The Romance of the Rafts
Old Time Tales of Warren County


The Romance of the Rafts

In following the dimming trails left by the pioneers of Warren County, it is soon discovered that all trails lead at some time or another to the river. Through the history of the region, the curving Allegheny winds and bends, touching the lives of the pioneers at many points. With railroads as yet undreamed of, the river was the great central artery of life; the highway out into the world. Long before the first steamboat, the "Duncan" made her trip up the Allegheny, as far as Franklin in 1824 with Captain James Murphy of Freeport in charge, before even the first steamboat was built in Pittsburgh in 1804, the rafts were riding down the Allegheny. Not the large rafts which came with the hey days of the pilots and their crews, but smaller, scattered rafts of logs, cleated together and floated down to Pittsburgh, by men who saw a market and vast resources for supplying it.

There is no part of Warren County's history so ringed 'round with romance as that of the rafts; it exceeds even the early days of oil in picturesque appeal. The great, gliding floors of logs moving with the steady current of the stream, the long, swinging oars at either end for steering, the shanty, or perhaps two shanties for the crew,--little houses on the raft with blue wood smoke curling back from a stovepipe chimney. The crew, red faced men, who knew how to swear and fight and sing and dance, and work; who had names of their own for every town along the river between Warren and Pittsburgh. There were professional raftsmen who made one trip after another for years and there were a lot of men who went down the river once, or a couple of times. All over Warren County you can find older men today who look back on a trip "down the river" as a great, particular occasion in their lives. How they love to tell it once more, about the time they rafted it down to Pittsburgh with Charley Chase, Nate Gibson, John Dixon, or some other of the famous old pilots. Women frequently rode on the rafts too, women and children, whole families emigrating to their western home, going to Pittsburgh and on down the broad Ohio to Cincinnati and the golden, growing southwest. There was a little town up by Salamanca which throve for a while and then disappeared. They said it was all because the place was so easy to get away from on a raft. A couple of bad years came along and then a bad winter to make things worse, and the people departed for points down the river, on rafts, with the first fresh of spring.

And then there were the pilots--it was a privilege to ride on a raft with one of the famous pilots ; he was a real personage and even at times wore a frock coat and a high hat of the Abraham Lincoln type. There are old photographs in Warren County today showing pilots on their rafts in skirted coats and high beaver hats, and one tall figure is commanding his crew of oarsmen with a cane. For years rafts were run on the Allegheny with no other cables than twisted and plaited wythes cut in the woods, long, slim hickory saplings twisted into crude ropes. And a cable is a mighty important part of a raft's equipment, as important as a brake on a wagon that has to travel steep hills. In fact the raftsman's cable was more vital as a brake for slowing up and stopping, than for mooring the raft when it was stopped, though mooring cable was of course a prime necessity.

Only a very few pilots ran at night on the Allegheny, the stream was too tortuous, too many rocks and islands, too many narrow crossings, to let a big, heavy raft run on down the river in inky darkness. So it was stop and tie- -up for the crew when long shadows began to gather in the deep, wooded ravines that ran down to the river, and rafts often tied up on account of strong wind, or a dense fog.

Snubbing a big raft was a dangerous job, particularly if it had to be done where the river bank was high and abrupt. A couple of the crew took the long line in a boat, rowing well ahead of the raft and making a quick landing. One man stayed in the boat, the other snubbed the cable around a convenient tree. Sometimes inexperienced men selected too small a tree, or one with root hold weakened by a crumbling bank. Then the big raft, moving steadily with the strong current would gently pull out the tree, or perhaps snap both it and the man into the river. Snubbing a raft was a fine demonstration in overcoming powerful opposition. Slow pressure, gently applied, did the work. It was really an art to properly snub, slow down and stop a heavy Allegheny raft of thousands of big logs with a current back of them. The snubber deftly took one wrap around the tree, holding the cable just far enough around, just tight enough on the trunk to apply more and more resistance to the pulling raft. A raft was like a runaway horse, it couldn't be stopped suddenly, it had to be eased up, slowed down and then stopped.

Log rafts floated faster than timber rafts, old river-men are agreed on that. One man living close to Warren County whose family name is famous in the annals of American lumber, declares a raft floats faster than the current moves in the stream. Some of his scientific friends have insisted he is wrong, that a raft can't float faster than the current that carries it. But the lumberman is undoubtedly right.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 131-134: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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