Timber rafting was once the linchpin of the area´s economy. It was the first industry to develop in the wild, desolate region that is today known as Sullivan County, predating both the tanning and bluestone industries by more than half a century.
The practice of felling trees and floating them down the Delaware for sale in Philadelphia started just after the French and Indian War. Daniel Skinner, who came here from Connecticut in 1755 with his parents and siblings — his father, Joseph, killed in 1759, is believed to have been the first white man murdered in the upper Delaware — is generally regarded as the man who started it all. The earliest trips down river, however, were not without incident.
Timber rafting was once the lynchpin of the area’s economy.
It was on a trip to the West Indies historians note, that Daniel Skinner first got the idea of floating the tall, straight pine trees from along the banks of the Delaware to the Philadelphia shipyards.
“He had purchased of his father twenty-five acres of land near Damascus, known as ’Ackhake.´” writes Leslie C. Wood in his 1950 history of timber rafting, Holt! T´Other Way! “On returning from his voyage, he cut, trimmed and rolled into the water several of the tallest pines and followed them down the stream in a canoe. Failure marked the venture. The timbers either became lodged in inaccessible places or were lost in the long eddies.”
So Daniel Skinner conceived the idea of lashing the trees together to form a raft, which could be ridden and steered down the river. He made his first successful trip in 1764.
“After felling six large masts of equal length, he cut a mortise four inches square through both ends of each, rolled them into the water, and inserted what he called a spindle through the mortises,” Wood notes. “He placed a stout pin through the ends of the spindles to keep the logs from slipping. By using cross-logs on each end of the craft, he hung a large oar (in the center) fore and aft. He called the result a raft.”
Skinner hired a man named Cudosh to accompany him on the journey to Philadelphia on this raft, and it took them over a week to complete the trip from St. Tammany´s Flat, just below Callicoon. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Skinner was paid four pounds per mast.
A second raft, containing ten spars, and five feet wider than the first, was then constructed and floated down river in just two days. Soon, there were dozens of other daring, hardy men engaged in the same practice, each of them paying homage to Skinner as “the Lord High Admiral of the Delaware.”
“By general consent, (Skinner) was constituted Admiral of all the waters of the river in which a raft could be taken to market, and no one was free to engage in the business until he had the Admiral´s consent,” writes James Eldridge Quinlan in his History of Sullivan County. “This was gained by presenting Skinner with a bottle of wine, when liberty was granted to the applicant to go to Philadelphia as a forehand. To gain the privilege of going as a steersman, another bottle was necessary, on receipt of which the Admiral gave full permission to navigate all the channels of the river.”
Trees float down the river to their destination
It didn´t take long for those who regularly rafted the river to realize that spring was the optimum time for making the trip, which could usually be accomplished in about three days.
“When the ice had gone out and the spring freshet was in the offing, great was the excitement and activity along the river,” writes Wood. “The raftsmen began placing timber into their rafts, and the women folks started preparations for sending their men on their way. The women (baked) a large multitude of bread, pies, cakes, apple turnovers, and other delicacies for the huge dinner-bucket from which the rafting crew would eat its noontime meal while floating down the river. Once the rain started to fall, the men set out empty pails to note how fast the water arose in them or cut a sapling, notched it and pushed it down into the gravel of the river bed with the mark at the surface. They measured the rate at which the stream was rising as the water deepened over the notch.”
At first, rafters cut only pine trees of a particular height and straightness from the river bank, but by the heyday of the rafting industry in the 1870s, all types of timber, much of which would have been disdained by earlier harvesters, was being cut from as far away as Livingston Manor and beyond. Feeder streams, such as the Beaverkill and the Lackawaxen River, were used to get the timber to the Delaware. The narrow, twisted nature of these smaller streams usually dictated that the logs be floated individually or as “colts,” small rafts which were later gathered together in groups of four or six to constitute a full-sized raft when they reached the Delaware.
Not every stream was conducive to rafting, though. Otto William Van Tuyl and his ill-fated Neversink Navigation Company found that out the hard way. The company was formed in 1816 for the purpose of opening the Neversink for rafting, and charging others a toll for getting their lumber through to the Delaware.
“If the company had succeeded in making the river navigable, its revenue would have been princely,” Quinlan notes.
Van Tuyl borrowed ten thousand dollars from New York state, and commenced “improving” the river. His first two rafts wrecked, and one of his men drowned.
“Although the enterprise resulted in poverty and reproach to Van Tuyl,” Quinlan records, “he never lost confidence in it, and continued to make futile attempts to improve the river, until the State foreclosed its mortgage.”
RETROSPECT — Timber Rafting by John Conway, April 15, 2005.
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