Volume VII, No. 2, Winter 1979
FLOATING RAILROAD TIES ON OZARK RIVERS
by Todd Waterman.
"To the best of my knowledge, me and my father, Ed Graven, and brother-in-law, Bill Lindsay, rafted out the last railroad ties that ever came down Beaver Creek. I was twelve years old and this was in 1919. I believe there was a hundred and eight ties that had been stacked and delivered to the landing up on the bluff above Beaver Creek," Vernon Graven said. "We was a-plowing corn in June when Bill Gater who worked for the tie company came down, and he offered Dad two cents a tie extra if we would quit and take them down the creek to the Gasconade River and to a point near Richland.
"We nailed the ties there together and picked up all the ties that were down at Beaver Creek where it empties into the Gasconade, and then we went down to Competition and finished up with three hundred ties."
This experience of rafting railroad ties to market is one of Vernon's most treasured memories. "I've lived that trip over in my mind so many years," he said. He got in on the tail end of a fascinating occupation.
Lee Berry made his first trip in the 1890's when he was eighteen years old. "I made about five or six trips that fall. Then I run every year after that for about fourteen or fifteen years."
"That was his life," his daughter Geraldine Brewer said. "He loved to raft. He farmed, too, but he
couldn't hardly wait till he'd get his crops laid by, then he could raft."
Those of us who enjoy floating the Ozark rivers today can understand the excitement, the allure and satisfaction these old-time rafters must have felt as they took raft after raft down the river for years through the sparcely populated and still wild region.
"All ready? Let 'er go," one of them would shout. With long poles the men would push the long, unwieldy looking craft into the current. It would gradually pick up speed as the front disappeared around the bend in the quickening current. Within minutes the sounds at the tie bank would be gone as they began their week long dependence on the river and their own skill to float the fifty to seventy-five twisted miles to the nearest railroad yards.
As we float those same miles today, we wonder how they floated these eight foot wide rafts when we sometimes have to portage a canoe. Lee explained, "The river ain't anything like it was. There was lots more water and not hardly any gravel and sand bars. It was a bigger river."
The advent of the truck and improved roads and bridges to haul the ties to railroad centers stopped the tie rafting on the Ozark rivers which had began in some places before the Civil War. The nation's expansion to the west and demand for more railroads created an insatiable demand for ties for the railroad beds. Every one of the 209,000 miles of track laid in the United States needed 3,500 ties. Since the ties lasted from twenty to sixty years, even after the era of expansion was over, railroads constantly needed many replacement ties.
Millions of these ties came from the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. In 1912 alone, 15,000,000 hand-hewed ties were sold in Missouri. The area became a huge supplier of ties, not only because the timber was there, but because the labor to cut the ties was available in the comparatively poor agricultural region. In places where the land was richer, people would not cut ties even if timber was there, for farming paid better. In the Ozark hills where most did subsistence farming, cutting, hewing and rafting ties to market provided needed cash income for many families.
Even though very few tie rafts were floated to market after 1920, many people continued to cut and hew ties by hand as late as 1935. During the early Depression, selling ties kept many families from complete ruin. Then about 1933, when the market for stave bolts opened in the region, people quit making ties, for they could make more money with less labor cutting and selling stave bolts. Also about this time railroads began using ties shaped at the mill. They did not use saw milled ties earlier for they had thought hand-hewed ties lasted longer.
Tie cutters got the timber wherever they could. Some cut on their own land, some paid a fee to landowners to cut; others cut without permission on absentee landowners. Men in the business would sometimes acquire timber land very cheaply by purchasing tax-title land and cutting the timber off of it before reselling the land.
The process of making railroad ties was a laborious task. (See Vol.V, No. 3, pp. 75-78, "Tie Making.") With an ax or a one or two man crosscut saw, the first job was to cut down the tree, either white, black or some hard oak. Then the men hewed out the the to the exact measurements using both a broadax and a chopping ax. The sizes of ties varied, but the most usual size was eight feet long, eight inches wide and six inches thick. Cutters preferred bigger trees because they could make two or more ties from one tree. Earl Ripley said, "Getting four ties from a tree they called quarter tie. We had one that was called a bastard tie. That was a tree that made six ties to the cut, and a cut that just made two was a half moon tie. Then the smaller trees that you just made one out of was a pole tie."
Hewing the tie was a slow process that took practice to do correctly. Hewers used a double bitted chopping ax and a twelve inch broadax. First they cut a line down the bark of the tree to mark the dimensions of the tie. They then chopped away the bark and shaped the tie one side at a time with a broadax until finished. Most men could cut and shape between ten to twenty ties a day.
Everything about the tie business was done by manpower, even carrying ties. Men who worked with ties and rafted them soon mastered the knack of carrying the 200 to 300 pound ties on their shoulders. Vernon remembered a man who worked at his sawmill carrying a sixteen foot by seven inch by nine inch tie up the gang plank to the boxcar on his shoulder. "I seen the man do it," Vernon said. "That is unbelievable. It'd weigh seven hundred pounds. The way the old-timers out in our country figured, when a boy got to be a man was when he could take a tie on his shoulder, carry it and put it on the landing. It wasn't no easy job. We used to laugh, 'That guy can't even carry a tie. It wasn't no disgrace, but it made him feel bad at the time."
Those experienced in carrying ties would be able to guess the center of the tie and not miss it more than a half pound from perfect balance. In tie yards a man that loaded ties would have two men place it on his shoulder, but a man out in the timber cutting ties would have to put it up on his shoulder himself. He would stand the tie up on end and then let it balance back on his shoulder. Earl said, "Oh we'd always pack them. Wasn't no trouble to flip a tie on my shoulder. I was stout then--pack it up the biggest hill. Maybe we'd throw our cap on our shoulder. It will kind of wear your shoulder out if you don't. Them men that loaded ties at the yards had pads on their shoulders. You can tell it on my right shoulder, for the bone don't stick up as high in it."
Since ties were often cut in steep hollows inaccessible to the wagon and team, the cutters would often have to carry them up the hill to load on the wagon. Some wagons would carry twenty to twenty-five ties, but most hauled from eight to sixteen.
In many areas too far from railroads to haul them by teams to market, it was more economical to float them down the rivers to railroad centers. The individual cutters often hauled their own ties to the river bank.
At the bank, which was usually a bluff or a steep hill right by the river, buyers would purchase the ties. They gave so much for hewing, so much for hauling and stacking. If someone other than the hewer hauled and stacked them, they got a few cents per tie for that. The inspector would cull out any that weren't the correct size, had any bark showing or were in any way inferior, such as signs of having lain on the ground. Earl said, "I'm going to tell you the truth. You might have both ends of that tie just as solid as a jug but if it was holler in the middle, he would know it when he hit it by the sound of the hammer."
Ties were sold at many different bankings along the rivers. In 1910-16 ties brought ten cents in the woods and fourteen cents delivered to the river. Later in the 1930's, they brought up to forty-five cents hauled by truck to tie yards in town. But back in rafting days, the tie buyers were often owners or managers of local stores. Sometimes they paid in script--redeemable only for merchandise at the country store. This amount doesn't sound like a very large sum of money for the labor involved-about $8.00 for a wagon load of ties, but Earl said, "Lord God, you could buy a whole wagon load of groceries with that--eat a meal for fifteen cents and stay all night--two sleep in the bed, twenty-five cents."
The sold ties would be banked up close to the river. Sometimes there would be huge numbers of ties ricked up in stacks of hundreds or thousands in a clearing of maybe an acre located where they could be pushed off the bluff down the tie chute into the river. These banks were not necessarily high bluffs. A bank might be as close as ten feet from the water's surface or it could be 400 feet high. The important thing was that there be an eddy, or pool--a big enough body of quiet water below the bank to catch and hold the ties so men could nail them into rafts before they washed on down the river.
The ties brought to the bank had to be stacked in a certain way high enough that floods or high water couldn't reach them. They were stacked with one layer one way and the next the other way to allow air to flow through to season them and prevent decay. The ties might have been stacked for some time to be well seasoned. If they were green and heavy, they'd bank them in the winter to float out in the spring or next fall. But even with the seasoning, some ties wouldn't float. Geraldine Brewer said, "Sometimes they'd throw ties in the river and lose them. There's a lot of them old ties in the river yet that got sunk and they couldn't get them out. They used to call them 'old sinkers.'" A few ties which wouldn't float would be put on top of the rafts. The seasoned ties floated high in the water clearing the shallow riffles.
While the ties were stacked on the river bank, the buyer would usually brand his ties. These brands were normally a small letter or symbol a blacksmith made similar to animal branding irons, only these were made,onto a hammer. The brander would hit the tie on one end to print his brand.
After there had been enough ties brought to the bank to make a good raft, the buyer would hire men to raft them down river. The rafter's job usually was to do all the work from pushing the ties off the bank to delivery at the railroad, though sometimes different crews would build the rafts and float them. Sometimes men rafted only certain sections of the river, delivering rafts to others who continued to the railroad.
Rafting began each year after danger of freezing was over and continued into the fall. On smaller streams there would be enough water only in the spring after lots of rain. Often during midsummer, due to lack of rain, the water became too low to float the rafts over shoals. Fall was a good time for rafting, for the weather was usually good and the winter-cut ties would be well seasoned by then.
When conditions were ready to raft them, the stacks had to be pushed into the river. Earl said, "They had a chute they run them ties off of, and then they'd hit that bluff and they'd just upend and go everyway. But it would all be eddy water below to catch them. I've seen them ties piled up and down the bluff. You've got to be careful. Boy, if they'd tear loose, then they'd kill you."
Lee Berry remembered one time they threw 1,500 over the bluff. "I'll never forget. They lodged about halfway down the bluff. Then we went across the river to eat our dinners. When we started back to tear them loose, well, it come up a rain while we were going up the bluff. We got up there to where them was all piled and scattered around, and we kind of tore them loose. They went right down over that bluff, and most of them went on down the river. They just floated off and we had to catch them and nail them in. We had a lot of things we had to do."
The hundreds of ties sliding down the chutes knocked down all trees and brush. The chutes were completely bare. Though no ties have gone down them for over fifty years, some of the slides are still visible because of the stunted vegetation.
After ties were in the river--or if there were enough men, while the ties were being pushed into the river--men below wading barefooted in the water would pull, push and work the ties into order and then nail them into sections. The current would be slow enough they could make a sort of corral of ties to hold them.
The men in the water used poles from split sapling to fasten the ties together. They had gone into shady timber to get tall, straight saplings about four inches in diameter and about fifteen feet long which they split down the middle. These were called binders. Geraldine Brewer said, "It got to where they had most of the good binders cut out of the woods. Sometimes they'd have to hunt around quite a bit to find them because with so much rafting going on, they'd cut most of them and, of course, they couldn't bring them back to use again."
The men positioned the ties side by side about four inches apart. They placed the binders near each edge of the row of ties and nailed them down with one twenty-penny spike nail in each tie. They would make one section, or block, with about ten to thirty ties depending on the length of the binders. Rafts were built sort of like railroad tracks, only the ties were much closer together and the binders were in place of the rails.
The men would then fasten two blocks of ties together with a coupling made of a shorter sapling
split in half and nailed to each end. They drove one spike through the sapling into the center of the
third or fourth tie back in one block, and the other end to the next block, making a coupling with
a foot or a foot and a half space between blocks. With the spike acting as a pivot point, the raft
was able to bend around the many curves and crooks of Ozark streams. The men nailing in would
continue building blocks and coupling them together until they had built a raft of about fifteen to
twenty blocks, comprising 700 to 1,200 ties. The rafts were anywhere from 200 to 300 yards long
and were very stable, hardly moving under the weight of a man as he walked across them. Lee
Berry said, "We got to running a thousand in a string. Sometimes you couldn't see the feller that
was with you. He's be somewhere back around the bend. 1,400 was the most ties I ever run."
The river on which the ties rafted was a factor in deciding the style of raft construction. The more crooked the river or stream, the more flexible the rafts had to be. On smaller rivers or creeks, like Beaver Creek in Wright County, Ed Graven used a different means of fastening ties together. Instead of the center coupling, he extended the smaller ends of the two binders over the gap to the next block. The white oak saplings were green and would bend without breaking as the long raft would snake around the turns of the creek. Rafts on smaller streams could not be as long as on larger rivers such as the Gasconade, Niangua or White.
As soon as the raft was complete, men would float it down the river. It took at least two men to guide the raft, wielding fifteen to twenty foot long poles to push, turn and stop the raft. The man at the front, the bowman, would guide the raft by keeping it in the current, and he would yell instructions and warnings to the man at the rear, the snub\-ber. The snubber's job was mostly to snub, or brake, the raft by dragging his pole against the bottom.
When building the raft, the men allowed more space than usual between the second and third ties from the stern end. The binders on these ties were double nailed through the big ends. The snubber stuck a long, strong snub pole of about three inches in diameter between the ties down to the river bed. His was a heavy job. Bracing the pole against the ties, he had to push down against the river bed to control the raft's speed or to stop it altogether. There was usually no need for snubbing in the eddies where the current was slow, but when the front end of the long raft would enter a riffle or was going to make a bend, the bowman would call back, "Snub 'er down!"
Vernon Graven explained, "You'd hit some fast water. The end of the raft would be a-pulling too fast and you knowed you were just going to tear up, so you had to brake it down just like when the car's going too fast down hill, you got to use your brakes. And so that's what we did--snubbed it down with that pole. We had to cut a few snub poles in two, for we got snubbing in pretty deep water, and then it'd start getting shallow and that pole would bind between them ties till you wasn't powerful enough to pull it out. So what could you do? You had to cut this pole off right there at the tie and let it drop through."
Occasionally there would be a third or fourth man on the raft, called polers. They stayed in mid-section to keep the middle away from trees, banks or rocks and to push around bends. To pass over shallow riffles or to keep moving in eddies, they would pole by pushing on the bottom.
Besides strength and skill, it took a knowledge of river conditions to take a raft downstream. Tie rafters preferred the river when the water was receding or falling. In any stream low water is sluggish, causing floating objects to drag over shallow riffles. Rising water bulges in the center, sending floating material to the side, thus making it harder to keep in the current. Receding water has a slightly sunken middle, a sort of trough which holds floating material. This condition made rafting easier.
Even in the slow eddies, the bowman had to watch to keep the raft in the center to avoid the back pull of the water in places where it circles and comes back to the bank. But usually floating the long eddies was a rest period. Vernon said, "When we hit those long eddies, all we had to do was keep it in the current and let it float. In those great long eddies on the Gasconade, we'd even sometimes pole it to boost it along a little bit. It'd pert'neer come to a stop, so we'd bunch up and talk. Like take the Dougan Eddy above the bridge on AD, that is about a mile long. I remember we all got together, smoked our pipes, chewed tobacco or done our thing. All we had to worry about was not to let the raft get to one side where the current backs up. As long as we had it in the stream in the middle of the river, why it took care of itself in those long eddies. We'd have one-half hour rest."
But going over the shoals, or shoots, and around short bends was another story. Earl said, "They were hard to work around some of them bends. You'd be surprised, that many ties in the water how much power they have. They won't go fast, but they'll just keep a-pushing. They'll push and double up on you if you don't watch it."
Vernon said, "When we was going around the curve one of us would walk on the raft with that pole and push with our feet to make the raft float around an object. In some places where they'd be an old tree stump or a rock in the edge of the water, we'd have to do that, or where the river would bend pretty sharp. That's the way we kept it from grounding."
Rafters had to be alert for unusual conditions or problems. In low water, they would make temporary brush dams across shoals to deepen the water enough to float them. In some places millers had dams across the Giver. Though there was a runway through which the rafts could float, an occasional miller was contrary and made rafters pay a toll for him to open the gate.
While floating Lee Berry often had to do some fast thinking. "We got down to where there was a crook in the river. There was a big sycamore tree had fell across that river and about half of the log was in the water. My brother was snubbing and I hollered, but he couldn't stop it. So I run my push pole under that log and those ties went right down under that log and come right up on the other side. I jumped over that log and hollered back to my brother what he had to do. We went right on out and when he came down, why it drug his push pole off. We had to stop and go out in the timber to hunt some poles. That's the way we'd do a lot of things that happened. A lot of times we wouldn't know anything was even in the river till we got down to them."
Vernon had a similar experience, only his log was not in the water but about twelve inches above from bank to bank. He was at the end by the grub box. "They begin to holler, 'Tree!' They were both pretty well at the front end. When I seen it, I dropped down right in front of that box. I don't believe it cleared that box four inches. There's nothing I could do about it. I started to lay down behind the box, but thought, boy, I don't want the box on top of me, so I jumped up in front of it. That kind of give me a thrill. You remember things like that. The others probably just put their hands on the log and jumped over it."
At times the raft would get wrecked or torn up on the trip. Then the men would have to make repairs. If the tail section broke away from the main raft, the snubber would have to carry on alone to catch up and tie back on. The bowman was in trouble until he reached a long eddy and could see the end of the raft.
During favorable rafting conditions, there might be other rafts on the river. There was the possibility of running into one around a bend or being rammed from behind. But that wasn't very likely. If the raft was very close, the men could usually hear the rafters' instructions shouted to one another. A trick to hear one farther away was to put an ear in the water. The water transmitted the sound of the snubbing pole gouging the bottom from quite long distances.
The rafters took with them only the essential equipment--ax, hammers, nails and ropes for repairing the raft, and necessary food and supplies for themselves for the length of the trip, for they'd have to carry everything back home on their backs. Vernon's father built a discardable oak box on the end of the raft for their food and camping outfit. They covered it with a wagon sheet, which doubled as a ground cover to sleep on and as protection from rain. Some rafters built cross pieces on the raft to keep their belongings up out of the water.
The men would raft all day until near darkness when they would tie up in an eddy to stay for the night. Earl said, "One old rafter, Fred Johnson, had a cabin that he placed on the raft that he stayed in." Some would take along all their food and camping materials needed to cook and camp right on the river. Vernon talked of making biscuits by first letting the fire burn down to coals. Then they put the biscuits on an oak board greased with bacon drippings and placed the board beside the hot coals., "We'd stir them coals to keep them bright. You'd be surprised how good the biscuits tasted. We had worked in that water all day and we were wore out and very hungry."
Many who rafted frequently had regular stops where they would stay over night at nearby farmhouses. They'd pay something like fifteen cents for a meal and usually nothing for bed.
In the sparsely populated area where visitors were rare, the rafters were welcomed by people in most farmhouses. Geraldine Brewer who lived as a child on the Niangua River, remembered her excitement when rafters would come. She could hear them shouting instructions to one another on the raft long before they reached her house. "I've seen three or four rafts come down in a row. We used to hear them yell about two miles up the river. My brother and I would take off to the river to see the rafts go by. Then, when they was going to stay all night or have dinner with us, why we just thought that was a big treat. We'd run to the house and tell Mama, 'The rafters are coming and they're going to be here for dinner,' or 'They're going to be here for the night.' Then Mom and Dad and the rafters, they'd sit and play pitch at night. They used to talk rafting--that's all they talked. They knew every sandbar, every snag, every shoal, every eddy by name. If Dad wasn't running just then and the rafters came by, he'd ask them, 'Now how did you run such-and-such a place?' or "How did you run Iron Holes?' They'd tell him. Maybe it had changed. "Well, there's a bar at such-and-such place you have to bear to the left.'"
The men who rafted had the whole river nearly memorized, so they could know what to expect. But on each trip the river might be different. After high water they expected some changes. The rafters on the Niangua usually spent from three to six days on each trip depending on the starting point and the water level of the river. Most of the rafters on the Niangua River would stop at Old Linn
Creek on the Osage River. This, of course, was long before there was a dam at Bagnell forming the Lake of the Ozarks. There the Osage river was wide enough that the rafts would be nailed together four abreast, and usually another crew would float them on down to Bagnell where they were dismantled and the ties loaded on railroad cars and taken to tie yards. At tie yards ties were loaded on trams--circular, topped rail cars--and taken through the processing plant where they were heated in creosote so that pressure forced the solution into the wood. 800 ties composed a charge which was treated at one time. One of the biggest yards was in East St. Louis.
The hardest part of the rafters' trip must have been the long walk back home. The only transportation at that time, of course, was horseback, and it was obvious they couldn't take a horse with them on the raft. They had to carry their equipment and walk home. The walk was straight across country, not as many miles as the crooked river trip. Lee Berry used to put in at several different landings on the Niangua River. The trip from Corkery, for example, where he often started, to Old Linn Creek would have been over fifty river miles, but the walk back was about twenty miles to his home at Celt, which was about eighteen miles downstream from his starting point.
Some walked as much as fifty or sixty miles. Vernon said, "We walked the forty miles back home through the woods." His river mileage would have been close to seventy miles. "We'd go up to farmhouses, for we'd run out of food, and we would buy eggs or something to eat. Sometimes a farm lady would bake us a pie. We'd give her a dime or fifteen cents for a pie. We'd never have nothing for nothing. Of course, we could have went up and eat, for they'd asked you to come up. People in them days was so scarce and far between, they was glad to see you come and talk with you."
The men were usually paid for their work on delivering the ties or after they returned to the place where they had nailed in. Most often they were paid cash. The money that they received was good wages for that time, better than cutting ties. Lee was paid a dollar and a quarter a day. Some rafters contracted the trip; some were paid so much a tie. Vernon remembered that they got twelve cents apiece for delivering the ties they began with. For the ties that were on previous rafts that had broken up, they got ten cents each for picking them up. "We were well satisfied with the trip," Vernon said.
The big virgin timber has long been gone from the woods. Even second and third growths have been cut and the tie hewers have long since disposed of their broadaxes. The tie chutes have grown up while the lost ties still in the river have almost all rotted away. The rivers are silting up, and the many people who now live along the banks are busy with farming activities, vacationing and resort businesses. The old rafters left, like ninety-nine year old Lee Berry, have only their memories to remind them of the days when with pole in hand, scanning the approaching shoot which rumbled and sent spray in all directions, they used to stand on the bow of a raft made of a thousand ties.
"Snub 'er down!" they'd shout as the current pushed the raft to the left toward the root-entangled
bank. "Bear to the right. Snub 'er down!"
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.