mills and shingle mills he is convinced at once, there must have been a great deal more water in the streams one hundred years ago than there is today. And when old raftsmen point out little trickling rivulets across which any man, with reasonably long legs, may stride at many points, and tells of bringing scores of rafts down them, one wonders whether those creek rafts of days gone by couldn't have run on a heavy dew if necessity compelled. To ask such a tiny stream to run a saw mill, or a grist mills seems absurd, yet these little streams did saw logs and make shingles and grind grain, with the aid of dams and races, and water wheels which were first undershot, then over shot and finally mostly of the turbine style.

Little Brokenstraw Creek, which comes curling down from the Bear Lake region through as beautiful a valley as one might find in all Western Pennsylvania, would not in some countries be called a creek at all, only a good sized brook. Yet in the year 1860 there were no less than ten mills busily sawing boards in the ten miles between Pittsfield and Bear Lake.

Jackson Run which comes winding down from Chandler's Valley and Sugar Grove way, in many a leisurely bend, looks scarcely large enough to float a bundle of lath, yet hundreds of thousands of feet of lumber and logs were run down Jackson Run, into the Conewango and then the Alleghen) . One looks at the sharp bends and wonders how they ever maneuvered a single log around one of them, let alone a raft.

Sugar Run, that idyllic little stream that comes murmuring out of the woods above Kinzua, to join the brimming river, is scarce deep enough to afford hiding places for the speckled trout which live in it. Yet lumber sufficient to build a town was rafted out of Sugar Run.

"Spring Creek, where Horace Greeley once fished with rolled-up trousers near his cousin's farm, would never be suspicioned of being navigable for anything larger than a wood duck catching minnows. Yet little Spring Creek floated many a raft on its bright waters and furnished power from its tiny current, to run at least four saw mills and one grist mill.

Akeley Run at Russell, Hook's "River" in Mead Township, Four Mile Run near Sheffield, Hickory Creek in Limestone Township, Andrews Run at Pittsfield, Thompson's Run, Tidioute Creek and at least twenty other tiny streams that trickle down from Warren County's hills to mingle with the Allegheny, all figured in the rafting history of the region.

The mystery of how the rafts managed to get down the little creeks and runs, is partly explained in two ways. In the first place there was considerably more water in Warren County's creeks in the days when the timber was being taken out. When the hills were shorn of their wealth of pine and hardwoods, they were also robbed largely of their water-retaining capacity. One old timer who has run many a raft down the Brokenstraw says, "If there is a spring in a little woods, and you cut down the woods, the spring will usually dry up. And it will never fail to dwindle."

Another explanation of the mystery of bringing a twelve-foot wide raft down a six-foot stream, is the fact, that all rafting on the smaller creeks, and in fact the large ones was done on a "fresh" or rise. In some small streams, dams were built to back up the water till it was perhaps two feet higher than normal. The pond would be filled with logs, or rafts, the dam suddenly opened and down would rush the water, sweeping everything with it. This was called a "pond fresh" and by this method rafts were swept down creeks that would not otherwise have floated them.

Hiram C. Holcomb, 81 years of age in December, 1930, has lived all his life on the west bank of the Little Brokenstraw, two miles above Pittsfield. He has piloted hundreds of rafts around the crooks and turns of the little stream and was aboard the last one to be brought down some fifty years ago. No man in Warren County is better qualified to tell of creek rafting.

Mr. Holcomb recalls the name of every mill on the Little Brokenstraw sixty years ago. Clark Dalrymple owned the first one above Pittsfield. Next up stream was the Holcomb Mill, owned by Sterling Holcomb, Hiram Holcomb's father. Sam Sylvester had a mill just above and next was the Oliver Berry Mill. Then came mills owned by Benjamin Durlin, Sam Irvine, the Wrights, Bushrod, Woodin, who dug an outlet from Bear Lake; The Baker Mill, near Abbott's Corners and a mill at Lottsville completes the list of ten, all in a stretch of nine miles.

Running a creek raft had all the thrills and excitement that went with handling rafts on the rivers, and the thrills came closer together. Creek bends were not so far apart as river bends, and sometimes the rafts came riding down on a fresh so close together they bumped and crowded each other; if one stuck on a rock or sandbar there was a pile up, with a couple of rafts under water.

Any raft caught crosswise in the stream has a tendency to sink, suction draws the edge under water and once the edge is submerged the whole push of the current is downward. Lodged rafts were sometimes forced to the bottom and held there.

Sometimes when a raft stuck in the Little Broken-straw, young Holcomb would ride his father's ox team into the creek, hitch on and pull it loose. When you consider that a creek raft was usually twelve feet wide and forty-eight feet long, sometimes sixty-four feet long, you'll wonder how they ever brought one down such a narrow, winding stream. And it will be easy to believe they needed the pike poles and oxen often.

Countless bundles of shingles were brought down creek on rafts, and often the shingles would be lost on the way. There were three-foot dams to be ridden over; sometimes a raft would dive under below a dam, wetting the crew to the waist or washing them off. If there were shingles aboard at such times they were of course caught by the current and carried down. The unwritten law of the land was, that any loose floating log, board or bundle of shingles belonged to the finder. So many of these were floating loose down the streams, every creek had it's "A-rabs" who made a business of sitting on the bank at some convenient eddy, equipped with a pike pole. Jim Davis captured enough floating material in this way to build him a house. Many men made fair wages as "creek A-rabs".

The Clark Dalrymple dam had a chute pole fastened to the apron with a chain. Chute pole prevented a raft diving, but they were a luxury and only a few dams had them. In busy seasons the water-driven mills on the Little Brokenstraw worked twenty-four hours a day, the men working in six hour shifts.

When a raft was piloted to Pittsfield and the Big Brokenstraw, it went on down without being added to, till the Allegheny was reached. There, among whole islands of "creek pieces" the river rafts were put together for their long journey to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, New Orleans. Many a Warren County raft kept floating till it reached the Gulf of Mexico, and many a raftsman in the earlier timber days walked back to Warren County from New Orleans.

Raftsmen's Biscuits

The unwritten rule of the river was that each man in a rafting crew should take his turn at cooking aboard. Nobody cared much about cooking, it was considered a sort of effeminate job. So the men took turns "getting" the meals in the shanty and the custom was for a man to go on cooking till he "wore out", or until the others got so tired of his biscuits and stews they couldn't stand them any longer.

On one raft that Charley Chase piloted to Cincinnati there were some signally bad cooks among the men. When they started from Warren, Otto Barnes was keeping the fires going in the galley, cooking the salt pork and potatoes and green tea which the men consumed in enormous quantities. The men stood Otto's cooking till the raft was below Pittsburgh, then Jem Wilson was pressed into service cooking, "to save our lives", as the crew declared.

Af ter a couple of days Jem was sick and tired of his job. He made up his mind to sicken the men of his cooking and get back on his old job at the oars. So he mixed a batch of biscuits, a favorite with raftsmen, and dumped in enough salt to salt a keg of pork. When the, men sat down to their dinner Rant Findlay bit into one of the biscuits and exclaimed, "Great Guns, these here dam biscuits is saltier than hell !" It then flashed upon Findlay that in case of a change he would be slated as the next cook, and he hastily added,-"but they're certainly fine."

SOURCE:  Page(s) 123-128: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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