Timber rafting
Timber rafting is a log transportation method in which logs are tied together into raft
A raft is any flat structure for support or transportation over water. It is the most basic of boat design, characterized by the absence of a hull...

s and drifted or pulled across a water body or down a flatter river. It is arguably the second cheapest method of transportation of timber
Timber may refer to:* Timber, a term common in the United Kingdom and Australia for wood materials * Timber, Oregon, an unincorporated community in the U.S...

, next after log driving
Log driving
Log driving is a means of log transport which makes use of a river's current to move floating tree trunks downstream to sawmills and pulp mills.It was the main transportation method of the early logging industry in Europe and North America...

. Both methods may be referred to as timber floating
Timber floating
Timber floating may refer to:*Log driving*Timber rafting...


Historical rafting

Unlike log driving, which was a dangerous task of floating separate logs
Logging is the cutting, skidding, on-site processing, and loading of trees or logs onto trucks.In forestry, the term logging is sometimes used in a narrow sense concerning the logistics of moving wood from the stump to somewhere outside the forest, usually a sawmill or a lumber yard...

, floaters or raftsmen could enjoy relative comfort of navigation, with cabins built on rafts, steering by means of oar
An oar is an implement used for water-borne propulsion. Oars have a flat blade at one end. Oarsmen grasp the oar at the other end. The difference between oars and paddles are that paddles are held by the paddler, and are not connected with the vessel. Oars generally are connected to the vessel by...

s and possibility to make stops. On the other hand, rafting requires wider waterflows.

Timber rafts were also used as a means of transportation of people and goods, both raw materials (ore
An ore is a type of rock that contains minerals with important elements including metals. The ores are extracted through mining; these are then refined to extract the valuable element....

, fur
Fur is a synonym for hair, used more in reference to non-human animals, usually mammals; particularly those with extensives body hair coverage. The term is sometimes used to refer to the body hair of an animal as a complete coat, also known as the "pelage". Fur is also used to refer to animal...

, game
Game (food)
Game is any animal hunted for food or not normally domesticated. Game animals are also hunted for sport.The type and range of animals hunted for food varies in different parts of the world. This will be influenced by climate, animal diversity, local taste and locally accepted view about what can or...

) and man-made.

This practice used to be common in many parts of the world, especially North America and parts of Germany, for example on the Ise
Ise (river)
The Ise is a roughly 50 km long, almost natural river in East Lower Saxony, Germany, which crosses the district of Gifhorn from north to south and discharges into the Aller at Gifhorn itself.- Course :...

, Aller
The Aller is a river, long, in the states of Saxony-Anhalt and Lower Saxony in Germany. It is a right-hand, and hence eastern, tributary of the River Weser and is also its largest tributary. Its last form the Lower Aller federal waterway...

  and Isar
The Isar is a river in Tyrol, Austria and Bavaria, Germany. Its source is in the Karwendel range of the Alps in Tyrol; it enters Germany near Mittenwald, and flows through Bad Tölz, Munich, and Landshut before reaching the Danube near Deggendorf. At 295 km in length, it is the fourth largest river...

 rivers. The advent of the railroad and improvements in trucking and road networks gradually reduced the use of timber rafts. Increased boat traffic and changing economies all but eliminated this practice after the middle of the 20th century but it is still used in a few locations.

Theophrastus , a Greek native of Eresos in Lesbos, was the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school. He came to Athens at a young age, and initially studied in Plato's school. After Plato's death he attached himself to Aristotle. Aristotle bequeathed to Theophrastus his writings, and...

 (Hist. Plant. 5.8.2) records how the Romans
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 imported Corsica
Corsica is an island in the Mediterranean Sea. It is located west of Italy, southeast of the French mainland, and north of the island of Sardinia....

n timber by way of a huge raft propelled by as many as fifty masts
Mast (sailing)
The mast of a sailing vessel is a tall, vertical, or near vertical, spar, or arrangement of spars, which supports the sails. Large ships have several masts, with the size and configuration depending on the style of ship...

 and sail
A sail is any type of surface intended to move a vessel, vehicle or rotor by being placed in a wind—in essence a propulsion wing. Sails are used in sailing.-History of sails:...



Timber rafts could be of enormous proportions, sometimes up to 600 meters (2000 ft) long, 50 meters (165 ft) wide, and stacked 2 meters (6.5 ft) high. Such rafts would contain thousands of logs. For the comfort of the raftsmen - which could number up to 500 - logs were also used to build cabins
Cabin (ship)
A cabin or berthing is an enclosed space generally on a ship or an aircraft. A cabin which protrudes above the level of a ship's deck may be referred to as a "deckhouse."-Sailing ships:...

 and galleys
Galley (kitchen)
The galley is the compartment of a ship, train or aircraft where food is cooked and prepared. It can also refer to a land based kitchen on a naval base or a particular formed household kitchen.-Ship's kitchen:...

. Control of the raft was done by oar
An oar is an implement used for water-borne propulsion. Oars have a flat blade at one end. Oarsmen grasp the oar at the other end. The difference between oars and paddles are that paddles are held by the paddler, and are not connected with the vessel. Oars generally are connected to the vessel by...

s and later on by tugboat
A tugboat is a boat that maneuvers vessels by pushing or towing them. Tugs move vessels that either should not move themselves, such as ships in a crowded harbor or a narrow canal,or those that cannot move by themselves, such as barges, disabled ships, or oil platforms. Tugboats are powerful for...


Raft construction differs depending on the watercourse. Rocky and windy rivers saw rafts of simple, yet sometimes smart, construction. For example, the front parts of the logs were joined together by wooden bars, while the rear parts were loosely roped together. The resulting slack allowed for easy adaptation for narrow and windy waterbeds. Wide and quiet rivers, like the Mississippi River
Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, this river rises in western Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains...

, allowed huge rafts to travel in caravans and even be chained into strings.

Timber rafting in the southeastern United States

Rafting was a principal method of transporting timber in the southeastern United States but, except on the Mississippi River
Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, this river rises in western Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains...

, rafts were necessarily smaller than those described above. On Georgia’s Altamaha River
Altamaha River
The Altamaha River is a major river of the American state of Georgia. It flows generally eastward for 137 miles from its origin at the confluence of the Oconee River and Ocmulgee River towards the Atlantic Ocean, where it empties into the ocean near Brunswick, Georgia. There are no dams...

, for example, the maximum width was about forty feet (12 m), that being the widest that could pass between the pilings of railroad bridges. Maximum length was about 250 feet (76 m), that being the longest that could navigate The Narrows, several miles of the river that were not only very narrow but also very crooked. Each raft had two oars forty to fifty feet long, one in the bow, the other at the stern. The oars were for steering, not propelling, the raft. The minimum raft crew was two men, the pilot who usually manned the stern oar, and his bow hand. Rafts usually had a lean-to shack for shelter and a mound of dirt for a hearth to warm by and cook on.

Most rafts were sharp-chute, that is, V-bowed, rather than square-bowed. Raftsmen had learned that with a V-bow a raft was more likely to hold together and glance off if it drifted out of control and slammed into the river bank. As one old-time raftsman put it: “With a square bow you were compelled to hold the raft in or near the middle of the river: if it butted the hill it would come to pieces. The sharp-chute could be put together so it would not come apart. And it saved a lot of hard work. Raftsmen didn’t mind letting it go to the hill. They’d say: ‘Let’er shoot out.’”

Rafts were assembled in sections. Each section was made up of round or squared timbers, all of the same length except for the outside, or “boom logs,” which extended aft a few feet to enclose the following section. Thus the sections were coupled together. A fairly typical raft would be one of three, four or five sections, each section having timbers twenty to thirty feet in length.

Most rafts were made up of squared timbers, either hewn square by hand or sawn square by upcountry sawmills. Some timbers were carefully, smoothly hewn, and there was a demand for them, especially in England, after steam sawmilling became common. On the Altamaha, for many years during the rafting era, most rafts were made up of “scab” timber, that is, logs roughly squared by broad ax for tighter assembly and for gang sawmills which could cut flat-face timber only.

Although, on the Altamaha, there was rafting to some extent before the Civil War and after World War I, the Altamaha’s rafting era is generally considered to have been the years between those wars. During those years, Darien
Darien, Georgia
Darien is a city in McIntosh County, Georgia, United States. It lies on Georgia's coast at the mouth of the Altamaha River about 50 miles south of Savannah, and is part of the Brunswick, Georgia Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population of Darien was 1,719 at the 2000 census. The city is the...

, a town at the mouth of the river with a population of perhaps a couple of thousand, was a major international timber port. Reports of exports from Darien were included in the New York Lumber Trade Journal along with reports of exports from such large ports as New Orleans, Mobile, Jacksonville, Savannah, Charleston, and Norfolk.

As the era of rafting receded into the past, old men recalling old times on the river talked so much about how boisterous some raftsmen were, about how ready they were for fight or frolic and, whichever, the rougher the better, and about the pranks they pulled and yarns they told—as to give the impression that that’s the way most all raftsmen were. It was a wrong impression, of course. Even so, old timers perpetuated it because in describing river life years later they tended to romanticize it—which is not surprising since they had found on the river and in Darien more than a way to make a little money, they had found a way to escape the drudgery and monotony of life in the backwoods.

“When I was told, ‘Go to Darien, I was ready!’ one old-timer recalled. His sentiment was typical. In Darien raftsmen saw a world far different from the drab upcountry. They saw miles of log booms and, out toward the ocean, the rigging of towering sailing vessels or the stacks of steamships. In town they mingled with sailors from many countries speaking strange languages. If in Darien for the first time, local historian Bessie Lewis said, they stared at the sights “with concealed amazement,” then went back home to recount with exaggeration their adventures.

Talking about old river days raftsmen always mentioned Rag Point. Anyone aboard coming down-river for the first time was required to “treat” the point by placing an item of wearing apparel upon it. The penalty for refusal was to be “ducked or docked”—ducked in the river or docked for drinks in the saloons of Darien.

Old-timers also always mentioned the river “holler,” a kind of yodel a raftsman would sing out early of a morning or late of an evening. It would echo up and down the river and, momentarily, another raftsman’s lonesome response would come echoing back.

Well into the 1900s long after Indians no longer occupied the lands to the west and south of the river, they always mentioned the custom of referring to the river banks as “white” and “Indian,” or as the raftsmen usually pronounced it, “Injun.” “Ease the bow to Injun” was a typical command of a raft pilot to his bow hand.

See also

  • Benson raft
    Benson raft
    The Benson raft was a huge sea-going log raft designed to reliably transport millions of board feet of timber at one time through the open ocean. This practical transportation method was first used on the Pacific coast in 1906 by Simon Benson, a lumber baron of Portland, Oregon, in the United...

  • Timber slide
    Timber slide
    A timber slide is a device for moving timber past rapids and waterfalls. Their use in Canada was widespread in the 18th and 19th century timber trade. At this time, cut timber would be floated down rivers in large timber rafts from logging camps to ports such as Montreal and Saint John, New...

  • Log flume
    Log flume
    A log flume is a flume specifically constructed to transport lumber and logs down mountainous terrain to a sawmill by using flowing water. These watertight trough-like channels could be built to span a long distance across chasms and down steep mountain slopes...

  • Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon
    Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon
    Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon is a novel by Jules Verne, published in 1881.Unlike many of his other novels, this story does not have any science fiction elements. It is an adventure novel....

    , novel by Jules Verne about a timber raft trip down the Amazon River.
  • Wood economy
    Wood economy
    The existence of a wood economy, or more correctly, a forest economy , is a prominent matter in many developing countries as well as in many other nations with temperate climate and especially in those with low temperatures. These are generally the countries with greater forested areas...

Further reading

  • Bowering, Ian How timber rafts ran the Long Sault rapids in Standard Freeholder (October 8, 1993) accessed at Cornwall Public Library, Ontario http://www.library.cornwall.on.ca/DP/Before_Seaway/Rapids/Timber.htm June 21, 2006
  • Morrison, Carlton A. Running the River: Poleboats, Steamboats & Timber Rafts on the Altamaha, Ocmulgee, Oconee & Ohoopee.Available in various Georgia (U. S.) libraries and from the publisher's website:' 'www.saltmarshpress.com

External links

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