Stepping Stones Vol. 8 #2 Warren County Historical Society

(The following are excerpts from an autobiography of Charles Chase, born in Pine Grove Township, Warren County, Pennsylvania in 1833.)

In the spring of 1849, I joined the fraternity of Lumber Jacks. My brother had a contract with R. E. Fenton of Jamestown, New York, to raft in Conewango Creek at Doloff's and deliver at Cincinnati, Ohio, the lumber he piled on that back of Conewango Creek at that place, which is several miles from Frewsburg. When school was out, I was to go there and help raft in the lumber and go to Cincinnati on it as one of the "hands," as the men who pulled the orders were called. I will here chronicle my first experience as a Lumber Jack. When school closed, early in March, I had a severe cold and my brother's wife wanted me to remain at home a few days until I should get better of it, but I wanted to go. So, she put up for me a small bundle of extra working clothes which I took under my arm and I started for Doloff's, about 14 miles distant from Russell. I arrived there about the middle of the afternoon, with insight of the board piles, but I was halted there about 50 rods from them by water from the melted snow that covered the low flats along the creek. I could hear the men dropping the boards on the raft, but could not see anyone, as they were rafting at the upper end of the long piles. I shouted and made all the noise I could, but failed to make anyone hear me. The flats from where I stood to the board piles were about fifty rods wide and covered with cold snow water several feet deep. I could not swim or wade that distance through the ice cold water, so I looked about for material to build a float to push out to the board piles. I finally discovered a float already built on which somebody had ridden from the piles to the road. He had evidently landed and left the float on the road but the water had risen and floated it away, lodging it on some bushes about thirty feet from shore. To get it I would have to wade out to it. This I did, brought it to the road and fixed it up in good shape, and with a pole that lay on the float, I pushed it over to the board piles and walked up to where they were making the rafts.

My brother wanted me to go to the boarding house at once and dry my clothes, but it was a near quitting time and I persuaded him I was not cold and would rather work until suppertime. He sent me to shoving boards to two men who laid them into the piece of lumber they were rafting and I soon felt good and warm. We worked until it began to grow dark and then were transported to the building house in a rowboat. The house stood on an elevated piece of ground completely surrounded by water. My brother took me in the first boat load, hustled me up into the house, pulled off my cowhide boots and wet, woolen socks and I sat by the big wood fire to dry my wet clothes, went to supper with the crowd of hungry men, ate heartily, went to bed early and was lost to the world until day-break next morning when they called me to breakfast. This was my first introduction to the order of Lumber Jacks. I received a great benefit from my cold water winter bath, it had entirely broken up and cured my hard cold, which proves that the cold water treatment is good for us sometimes.

I helped finish the rafting and went as one of the hands to Cincinnati, Ohio, where that lumber was to be delivered. My brother and I stayed in Cincinnati one day and one night. We came back to Pittsburgh in the cabin on the main deck of the steamboat. The fair to Pittsburgh was $1.50 and we had to furnish our own food and bedding. We walked home from Pittsburgh and reached home the seventh day from Cincinnati. It was a great experience for me. I followed this business for several years from that time.

My brother was a skilled pilot on both the Allegheny and Ohio rivers and he took great interest in giving me instruction in the art of rafting and running lumber. With his instruction and my own ambition to learn this business I soon became a pilot also. I made two trips every year and sometimes three and soon became as familiar with the "liquid road" of the creek and rivers all the way to Louisville as I was with the dirt and gravel roads of the country where I lived. My first experience as a pilot was on the Conewango running the rapids from Russell to Warren. On these rapids were five dams and most of the distance the current was very swift requiring a pilot to "think quick and act quick.” A few years later I was piloting rafts down the Ohio River and had established quite a reputation as a manager and pilot in floating lumber rafts down the Allegheny and Ohio rivers.

I continued in this line until the spring of 1872 when a young man named William Dunn and myself made a contract with L. F. Watson of Warren, PA to raft his lumber and deliver it to Louisville, Kentucky. We were partners for three years when he died. From that time until Mr. Watson's death, which occurred in August 1890, I handled all the lumber he manufactured, rafted and run it to market, superintended its delivery to the purchaser, and measured all of it as it was loaded onto the wagons at the wharf. For several years after Mr. Watson entered the political field, I sold, delivered and settled for it, turning over the proceeds to Mr. Watson at the end of every year's business giving an itemized statement. I have every transaction, from the large amount in notes that I took from the purchasers of this lumber.

I will give here a little explanation of how wraps were built and managed. Mr. Watson's lumber was all white pine; land from which the lumber was taken was several miles from the river where it was rafted. It was hauled to the river mostly in the wintertime on sleds and was piled landwise to the water. The lumber sawed after the snow was gone during the warm summer months was stacked in piles at the old mill and would be partially seasoned when hauled to the river in the winter. The lumber sawed at the mills in the winter would be hauled to the river green. When rafting, the lumber, both dry and green, would be more or less mixed, some of the pieces having mostly dry lumber in them and others nearly or quite all green. The dry and green element largely determined the number of courses and a piece in the depth of the water each piece would drop. A raft would run better and could be handled easier by the men working the oars if all the pieces in it were nearly uniform in depth in the water. It was of great importance in coupling these pieces together into raft to put them together in a way that would balance the raft and make it so. If the lumber was partly dry, it could be rafted quite deep in the spring when we were sure of plenty of water. Pieces with more green lumber then dry were 25 courses deep, board to thickness 1 1/2 inches. A piece was six platforms long, that is, it was the length of 16 foot boards, minus the lap where the platforms were joined together, which took about five feet off six platforms, leaving the piece 91 feet long. Four of these pieces coupled together made one string, and three strings coupled side-by-side made a full-fledged Allegheny Raft at least 51 feet wide and 365 feet long. The Alleghenies were guided and controlled while being floated down the river by six large oars, one at the front and one at the rear of each string, making three oars at each end of the raft. Each oar was manned by two men, making 12 in the crew of oarsmen. Smaller rafts were managed with lighter oars and fewer men.

These rafts were run into the Ohio River just below Pittsburgh and there made into what we call an Ohio Raft, by coupling together in proper proportions three Alleghenies. The experience of all river men taught them that these large, heavy rafts, in order to be handled safely by the men propelling the oars, must be proportioned in width and length and have a proper distribution of weight in the six platform pieces composing the raft. There was a wide difference in the weight of these pieces; those containing mostly green lumber being much heavier and settling deeper in the water than those that were largely of dry lumber. By putting the lighter pieces in the front end, the heavier ones about a third of the way back and lighter pieces again in the rear, the raft floated better and currents of the river would do a lot of the work that the men at the oars would otherwise have to do. An Ohio Raft was six strings wide and 36 platforms long. This raft would be at least 540 feet long and 102 feet wide, covered more than an acre of water, and contained 1,250,000 to 1,300,000 lbs of lumber.

Our experience on the rivers was not all sunshine. We were sometimes in danger of being wrecked by excessive high water, by a sudden, furious windstorm, by being caught in the dark, cloudy night in a bad stretch of water, or by running into fog. The most dangerous situation and the most trying for the pilot was fog- particularly when it was encountered in a bad stretch of river. I met my share of all these dangerous situations but had the good luck to go through without serious damage.


Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society