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Susquehanna River Rafting

Susquehanna Rafting Surpassed Other Streams [1]

By John H. Chatham, written ca. 1922

[Information supplied to Prof. J. S. Illick by John H. Chatham (poet, naturalist and teacher), of McElhattan Clinton County, Pa. Mr. Chatham began rafting in 1862, when he was 16 years old, and continued in the business until 1873 — a period of 18 years. Each spring he made four trips, beginning at Lock Haven and ending at Columbia, Marietta or Wrightsville. Mr. Chatham is now 75 years old and delights in telling tales about the olden days.]

Rafting was at one time a great business on all the large streams of Pennsylvania. It was a prosperous business for many years on the Delaware, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Allegheny and their larger tributary streams. But the rafting business on the Susquehanna surpassed that on all the other rivers and streams combined. A number of factors made possible this great, but in many cases hazardous, prosperous business. The large volume of water and the condition of the river bed were favorable to rafting. The Susquehanna drains 21,000 square miles within Pennsylvania and 6,000 square miles in New York. The water flowing in the Susquehanna River at the Maryland line represents a drainage basin equal to 60 per cent of the total area of Pennsylvania. A further factor which helped develop rafting was the large quantity of timber about the headwaters of the Susquehanna suitable for rafting.

The rafting business at one time employed many men, and during spring the river was densely dotted with floating rafts, varying in size and representing a large number of owners.

The rafts were made up in eddys and other placid places along the river where the water was fairly deep. A large number were made up about Lock Haven. The logs were usually 25 to 80 feet long, placed along side of each other and then lashed together with lash-poles (halyards) usually made from water birch or ironwood saplings. The lash-poles were fastened to the logs with wooden bows about 16 inches long, 14 inches wide, and from 4 to 2 inches thick.

The bows were usually made of white oak, split and bent before being used. Holes were then bored into the logs with rude crank-handled augurs and the lash-poles fastened by fitting and fastening the bows into the holes.

The ordinary raft was from 150 to 300 feet long and up to 26 feet wide; the general width was 24 feet, this being the greatest width allowed by chutes through which the rafts had to pass. The longest raft brought down the river in the early days was 320 feet long, and the longest single piece of timber was 115 feet long and 12 inches square at the small end.

Small rafts were called "pups". "A pair of pups" was a nape applied to two creek rafts.

There were rafting divisions on the Susquehanna just as we find them today on the railroads.

  • Division I extended from Clearfield to Lock Haven.
  • Division II extended from Lock Haven to Columbia, Marietta and Wrightsville.
  • Division III extended from Marietta to tidewater.

It was at Columbia, Marietta and Wrightsville and other terminal, points of the second division where two sets of practical men met-the raft owners and the timber merchants. Those were great trading days, when woodsman guile was set up against Yankee wit.

The rafting crews varied somewhat in size. The crews operating between Lock Haven and Marietta consisted of two to four and sometimes eight men. The up-river rafts often consisted of ten men, as the raft owner could not pay his men until the timber was sold, and took them on to Marietta. Two men, as a rule, manned one raft and four men a fleet. A fleet consisted of two rafts. The tasks of the four men were 1 Pilot, 2 Steerers, and 1 helper.

From Marietta to tidewater the crew usually consisted of nine men — five on the front end of the raft and four at the rear end, the large number being required because of the hazardous and rocky condition of the river bed below Columbia.

Timber was cheap in those days. The price of raft timber averaged about 14-1/2 cents per cubic foot. The best white pine and white oak brought only 25 cents per cubic foot. Spars were then in great demand. They were from 90 to 100 feet long and brought $100 apiece.

In the early days the timbers were hewn, that is, squared, before being placed in rafts. Later on the logs were brought down "in the round". Most of the rafts were made up of logs of white pine, hemlock and other kinds which float easily. But occasionally heavier timbers were brought down in rafts. Towards the end of the trip the logs became water soaked and entire rafts were about completely submerged.

A box of cold food and a wigwam tent was often the only equipment upon the rafts. Whiskey was plentiful and cheap in those days. Every few miles the floating rafts would be approached by whiskey distributors, who operated in rowboats from their base of supply on the shore. Mr. Chatham was one of the very few lumbermen who never used liquor in any form during the time he rafted on the Susquehanna.

Getting up material on "Rafting on the Susquehanna" must make one feel like being "in some banquet hall deserted," stated Mr. Chatham, as he closed his story.

  1. Shoemaker, Henry W., ed., Rafting Days in Pennsylvania, compiled by John C. French, John H. Chatham, Mahlon J. Concord, Albert D. Karstetter and Others, 1922, Times Mirror-Tribune Co., Altoona
Information deemed reliable but not guaranteed. •
The Gombach Group • Morrisville, PA • 215-295-6555