Before trains crossed Georgia in the late 1800s, water transport was the only way to get timber from the upriver forests to the timber mills of Darien on coastal Georgia. There were two methods of drifting timber to market, floating single logs or assembling the logs into rafts. Because of changing water levels, steamboat traffic, and difficulty in controlling a group of single floating logs, rafts were the preferred method of transport.
Today’s transport industry is controlled by the cost and abundance of fuel for their trucks and vans. The timber rafts were also controlled by their transporting fuel, water. With the increasing water levels of the winter months, especially mid-December before Christmas shopping, the number of rafters on the river was at its peak. Besides the high water levels of the winter months, increased raft traffic was due to the rafter-farmers’ desire to make extra money between the harvesting and the planting of their crops. With a low water level or no water in the river tributaries, very few individuals attempted summer rafting. Besides stranding logs in the tributaries, low water was a handicap on the river because of exposed submerged logs, sandbars, and snags that stopped rafting completely or made the trip much longer.
In the 1800s, long leaf yellow pines were the “king” of the river rafts. The forests along the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers yielded pines of tremendous size and abundance. In the late 1880s the Hilton Timber and Lumber Company of Darien contracted for pines that could not be less than 70 feet in length and 19 inches square at the small end (top of tree). Besides pines, hickory, ash, oak, poplar, sweet gum, and black gum (tupelo) were also rafted, but in lesser quantities than pines. Cypress was also rafted, but because of its “deep floating” nature, high water levels in the tributaries were essential. To decrease the cypress’s “deep floating,” loggers would sometime “ring” the tree by cutting away bark, allowing the tree to die and dry for sometimes a year before it was cut down.
The length of a raft was controlled by the width and the meandering of the water route. All rafts were assembled in sections that varied in length from 20 to 30 feet. The average raft was comprised of five – six sections, but some rafts were over 200 feet long. Rafts tapered in width from the bow to the stern, with the bow section being the widest. The section’s interior could be composed of round or squared logs (fit together tighter), with the squared-sided logs used for the boom logs. The boom logs, or outside logs of each section, were longer than the interior logs, so the boom logs could extend 2-3 feet past the front of the next section. This process continued from section to section, causing the raft to taper as the sections became narrower, allowing the extension of the booms. Sections were interlocked by binder poles which crossed the section, and were pegged to the outer boom logs. Since the boom arms extended past the front of the next section, the binder poles enclosed the front binders of that section, thus coupling the sections together.
The early rafts had a square bow, but experienced rafters learned that a square bow did not deflect away from obstacles, and the impact sometimes destroyed the raft. Most rafts were V-bowed by using two chute logs that projected to a point in front of the raft. This V-bow allowed the raft to deflect away from the river bank and other river obstacles.
High water, low water, changing sandbars, and other factors common in meandering southern rivers made maneuvering the raft difficult. Like modern truck drivers who know every bump and turn on their delivery route, an experienced raft pilot understood the changing river conditions and how to adjust his raft. Unlike pole boats, rafts were controlled by the river current and were guided by a single bow and a single stern sweep (oars) that may be 40 – 50 feet long. These river factors controlled the raft’s length, but the distance between the railroad bridge pilings limited the raft’s width. The Altamaha River rafts were wider (42 feet) than those on the Ocmulgee River (38 feet). After several days to several weeks on the river, the rafters would sell their raft and start the long walk (over 100 miles for some), or if they were lucky, a train ride, back home.
Log rafts on the Ocmulgee River continued until the early 1900s. The expansion of the Georgia rail system led to the decline of river travel for transporting goods to market, whether steamboats or log rafting,. Railroads were fast and dependable and could operate in a variety of weather conditions. They delivered timber to the mills clean, while river travel left the logs muddy with sand and rocks embedded in the wood. Railroads could deliver logs from the interior counties while rafting was limited to an area near a water course. There are other factors, but the rafting industry could not compete with a changing economics system.
According to Carlton Morrison’s book, Running the River, “On April 3, 1982, piloted by Captain Bill Deen, age 90, the last raft of pure Georgia pine timber began a journey of 140 miles down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers to the coastal city of Darien. Smaller than the great rafts of the 1880s, the raft of 1982 was 85 by 30 feet and weighed almost 50 tons. Oar sweeps of 35 feet were at each end. After stopping at folk festivals near Baxley and Jesup, the raft and crew of 8 arrived in Darien on April 20.” The Last Raft Marker at McRae’s Landing outside of Lumber City is dedicated to the event and the rafters of the past.