We can’t travel back in time, but sometimes we can relive the past. I was fortunate enough to be invited along on an adventure to relive Missouri river history on an early September morning.
It awoke at 5 a.m. and eagerly consumed a bowl of cereal while my sleepy eyes were glued to the weather channel report. Tropical depression Isaac was bringing much needed rain to the region. It also threatened our tie raft drive scheduled on the Current River near Doniphan. We were convinced we had a wide enough window before the storms fired up that afternoon, so we committed to the adventure.
We assembled the raft at Float Camp Access near Highway Y north of Doniphan. A front-end loader dropped the logs in the water and two teams began nailing the ties to long hickory poles. I was part of a four-man team assembling one raft segment. Another team worked next to us assembling an identical segment. We took turns holding the floating ties in place and hammering in the 40-penny nails.
It took fifty ties to make a raft segment. Four segments, of 200 total ties comprised the whole raft. Our tie raft was roughly 150 feet long and composed of pine and oak railroad ties. We realized right way that oak ties do not float high in the water, but pine ties do. A properly constructed raft would distribute oak and pine evenly to optimize floating.
People in the late 1800s and early 1900s used the river to move a load of ties to sell them. Over 100 years ago tie rafts were a common sight in the Ozarks. This was what we were hoping to relive- what it was like to float the river on a tie raft from start to finish.
By about 11:00 that morning we had all four segments of the raft assembled and were ready to line them up for attachment to one another. We push poled all four segments out to a slow current area in front of the campground. This was a rush to experience. When I stepped onto the raft it felt like a floating dock, but nothing that required sensitive balance. As I walked over the ties they sank down some allowing water to wash over the sides or squish up between the ties.
We docked near the bank in order to nail short hickory poles between the segments to connect our “train”. Before we were ready to launch, large pine paddles known as sweeps had to be assembled and put in place. Sweeps were pre-constructed and balanced days before. When not in use the sweep handle would drop to the raft lifting the pine board from the water. Only by raising the pine pole handle off the sweep and moving it left to right could it be fully engaged for navigation.
After a quick lunch we set out. The storms were ever present on our minds. Historically, some rafts would be 500 feet long and from my experience it was as much raft as anyone would really want to handle. I got a turn at the front sweep and found I had to anticipate maneuvers in advance. Rafts don’t turn on a dime.
This wasn’t like a canoe or johnboat. We didn’t paddle them to move them faster. There was too much mass. We moved at the current’s leisure. The ride through pools was tranquil and pleasant but any river hazard changed our mindset quickly. Underwater snags, river bends and huge rocks could not be ignored. I was privileged to be on the raft with nine other people who respected the river as much as I did. Only three of them had taken a raft down the river before. I was a newbie, but I learned quickly.
This was also different than canoeing for another reason. I stood the whole way and used a pole to push. The pushing wasn’t for speed but course correction. We spread out along the raft to keep the snaky body of the raft in line.
Taking a bend where the current slammed up against a bluff captured my attention well. The notion of the raft getting knocked into pieces didn’t appeal to any of us. Sometimes our strain was accompanied by groans of effort.
But when the infrequent hazards were not imminent, we enjoyed casual chitchat and teased each other. I imagined a group of 1880’s Ozarks loggers enjoying the same visits and teasing as they brought their monetary load of ties to the landing site. The only thing that would’ve ceased their discussions was the orders barked out like the ones we heard.
“There’s a snag up ahead! Move to the right of it.” Or, “straighten up the end!”
Then someone from the middle section would repeat that order for the back to hear.
We had chaser boats to help us if something happened to go wrong, but Ozark pioneers likely didn’t have that luxury.
During the moments of silence we all enjoyed the beauty of the Current River. I contemplated how loggers with this level of technology could cut as much lumber as they did. I was amazed. They worked hard, and had to be intimately knowledgeable of the river. Staggering volumes of lumber came from the Ozarks back then. Millions of logs and ties made their way down Ozarks river ways. Even though I was only reliving one aspect of the archaic lumber industry it was enough to show me it was hard and dangerous work.
At one point I considered how slow we were moving. We could not paddle and the clouds were billowing. But it gave me pause to the alternatives in the 19th century. You either took multiple loads of ties via horse and buggy, over rough Ozark terrain, or you let the river carry the load and you steer.
I would have chosen the river too, if I were alive back then.
Ozarks lumber men earned my respect on the river that day.
As we made our way to the Highway 160 Bridge at Doniphan, we successfully avoided objects, and navigated bends. The five mile float ended just as a torrential downpour let loose. The rafts were disassembled in the rain.
Driving home that evening I contemplated the experience. We did more than float a bunch of logs down the Current River. We did more than study Ozarks logging history; we experienced it! Old black and white photos breathed new life with every river mile we traveled. We now understood a small part of what it took to make a living in the frontier of the Missouri Ozarks. And we did something that very few 21st century people will ever get a chance to do. We brought a piece of logging past to life for all to see.