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Part I

 A History of Mississippi Rafting

Researched by Sue Rekkas


The Davenport Democrat, Saturday, April 4, 1885, page 1.




Mississippi Rafting in the 40’s and in the 80’s


The Great Improvements in Methods which Have Cheapened Lumber—The difference in Expense—The Floating and Pushing—The Rapids Pilots and Their Work.



 The Mormons are credited with running the first rafts on the Mississippi—about 1830 or ’31; but they were not the originators of the practice, for rafting had been done at a much earlier date elsewhere.  At first the rafts were very small, but increased in size very slowly, as the pilot acquired more skill and confidence in their ability to manage land and control the movements of the rafts.


of white pine lumber in Davenport from the Upper Mississippi was in 1840.  A raft manned by twenty men, and containing 100,000 feet, arrived here from the Wisconsin River, bound for St. Louis—which city it reached after a perilous passage of thirty-five days.  Rafts had gradually


as pilots became more skillful in handling them, until in 1865 they were run by hand (but not as large as it has been found possible to run by boat in later days) to 13 to 16 strings and 350 feet long.


For years rafts had been towed by boats through the lake, but the


to market by boat was done by Si Bradley, who used a small side-wheeler called the “Union.”  Si ran a raft from Stillwater to Clinton in 1864, and made such a success of it that he returned, it is said, to Mr. Young part of the money he was paid for running it.  He did not do so well on his next trip, as he lost some logs, for which he had to pay full value.  Mr. Bradley was one of the most skillful as well as one of the coolest pilots in the rafting business, and it was a number of years before any of those who essayed to tow rafts with boats were able to approach his skill in handling a raft.  The boat Si used was not built for rafting purposes, and was of course poorly arranged for such work.  The success secured by Bradley brought to the surface a crop of followers.


Captain George Tromley and Thos. Donghty, both of LeClaire, commenced to build a boat in 1865 and ran a raft with her in May 1866.  She was named the “LeClaire” and was the first boat built on the Mississippi exclusively for the rafting business and supplied with a


engine for steering the raft.  This boat was built under the personal supervision of Thomas Donghty, who was and still is, theoretically and practically one of the finest engineers that ever handled a marine engine.  Considering that he changed the machinery so that the boat could tow as well as make good time when running free, he did pioneer service in what has become a great industry and gives to the world cheap lumber.  Captain Tromley, who piloted the LeClarie, is still engaged in the rafting business.  If these two men had kept places in the engine room and pilot house respectively they might have been now worth millions.


The steamer Falls City came out the same year that saw the LeClaire’s trial trip.  Very soon after the Moline Whitmore put in an appearance.  The LeClaire never made any money—or rather she was not run to make any—and was soon sold to a firm of contractors who used her on the rapids.  She was so used for twelve or fourteen years and finally sunk near Muscatine.  She cost her builders about $8,500.


Until about 1867 rafts of logs and lumber were run


Usually the rafts were laid up at LeClaire where oars were secured to the bow and stern.  Then after splitting and cutting the rafts or three times, making four or six rafts, a crew of men was secured and the uncertain journey began.  The expense of refitting the raft, the loss of time and the cost of a crew to handle the oars, was very heavy and made the cost of running a raft to points well down the river something enormous.


  About 1867, the “Union” and the “alvira,” both side-wheelers, were used to tow rafts over the rapids.  At first the boat was simply used to push, and did not displace the stern oars.  Soon, however, the stern oars were dropped entirely.  Captain D. F. Dorrance ran a raft over the rapids in ’64 or ’65 in the steamboat channel, he making the


Ever made over the Rock Island rapids with a raft and boat attached.  At first he ran but eight or ten strings; that is, about half a raft.  At first a windless with a crab (?) was used to turn the boat and direct the course of the raft instead of a steam nigger, as is now used.  Now, rapids pilots run full rafts of 18 to 20 strings, without splitting in good stages of water.


  Lumber rafts used to be rafted 12 to 18 deep, while now they are 16 to 28 deep.  In length rafts used to be regarded very long when 850 feet.  Rafts of logs are now


by the use of ropes, which is a great saving of lumber as compared with the use of binders and lock-downs or bows, as was formerly the case.  Rafts are easily made as now rafted.  In the floating days it required twenty to thirty days to make a trip from Reed’s Landing to Davenport, and forty to sixty days to St. Louis.  Now it can be done in six days to Davenport, even in low water times, and nine days to St. Louis.


Of taking a raft of logs over the rapids by hand, as was done in floating days, was often $600.  Weyerhaeuser & Denkman, of Rock Island, paid this for having a raft taken to their mill.  The raft happened to be caught by wind, and was so laid up with a big crew at heavy pay.  Now, even in low water, 12 strings cost but $95, which includes the cost of towboats and rapids pilot.  Floating rafts used on average, to carry thirty men in going over the rapids, and each man got about $4.  Now a boat carries about sixteen men.  Floating rafts always had to lay up for wind, and at night unless it was moonlight.  Now some of the first pilots never lay up for anything.  Since the


came into use, it is not at all uncommon, but rather the rule, for a raft never to touch anywhere after the boat once hitches into it until it is delivered where wanted.


Captain D. F. Dorrance was not only the first rapids pilot who ever ran a raft over the rapids with a boat, but he also was the first to dispense


on the bow of the raft and substitute there for a small boat.  The first raft ever to run was brought to Davenport by the Wyman X.  The Jeanie Gilchrist was placed on the bow of the raft and the experiment made.  So satisfied were many of the rapids pilots at LeClaire, that Dorrance would sink the Jennie, that some of them ran down to Smith’s mill, below LeClaire, to see the boat pulverized on the rocks.  In this they were disappointed, for Dorrance took the raft over in safety, never losing a log.  Before this time in very low water, often rafts had to be split into four pieces.  Now never more than two pieces are made.  De Forest Dorrance, the


is still a comparatively young man, and handles a raft with the easy security of a master hand.  In the last few years he has associated with himself as partner Captain J. W. Long, who has already earned a reputation as a successful pilot.  J. W. Rambo and Jack Suiter are also rapids pilots, who together do much work during the rafting season.  The fact that but few, comparatively, are able to handle rafts on the rapids in a narrow channel is sufficient proof of the difficulty of the task.  After Captain Dorrance made his famous trip with the Wyman X, it was no uncommon thing for boats to lay up rafts at LeClaire for several days waiting their turn to be taken over by Dorrance.  In time others “caught on.”  The


is such as to call for an amount of endurance which few men can stand.  In high water times, when rafts do not have to be taken over in two pieces, it is not uncommon for Captains Dorrance and Long to not get over an hour or two’s sleep per night for weeks at a time.  In low water times they get just what they can catch.  They make from two or four trips daily.

The first start is made just as soon as the first peep o’day is visible, and the twelve o’clock train takes home the pilot for his last trip.  Captain Dorrance has run over 200 rafts in a season. As a sample of what the work is and can be done by a good pilot, it may be mentioned, that the widest part of the Davenport Bridge, through which a raft is run, is 237 feet; a few years ago Captain Dorrance with the steamer Keokuk, ran a raft of logs 500 feet long and 235 feet wide through that space, and never troubled a log.  When it is remembered that there is a cross current between these two piers the task is not above remarkable, but is a marvel of successful piloting.  When this remarkable task was accomplished there were on the bridge 200 or more people, who cheered the fact to the echo.


While improvement has set its stamp on nearly everything that is either labor saving or that would in any way conduce to the happiness, cheapness and comfort of civilized life in the last quarter of a century, yet in but few commercial enterprises have greater strides been made than in the means of distributing the boundless forests of pine to the markets of the world.




Collected and Transcribed by

Sue Rekkas

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