Rural Missouri Magazine

Return of the tie rafters
Ripley County residents celebrate heritage with a railroad tie raft float trip on Current River

by Jason Jenkins
More than 100 years ago, the sight of a raft fashioned out of railroad ties would have been common. Today, it’s a spectacle that attracts the attention of every boater on Current River on a busy Labor Day weekend.

With each bolt of lightning that illuminated the western skyline, the look of trepidation on Ray Joe Hastings’ face could clearly be seen.

Sitting in his pickup truck in the early morning light on the bank of Current River, he played nervously with the windshield wiper control, listening to the rumble of the distant thunder and the plunk-plunk-plunk of oversized raindrops falling from the treetops above. Occasionally, he’d give the control a turn, clearing the glass in an attempt to gauge if the rain was easing up.

It wasn’t.

This certainly was not the weather Ray Joe had hoped for on this day. For more than a year and a half, he and others from the Doniphan area had anticipated a float trip for this Labor Day weekend, a float that would take them five miles downstream on what many consider Missouri’s premier river for recreational floating.

The group wouldn’t be traveling the river by any of today’s most popular modes, however. There would be no canoes to paddle, no kayaks, no rubber inner tubes.

Instead, this group would employ a method of transportation that was far more common a century ago when Current River was less of a weekend tourist getaway and more of an avenue for commerce in the region.

They would build and float a railroad tie raft.

Consisting of 200 railroad ties, the 20-ton craft measured roughly 150 feet long, half the length of a football field. The raft would snake its way downriver past gravel bars, snags and shoals to its final destination below the Highway 160 bridge in Doniphan, the final event commemorating Ripley County’s sesquicentennial.

“The old-timers got down the river any way they could, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Ray Joe quipped as he exited his truck and prepared for the day’s adventure.

Building a nation

In the years immediately following the Civil War, the Missouri Ozark forests played a pivotal role.

Although railroad tie rafts were built with manual labor around the turn of the 20th century, a group of re-enactors in Ripley County utilized modern machinery from the Kirby Sawmill in Doniphan.

“They essentially fueled the westward expansion,” says Bryan Culpepper, museum curator for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Van Buren, the first national park area to protect a wild river system. “Once the railroad made its way to this region, that’s when the lumbering era kicked off.”

The forest in those days was much different than it is today. Stands of virgin yellow pine dominated the landscape, instead of the oak and hickory that defines the region today. The understory was much more open and included large grassy savannas.

“(Explorers) Henry Schoolcraft and Levi Pettibone, in their writings of 1818, described the grasses as being so high you could lose a man on horseback,” adds Culpepper.

Businessmen and investors from the East, as well as St. Louis and Kansas City, began purchasing thousands of acres of land, seeking out the yellow pine. A number of railroad companies began laying tracks to reach the region — both from the east as well as the west.

The Ozark lumber was attractive for a number of reasons. According to Donald L. Stevens Jr. in his historic resource study, “A Homeland and a Hinterland: The Current and Jacks Fork Riverways,” investors found an eager supply of labor in the money-poor Ozarkers. Also spurring development were the region’s relatively mild climate, which enabled year-round production (as opposed to northern forests where harsh winters ceased operations), as well as proximity to the growing West.

Lumber production grew quickly. The 1870 U.S. Census reported the southeast Ozarks’ 23 sawmills produced nearly 5.6 million board feet of lumber; by 1880, those numbers had grown to 54 sawmills producing roughly 53.8 million board feet.

Though the railroad was key to moving lumber from the Ozarks, the region’s rivers were the highways for moving logs from the hills and hollers to the mills. Log drives on Current River and other waterways were common. In 1900, for example, the Missouri Lumber and Mining Company organized two drives on the Current that each comprised more than 500,000 board feet of lumber. The flotillas stretched 15 miles downriver.

But as important as the Ozark pine lumber was for the building boom around the advent of the 20th century, the region’s hardwood trees — namely oak — were just as essential, though perhaps not as lucrative. White oak was the primary wood for railroad ties, and without the ties, no new track could be laid to the West. While larger operators focused on the pine, Stevens wrote that smaller lumber companies cut railroad ties.

Using a broad axe, “tie hackers” cut railroad ties by hand from white oak trees in the Ozark forest. They were paid 10 cents for each tie. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

Tie making was an occupation in itself or something a farmer might do in the winter to supplement his income. After felling a tree, “tie hackers,” as they were called, hand-hewed each tie, which typically measured 6 inches thick, 8 inches wide and 8 feet long. They also cut 7-by-9-inch ties.

“Tie hackers got paid 10 cents a tie,” says Ray Joe, an amateur archeologist, Current River historian and member of Ozark Border Electric Cooperative. “He might be able to make 10 a day. Ten or 12 was a good day’s work.”

Hackers hauled their ties to the river where a tie buyer inspected and purchased them, stamping the end of each tie with his company’s mark, akin to branding cattle.

Because green wood doesn’t float, freshly cut ties were allowed to season for months. When a significant number of ties were ready for delivery to the railhead downstream, a company hired men to guide the free-floating ties down the river.

These men, wet for weeks on end, were called “river hogs” or “river rats.” They followed the ties, breaking up jams and picking up additional ties as they went downstream. Stevens wrote that on Current River, drives often began near Montauk and continued down to Chicopee near Van Buren.

“These drives would last 60 to 90 days,” says Culpepper. “I would suspect that with those guys around the campfire, the smell of old soggy socks drying hung thick in the air.”

Drives comprised anywhere from 50,000 to 400,000 individual ties, which posed dangers, both to the men driving them and those attempting to cross the river downstream.

“There was an endless stream of ties,” Ray Joe explains. “It was said a man could walk across the river on the ties. People trying to ford the river downstream didn’t take kindly to it.”

In 1909, the state of Missouri, which regulated tie drives, limited the number of individual ties in a single drive to no more than 50,000. By 1919, loose tie drives were outlawed altogether, leaving rafting as the only legal means of transporting ties down Current River.

Building a raft

At one time, Ripley County was the largest producer of ties along Current River, and Doniphan was known as the railroad tie capital of the world. At the height of the industry in 1912, the county exported 808,000 ties.

Though it’s been nearly eight decades since the last commerical tie raft came downriver, the mythology of rafting has grown steadily over the years. As those who witnessed or participated in tie rafting have passed away, stories of rafts a quarter-mile or even a half-mile-long have become commonplace.

Gene Braschler, one of the organizers of the float, points out a tie in need of a nail to Dan Hill, left, and Richard Whiteside as they assemble the raft.

“It’s about like a fish story; it grows every time somebody tells it,” says Ray Joe, who at 72 is too young to have ever seen a commercial tie raft. “I can tell you right now, there was never a tie raft on Current River a quarter of a mile long or even half that. They were usually 500 feet or less. Now, I can’t say on other rivers, but on Current, it didn’t happen.”

Even at that length, however, tie rafts were an enormous spectacle. Most were comprised of 600 to 800 ties; the largest raft Ray Joe has ever documented in his research was a 1,264-tie, double-wide raft floated down to Doniphan.

Rafts were constructed in sections, called blocks, in eddies along the river. The rafters edged up ties perpendicular to the river’s current and nailed them together using lash poles made from saplings. A block might consist of 100 to 125 ties.

Blocks were connected to each other with a coupling pole, which allowed the raft to bend and flex as it was guided downstream.

On the front and rear blocks, large rudders called sweeps were attached that helped to steer the raft. In the rear block, a void was left in the raft through which a brake, or a snub pole, could be forced down into the river bottom to help slow the raft’s progress.

“Boy, that thing will shake you like a jackhammer when it’s tearin’ through that gravel,” Ray Joe says.

Depending on the size of the raft, as few as two or as many as four men would guide a tie raft to its destination. These men knew everything about the river — every snag, every sandbar, every shoal and every eddy by name. They gave these river landmarks colorful names like “Pulltite,” “Pig Ankle,” “Harry’s Root” and “Snaggy Bend,” many of which are still referenced today.

Some men were paid by the day; others by the number of ties they delivered. Ray Joe says a typical wage was 3 cents a tie. “If you and your partner delivered 800 ties, well that’s $24 between you,” he says. “When the average man made $1 per day, that was big money.”

The men took very little with them on the journey, as whatever they brought had to be carried back upstream for the next float. Ray Joe believes that another Ozark stalwart — the johnboat — came of age during this time, a craft born out of necessity by rafters who needed to go back upstream after delivering their ties.

While the line of rafts coming downstream seemed never-ending, by the late 1920s, the advent of trucks and better roads and bridges spelled the end of the tie-rafting era. Ray Joe actually worked on a construction crew for the man who brought down the last raft.

“Howard Steen and his partner, Andrew McDowell, they rafted the last raft of any consequence in the spring of 1931,” he says. “They brought down 350 ties and went into the history books — not knowingly, of course — it wasn’t done for that.”

Building a tradition

Throughout the Ozarks during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, railroad ties cut from the region’s forests were in strong demand as pioneers pushed west. Thousands of ties floated down to collection points, such as Bagnell Tie Yard along the Osage River, seen here in 1896, where they were loaded onto railcars. Photo courtesy of the Missouri State Archives.

For years, Ray Joe had toyed with the idea of re-creating a railroad tie float on Current River, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he found willing supporters in a group of local residents which included Gene Braschler, Lester Wright and local sawyer Robert Kirby. On Labor Day weekend that year, the group brought a bygone era back to life, floating a raft of 250 ties — the first in 69 years — 8 miles down to Doniphan. The group repeated the feat in 2006.

Although severe weather threatened to cancel this year’s float, the lightning and thunder moved out of the area. Though somewhat delayed, the construction of a 200-tie raft began in earnest as a light rain continued until mid-morning.

The raft completed, these modern-day rivermen set off downstream after lunch. Like their historic predecessors, they knew every twist and turn along the river. “This is not a kid’s game, it’s really, really serious,” Hastings says. “Those guys actually had the advantage over us.”

The advantages were two-fold, he says. In many places, Current River was a much deeper river 100 years ago before gravel from denuded hillsides eroded into the streambed. Lumber companies also employed men to dredge the river and remove snags in the channel. “They could remove snags themselves, too, because you could buy sticks of dynamite back then,” Hastings adds.

It took about two and a half hours to float the five miles of river from the put-in at Deer Leap Picnic Area to the Highway 160 bridge at Doniphan. Along the way, the crew negotiated many traditional obstacles such as stumps, snags and shoals, as well as some that the old-timers would have never encountered — primarily jet boats. All along the route, locals and vacationers alike lined the banks, cheering the crew on.

“I think it’s just a good way to give people a little pride in their history,” says Gene Braschler, who, at 84 years old, remembers the last official snag boat that came up Current River. “You know, we need that here. If we can form a tradition here that will help people take a little pride in the river, then I’m 100 percent for it.”

At the end of a five-mile journey downstream on Current River, the crew of modern-day rivermen brings their railroad tie raft to its destination below the Highway 160 bridge in Doniphan.

Though Braschler and other members of the 2000 float crew are still involved, they’re hoping to pass the torch to other, younger community members. Among these individuals is Richard Whiteside, the local barber.

“The first time I saw a tie raft on Current River, it just ran goosebumps up my arms because I just knew that was what our ancestors did,” says Whiteside, who participated this year and in 2006.

Whiteside brought his sons Grifen, 9, and Silas, 6, along on this year’s float.

“Silas turns 7 in November, and I just wonder if he’s the youngest fella that’s ever rode on a tie raft,” he says.

Whiteside says he hopes to instill in his sons an appreciation for nature and the river, as well as an interest in Ozark heritage. It’s a hope that float participant Dan Hill has for all of Ripley County.

“I’d like to think some of my kinfolk probably floated this same river 100 years ago, doing the same thing we’re doing, and this is just a chance to relive that,” says Dan Hill, a retired teacher from Doniphan. “I hope the people watching on the banks are reflecting the same way. This is such a part of the heritage of the whole community.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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