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Rafting lumber down the Wisconsin & Mississippi Rivers to the St. Louis lumberyards, circa 1839

Wisconsin was so sparsely populated, that the only place to sell the millions of feet of lumber that came from Wisconsin River and St. Croix River sawmills was 184-miles downriver in Galena, Illinois. Eighty-percent of the lead (bullets) in the United States came from Galena, and it was the largest city in Illinois. But when it came to lumber, Galena yards didn’t pay nearly as much as St. Louis yards.


About 242-miles south of Galena were the St. Louis wholesale and retail yards that paid top- dollar, and seldom turned away a raft of lumber. The largest dealers used their riverfront yards to store large inventories they used to supply yards in Memphis, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. But rafting over 20-tons of lumber from Draper’s Rapids to St. Louis required plenty of guts, and it wasn’t a trip for sissies. “Some of these rafts cover several acres of surface, and when under motion in a rapid current it requires a great force to stop them.”


According to a local history, Joshua Draper piloted the first raft down the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi and then to St. Louis during the late spring of 1839. This suggests that Draper & Fay were cutting lumber before they received title to their land, not an exceptional infraction in the life of a lumberman along the Wisconsin River. Just as soon as their rafts made it through the rapids below the Draper & Fay mill, they had to steer around thousands of rocks. “It was the worst piece of rapids that I knew anything about; very, very bad.”

Running the Kilbourn Dam on the Wisconsin River. Pictures courtesy of the H.H. Bennett Studio.
Running the Kilbourn Dam on the Wisconsin River. Pictures courtesy of the H.H. Bennett Studio.

Running the Kilbourn Dam on the Wisconsin River. Pictures courtesy of the H.H. Bennett Studio.

“From Wisconsin Rapids to the mouth of the Wisconsin River it took us fourteen days to run.... you run about fourteen hours a day. We used to get started at five o'clock in the morning and tie up at seven in the evening, or start in the morning at six o'clock and tie up about eight, which would give us fourteen hours daylight.”


The first 60-miles down the Wisconsin were the most dangerous, and where everyone had to pay close attention to the river. There were over twenty rapids along this stretch of the river, dropping from four to six feet with hundreds of twists and turns. About four miles south of the Draper & Fay mill was a 10-mile stretch where the river dropped an accumulated 60 feet. Once they passed the lower dells their trip calmed-down considerably.


According to local historians, Draper & Fay’s trip to St. Louis would have been the first from “the pinery.” A government survey reveals that in 1839 the water table was unusually low, and old timers recalled that spring was the only time to raft lumber.


“No one that had any amount of lumber to run would undertake any other time than in the spring of the year, when we had the most water while the snow melting. That was the only time in which we would ever try to run a raft. Rafting began as soon as they could get a good stage of water.”


This indicates that most of their lumber was rafted downriver in April and May when the water- table was at its highest due to melting snow into the river. A few months later, the summer heat and humidity lowered the water-table in the rivers, and turned a 30-day trip into a 45-day trip. When a raft got hung-up on a sandbar, the men depended on other rafts to stop, and help, not that they had much say in the matter because the stranded raft blocked movement up and down the river.


“I can say that a sand bar in a river will shift inside of twenty-four hours, because while we’re sleeping, the Wisconsin River keeps rolling sand, sand, and sand. Where we have run this afternoon into sand tomorrow a raft will come through. I can just make this illustration to show you absolutely how only one-quarter, I might say, of all the day's work was used up by actually running lumber, and three-quarters of the time was used by helping other rafts back into sufficient water where they could run down the river.” “From Wisconsin Rapids to the mouth of the Wisconsin River it took us fourteen days to run. You run about fourteen hours a day. We used to get started at five o'clock in the morning and tie up at seven in the evening, or start in the morning at six o'clock and tie up about eight, which would give us fourteen hours run.”


A raft was actually six to eight smaller rafts held together by pegs and leather straps, with boards stacked in alternate layers for stability with lath and shingles piled on top. Two mammoth hardwood oars were locked into place at the front and back of the raft; if they got turned around, they could still navigate downriver. While steering 20-tons of lumber through turbulent waters each of the two rear tillers had three men on each oar exerting over 1,200 pounds of muscle. The men navigating these cumbersome rigs were called pilots and they earned about $100 ($1,100 today) a trip, top dollar in those days. Crew members earned $1 to $3 a day, depending on their level of experience. Based on a July 9, 1840 entry in Kirkland Torrey’s diary, we know that he and Gideon were in St. Louis, presumably after having worked the tillers and that “Gid” was sick. Swamp Fever (malaria) was common on the Mississippi River although Kirkland’s diary entry doesn’t specify Gideon’s illness.


The men working on the rafts were called “river hogs.” They labored from daybreak to sunset when they tied-up for the night after a long, tough day. Some men wore the caulked boots of log drivers but others went barefoot and wore an assortment of ragged shirts, trousers and felt hats. They were in and out of the muddy water throughout the day and it was dirty work.


During their journey downriver the raft’s look-out scanned the water for boulders, sand bars or other low branches. “I came very near being knocked overboard by the oar getting away from the steersman. No one thrown off at this place has been known to have been saved.” The Wisconsin River was 28-feet deep in most parts and ran fast enough to quickly drag a person beneath the water. One morning about a mile downstream from the Draper & Fay mill six men nearly drowned, but were snatched from the river before the currents pulled them under although some of them died a few days later from internal injuries. The river was treacherous as evidenced by the drowning of the Wakely’s nine-year-old son, who fell from a lumber raft and a few years later the drowning of Harrison Fay at the age of forty-two. There were sections of the river littered with thousand-pound boulders, and during the summer months lumbermen used mules along the riverfront to pull most of them to the shoreline. Boulders too heavy to move had a dam built around the obstruction so a raft could steer around them. It took about 30- days for them to travel from Draper’s Rapids to St. Louis. After the first few trips downriver, lumbermen constructed slides with timbers secured by massive bins of rocks. This greatly sped-up their travel-time, and created an amusement ride for teenagers. “When the rafts passed through towns where there was some population, there were always a lot of young fellows waiting at the various eddies for a chance to run the rapids with the crew, but when the water was too dangerous this permission wasn’t granted.”


When approaching turbulent waters, the eight to ten rafts were disassembled into smaller rafts. After passing Whitney’s Rapids, the trip was serene and peaceful until they reached a deadly section of the river frequently referenced by Indians and old fur traders as the “dreaded dells.” The river was about a half a mile wide until it narrowed to 54-feet, with fast-moving currents and rock formations on both sides of the river that an out-of-control raft could easily slam into, and splinter into hundreds of pieces. “In going through the Dells, we disconnected our rafts. Where formerly two men handled a Wisconsin raft (400 to 500 feet long), consisting of three pieces, four men would take one piece through the Dells, run it through below Kilbourn, and gig back. That is, walking back through the Upper Dells. I suppose it is a distance, if I remember right, of about five miles. We will be all day running that lumber through the Dells, and by the time that the last raft comes through, the first raft is possibly almost right

opposite Portage, which is about ten miles below.”

wisconsin river

“We had scarcely got the rafts secured together, when I heard a roaring noise and looking upover the bluffs discovered a large black cloud rolling over us. In less than fifteen minutes we were engulfed in one of the most terrible thunder storms I ever witnessed. The wind blew a gale, the rain fell in torrents, and thunder rolled, and the lightning flashed. The waves rolled upon the raft, and we were in fear of being broken to pieces. It looked still more awful and sublime, because we were floating along under those gigantic bluffs. Night setting in, left us in total darkness, except when the lightning flashed and furnished all the light we had by which to guide the raft. About midnight the storm abated and another set of men took the oars, when I crawled into my bunk, wet as a drowned rat.” After floating through the lower dells with a raft of lumber, David Whitney (1804-1838) went to bed feeling mentally and physically weak,. He woke-up feeling tired and feverish with severe cramps and nausea. The others could see that he was very ill and brought him to Ahira and Jane Sampson, friends who just happened to be staying nearby. It was the onset of the bloody flux; a bacterial or viral form of dysentery that was almost always fatal. They knew bringing him back to his trading post at Whitney’s Rapids was out of the question. Once the parasites attacked his brain, lungs, and liver he would be dead within 24-hours, so a Frenchman paddled upriver to pick-up Maria Whitney, then nursing their dangerously sick four-year-old daughter.


Maria asked their neighbor from across the river, Mary Wakely to watch her five children, before

climbing into a birch bark canoe with an Indian and Frenchman paddling downriver a hundred miles. They

paddled through the night until arriving the next morning around 9 a.m., but by then, David was only a few

hours away from death. On August 16, 1838, he died at the age of 34, leaving his widow to raise five

children in the wilderness.

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