Recently the Sawmill Museum installed its latest exhibit, a floating log raft simulator. A few weeks ago, the Herald had a great article on the exhibit. In this article, I wanted to share the history that informed and inspired the creation of the exhibit. This is because my favorite part of the game was going back into time to learn about an industry that all but died out on the Mississippi by the 1870s.

In fact, every challenge, every component of the game came from months of research and relied on primary sources, most of which can be found at Stories of Life on the Rivers on and the collections of University of Northern Iowa, Wisconsin Historical Society, and Minnesota Historical Society. Our main sources were Captain JM Turner, Simon Augustus Sherman, Captain Walter Blair, and Captain Jerome Short.

We started with the physical design of the hut and the oars. For the look of the hut, we used hundreds of pictures. However, to root the hut in reality, we relied on the descriptions of rafts from Sherman and Short. The logs were fresh pine logs, bound together with poles, and on top were numerous huts or one hut. A dozen to 20 men lived on the rafts, and sometimes families joined.

For example, in 1860 perhaps, Henry Warren Young brought his wife and young family to Lyons from Stevens Point on a floating log raft. The museum has a pike pole from the Young family. The pole represents the memory of this journey as Henry apparently was working on the raft that was coming down river.

The construction of these floating log rafts created massive waste because in essence every log had to be augured, or drilled, so a pole could be placed on top to attach all the logs together. The simplest rafts were just logs pushed together. Each log had holes one and 3/8ths inches drilled into it. Then a 16 foot pole would be laid across and each hole was connected with a five inch plug. A 16 foot wide string had logs of varying lengths. So when they were coupled together lengthwise, they had multiple poles connecting them. Some rafts had chain. In fact, there was so much chain people would steal them off the rafts. In the beginning of the journey in Wisconsin, these strings created a narrow raft that could reach 500 feet long. Once you hit the Mississippi, they could become much wider.

The most complicated decision was the oars. The main steering oars were on the bow and stern of a log raft. Sherman explains how in on a lumber raft the oars were attached to head and tail block. The oars, sixteen feet long and 18 inches wide, were attached to oar-stems, 36-44 feet long. The oars were manipulated as such:

“When properly made and hung it was well balanced on the head block and easily raised and lowered after one 'got the hang of it.' When in use the operator took hold of the small end and walked to the right or left side of the string, depending on which side the raft was to be guided. He then raised the small end of the stem high above his head, immersing the oar blade in the water, and walked to the opposite side of the string; not steadily, but with a surging movement at each step until the opposite side of the string was reached, which took usually five steps, and the stroke completed. He then lowered the small end of the oar, retraced his steps to the first position and repeated the process until the pilot was satisfied with the position of the raft, which usually took not over ten minutes at a 'session.'” Captain Jerome Short “When Rafters Ruled”

Obviously we could not recreate such a rigorous experience. So we took the many, many pictures and sources of oars being used on the port and starboard to place the oars at a more natural setting.

So place yourself on a giant log raft, 50 to 200 feet wide and 600 feet long. With the passing years, the rafts got bigger and bigger. So big, they started using boats to help. Then they got big enough to use a tow. Then, well, we had the steamboat based log raft industry.

But before that, it was you, a dozen or more men, and 2,000 logs. We chose 2,000 logs because the basic math was the sawmill owners based productivity off logs that were 250 board feet. A floating log raft is said to have been 500,000-600,000 board feet at max.

As you are going down the river, you are steering a raft moving with the current of the river. On the Mississippi, we found multiple sources saying plus or minus, 2.5 mph. The rivers were full of bends, blocking your view of what is to come. Wisconsin rivers were full of deadly dangers like the Notch Rock that would bust your raft. Eddies, up to 10 feet deep, that basically stranded you or threw you into obstacles. The large challenges were the islands that you couldn’t quite get around unless you got back into the current, which required heavy labor. In some places, shoals or reefs of oysters could cause delay. If you got stuck, the only sound you’d hear was the flapping of pigeon wings and an angry captain.

In the game you will notice the raft sometimes become hard to control or it will just kind of sit there, and this is because the channel was not uniform. It would skip, or it would split around string of islands. Then additional obstacles arose for your bow and stern. You had to avoid stumps, exposed logs, chains of rocks, channels driving you into sand, multiple channels, and water that looked calmed but had deadly dangers underneath, or rough waters that were nothing but scares. Then the real difficulty was that from year to year, the river at points could see the subtle changes that every year a completely new journey.

This rough water, more commonly known as rapids, was the one constant obstacle mentioned in all the literature. Like kayakers today, the rapids are both thrills that you will love to talk about years later and a deadly reminder of who is really in control.

The problem in terms of game play was we needed to escalate the rapids from easy to hard, so you could get used to them and avoid the end challenge. The problem is the rapids with the biggest drops, in essence mini water falls or cataracts, were in Wisconsin. In Canada, you found a lot of sources of log rafts going through extreme rapids. Yet, ironically, the two toughest rapids to navigate, the Upper (LeClaire) and Lower (Keokuk) were at the end of the journey. The problem was these rapids were miles long and each had their own unique challenges. The Upper looked dangerous, whereas the Lower could look calm. From Canada to Keokuk, multiple solutions were proposed.

In fact, in 1837, Robert E Lee went to Keokuk to survey the Des Moines Rapids, known as the Lower Rapids. The Lower Rapids had “dangerous, sharp rocky bottom” that formed the chains of rocks. The rapids were 11-12 miles long and had a fall of 24 feet. While surveying the rapids, he got his steamboat stuck where it stayed until high waters. In 1848, apparently a Samuel Curtis proposed a canal, and after the Civil War, the government set out to do just that. Mississippi Valley Publishing’s article from Nov. 18, 2010 by Jack Smith is the most accessible summary of this story.

Lee had also done a similar survey of the Upper Rapids, aka the Rock Island rapids. These rapids were 14 miles long. It too had exposed rocks. Lee noted that Davenport would be a great place for a railroad, also represented in the game. And the same thing had to happen in St. Louis, the ultimate destination for many lumber and log rafts. Lee also surveyed that, as if you are getting the drift that was his job in the 1830s. The river had to be tamed to allow transportation of goods.

Matt Parbs is the director of the Sawmill Museum.