Historically, everyone viewed log rafts with the same amazement as we do today. Like with the daily travel report of its citizens, the local 19th century papers covered the daily comings and goings of steamboats. Daily reports were given on the level and condition of the river and what steamboats passed Clinton that day along with their cargo. In 1883, the “River Jottings” section noted the river was at a standstill, and yet, boats like the Art Lamb delivered a five brail log raft. The size of a brail is different depending on the source, but a typical brail seems to be 500-600 feet long and 45 feet wide.
In 1891, an association for river pilots attempted to regulate the size of a raft by telling mill owners the maximum size of raft they would deliver. For rafts leaving the Beef Slough, a raft would be no more than 590 by 270 feet. While the association was unnamed, it was most likely the Brotherhood of the Upper Mississippi River Pilots.
In December of 1890, 150 river pilots came to Clinton for its annual meeting. Clinton arranged a visual exhibit for the meeting. One decoration was a flag owned by the Lamb Company. On the flag was painted an “old time” raft with a wooden cabin on it and the long sweeps needed to stay in the current. A casual reminder of how much the industry had changed in just a few decades. The association allowed river pilots to exchange information, advocate for their occupation, and receive death benefits.
Danger was inherent in the business. Steamboats towing log rafts were always hitting something whether a sandbar, a buried log, or sometimes, bridges.
In 1881, the Tiber steamer broke its raft against the Clinton bridge causing 500 logs to escape downstream. Recovery crews were able to recapture 150 of them. Around the same time in Davenport, a steamer ran into a bridge and 1,800 logs went south, most never to be found.
Often times, the cause of the accident seems to have been faulty engineering of the river flow, which caused pilots not to be able to bring a raft “around quick enough at the draw and consequently forged (the raft) ahead directly.”
Danger was always at foot for more than just the river pilots. Log rafts were tied to the shore up and down the river, and locals loved to play on them and fish off them. In 1893, a young boy and his brother disobeyed their father and went out to play on a raft. In many stories, it seems the logs would roll and the human on top would fall in between the logs and be trapped underneath. In this case, the young boy fell and drowned. Sometimes they saved lives like in 1899, when a boat capsized and one of the occupants swam to a nearby log raft for safety.
Log rafts tied to the shore like a sitting duck proved to be too enticing for men wanting to make a quick buck. In 1887, two men in their 20s stole $35 worth of rope from a Silas Gardiner log raft. The men were caught when their getaway boat got stuck on a sandbar.
It wasn’t just young men stealing. In 1891, a 75-year-old man was charged with stealing 100 feet of line from a Clinton Lumber Company raft.
Up north in Wisconsin, rafts were tied up waiting to head south.
Bands of men would raid the rafts and steal hundreds of logs at a time, each raid valued at $1,000.
From 1880-1900, it was reported that $1 million dollars’ worth of logs were stolen. The thieves formed an organization that followed a code of protection and secrecy.
In 1902, the paper reported the largest log raft “ever towed down the Father of Waters.” The raft was headed toward Musser Lumber in Muscatine and was a 250-by-200-feet-wide raft that was also double decked. To get to Muscatine, the raft had to pass through the Rock Island rapids. In order to make it through, the raft had to be broken into 4 pieces. One of the larger rafts to come to Clinton was a 12-brail raft, pushed by W.J. Young Jr. steamboat. It contained 1,500,000 feet of logs.
In 1897, Weyerhaeuser received a 40-brail log raft, beating the previous record of 32. The raft was 1,500 by 290 feet with nearly 2.4 million feet of logs.
Needless to say, there are countless records of “the largest raft.”
Locally, the most famous raftsman was “Uncle Steve” Hanks. Stephen was a resident of Albany, Illinois. In 1838, Hanks harvested logs on Beaver Island and floated them down the river to a sawmill in Albany. Using this as practice, in 1844, Hanks became the first person to float a log raft down the Mississippi. The previous year, Hanks had piloted a lumber raft south, which had been occurring since the 1830s.
The log raft consisted of 600,000 feet of logs, and 15 men manned the sweeping oars to keep the raft in the current. With a good moon, Hanks could travel night and day. As a result, it took 30 days to reach St. Louis from the Northwoods.
Being a river resident, Hanks remembered seeing the Gypsy in 1836. This was a steamboat that went between Galena and St.Louis. Apparently in addition to piloting a log raft, Hanks spent 1844 mastering using a steamboat to push cribs of lumber or logs.
The saddest thing for Hanks was he ended up having to work for others instead of being a rafting magnate. In 1854, he entered a contract to deliver four rafts.
The rafts broke up in high water and the broken rafts left him penniless. Hanks was employing current driven rafts where you could be your own boss with your own crew. Broke, he quickly joined a steamboat crew. Hanks spent the bulk of his years piloting the Artemus Lamb steamboat for the Lamb mills.
In 1915, the Ottumwa Belle passed Davenport and thus ended the log raft industry on the Upper Mississippi.
It is said, they picked up Stephen Hanks in Albany so he could be the first and last log rafter.
The real impact of log rafts seems to come up in 1927 when the river between Clinton and Fulton was being studied, dissected, and “improved.” Not everyone agreed with taxpayers paying for docks, wing dams, and other items, but some Clinton editorialists focused on how the river made Clinton. There was not a single manufacturing institution that is, or was, in Clinton that wasn’t associated with the river. In the minds of 1920s Clinton, the river brought sawmills, sawmills brought rail, and most of all Clinton Corn Syrup, Climax, Champion Feed, boat industries, and more would never have located here without river.
The river allowed lower freight rates and even lower rail freight rates.
Log rafts were a daily occurrence in Clinton seemingly from 1844 to 1915, and while the rafts disappeared, the rafting legacy has long served as a guiding beacon for Clinton’s economic planning.
Matt Parbs is the director of the Clinton Sawmill Museum.