River Pirates
Old Time Tales of Warren County


River Pirates

In the years when Warren County's great green forests of pine were crashing to the woodsman's axe and logs and planks were being borne away on the river, to the expanding markets of the south and west in endless processions of gliding rafts; in the years when rafts were running on every rise and "following the river" was a regular trade with hundreds of hard-fisted, leather-booted men who liked their whiskey straight, and plenty of it; there were abroad on the waters of the Allegheny, "river pirates", pioneer bootleggers, who moved from place to place in rowboats and sold liquor, both good and bad to the raftsmen.

When a license for the sale of liquor became necessary the river pirates continued to ply their trade, without bothering with the formality.

Goodness knows there was no particular need for any man to deal with bootleggers in the earlier days. Whiskey, brandy, rum, gin and wine were sold in grocery stores as well as in saloons and no man with the money to buy a quart, need go thirsty long. But the "river pirates" as they were called knew their raftsmen well. They knew the three day trip down the river from Warren County to Pittsburgh was often tedious and provocative of deep and insistent thirst. Also they may have realized that to bring the market to the consumer is to stimulate trade, and in addition may have understood enough of human nature, to know that an added tang is attached to indulgence in illicit things, be they stolen fruits, kisses or illegal whiskey.

The nearer the raftsmen approached Pittsburgh the more numerous were the river pirates. They would row out from some obscure landing in their skiff, make fast to the raft, come aboard and offer their wares to the crew. If there was any money among the men, the river pirates usually made a sale. Sometimes when they couldn't sell their bottled goods for money they traded for something or other.

There is a story of a raft piloted by Cal Brown, the crew of which did a little trading with river pirates near Freeport. One of these river bootleggers had rowed out to the raft, boarded it and offered a quart bottle labeled "Monongahela Rye" for the reasonable price of one dollar. But the crew couldn't raise the dollar, not till they got to Pittsburgh and were paid off and got their nine dollars each for the trip, when they intended to "cut 'er loose and raise cain generally."

"Ain't you got something in the shanty you want to trade?" inquired the pirate, anxious to do business in some way.

The men thought it over. It was the custom of rafts-men to buy a half bushel basket of eggs at a time, the price was usually fifty cents for the half bushel at any river bank farm. This particular raft had been over-stocked with eggs up by Dunn's Eddy, the men were sick and tired of them, and the eggs were a little sick too. Probably they hadn't been gathered carefully, some of them had probably been set on a couple of weeks by hens who stole their nests in the barn. Farm eggs were just farm eggs in those days, you got 'em cheap and took your own chances.

The men thought of the eggs, there was a whole peck of them left in the shanty. They offered to trade them for the quart of whiskey.

"Sure," agreed the pirate, "I'll trade you for a peck of eggs." And the deal was made. The pirate pushed away with his basket of eggs, the men went forward on the raft to sample the quart.

Pretty soon the man in the boat called from the widening distance, "Hey you, fellers, these here aigs ain't rotten, be they?"

And a raftsrnan, who had just sampled the whiskey shouted back, with interest, "They're no rottener than yer damn whiskey!"

SOURCE:  Page(s) 165-167: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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