Vol. IX, No. 1, 1996

Tie Making and Rafting

For ten years, from 1973 to 1983, students at the Lebanon, Missouri High School, under the direction of their teacher, Ellen Gray Massey, wrote and published a quarterly magazine called Bittersweet. This article is adapted from stories which ran in Bittersweet in 1978 and 1979. They were later combined into one story and printed in Bittersweet Earth, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
The Bittersweet students got much of the information for their stories from oral history interviews with older, long time residents of the Ozarks.

The nation's expansion to the west and the demand for more railroads created an insatiable demand for ties for the railroad beds, for every one of the 209,000 miles of track laid in the United States required 3,500 ties. Since the oak 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 also 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 people 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. 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 because they had thought hand-hewed ties lasted longer.

In the thirties and forties, railroads bought ties of different kinds of wood. "Red oak, post oak, and white oak, was among the highest," Tom Price said. "Years ago they did buy walnut. I've make red elm ties, but not very many of them. I've seen lots made out of pine, but they'd have to ship them in." Pine is a soft wood that does not last as long as hardwood such as oak.

Tie cutters got the timber wherever they could. Some of them cut on their own land; some paid a fee to landowners to cut; and others cut without permission on the property of absentee landowners. Men in the business would sometimes acquire timberland very cheaply by purchasing tax-title land and cutting off the timber before reselling the land.

Hacking Ties

Making railroad ties was a laborious job. With an ax or a one- or two-man crosscut saw, the first task was to cut down the tree and then to hew out the tie to the exact measurements, using both a broadax and a chopping ax. The sizes of ties varied, but the usual size was eight feet long, eight inches wide, and six inches thick.

The essential tool in making ties was the ax, both the regular four-to-five-pound double-bitted chopping ax and the twelve-inch five- to seven-pound broadax. Since the broadax was designed for slicing and trimming, its head was designed differently from that of the chopping ax. Besides being twice as heavy and much broader, it was shaped differently. The side next to the tie as it was trimmed was flat, enabling the worker to cut thin shavings to get a straighter, smoother edge.

The blades of both axes had to be kept sharp and used with care. Tom hasn't cut himself with one yet, but "I've chopped my shoes," he said. "That was close enough."

Most men could cut from ten to twenty ties a day. Cutters naturally preferred bigger trees, because they could make two or more ties from one tree. The log to make a tie had to be at least eight inches in diameter, not counting the bark, and at least eight feet long.


It was always easier to have help to cut the timber, but some cutters had to work alone. To cut the tree, the men first cut a notch on the side on which the tree was to fall. Then using a one- or two-man crosscut saw they sawed slightly higher on the opposite side from the notch. While sawing, they drove wedges into the cut, causing the tree to fall toward the notched side.

After the trunk fell, they lopped off all the limbs with an ax, and if it was a long-enough log, they cut it into eight-foot lengths with the crosscut saw.

Some men hewed out the ties in the woods where the tree fell; others, using chains and horses or mules, hauled or dragged the logs to the work lot. There they set the logs up off the ground on wood blocks or split logs to be trimmed. They always worked with the wood while it was still green, because seasoned wood, especially oak, is very hard to work with. Most hewers followed basically the same method.

Though he hadn't cut a tie in years, Tom cut one to show how it was done. To trim, Tom first made a guideline on the log. He measured off the width of the tie and, with the broadax, marked all the way down the log, making sure it was straight.

Next, standing on the log, with the chopping ax he cut about four notches, eighteen inches apart down the side of the log he wanted to trim. He cut these notches to a depth of about half an inch from the guideline. They helped in splitting out the wood.

When he had cut the notches, he split out the rest of the bark and wood between these notches, leaving a rough surface. He smoothed all of this side as much as possible with the chopping ax.

To finish that side, he smoothed it with the broadax. Standing at the side of the log, he shaved and trimmed the whole length of the tie. The chips had a feather edge as he hewed them off.

He repeated the process for each of the other three sides, turning the log over when necessary.

Everything about the tie business was done by man power, 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 Graven remembered a man who worked at his sawmill carrying on his shoulder a sixteen-foot tie, seven by nine inches in diameter, up the gang plank to the boxcar. "I seen the man do it," Vernon said. "That is unbelievable. It'd weigh like 700 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."

Since ties were often cut in steep hollows inaccessible to the wagon and team, the cutters would 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.

If the tie cutter lived close enough to a town with a railroad yard, he would haul the ties there. After it was possible to use trucks, he could haul fifteen to twenty ties at a time. Tom recalled, "When I'd go to the tie yard at the railroad, sometimes I'd sit there for two or three hours waiting to get unloaded, there'd be so many ahead of me."

Photo courtesy of Bittersweet


In many areas too far from railroads to haul ties 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 riverbank.

At the bank, which was usually a bluff or a steel 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 showing signs of having lain on the ground.

In 1910-16, ties brought ten cents in the woods and fourteen cents delivered to the river. Later, in the 1930s, they brought up to forty-five cents hauled by truck to tie yards in town. 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 their country store.

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 four hundred 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. A few ties that 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 riverbank, the buyer would usually brand his ties. These brands were normally a small letter or symbol applied with a device 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 the journey 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, because of 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, the stacks had to be pushed into the riven Earl Riply 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."

The hundreds of ties sliding down the chutes knocked down all trees and brush, leaving the chutes completely bare.

After ties were in the river--or even while the ties were being pushed into the river--men 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 that they could make a sort of corral of ties to hold them.


The men in the water used poles from split saplings 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.

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 Ozarks streams. The men would continue building blocks and coupling them together until they had built a raft of about fifteen to twenty blocks, containing seven hundred to twelve hundred ties. The rafts were anywhere from two hundred to three hundred 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'd be somewhere back around the bend. Fourteen hundred 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 crookeder the river or stream, the more flexible the rafts had to be. Rafts on smaller streams could not be as long as on larger rivers such as the Gasconade, Niangua, or White.

Those of us who enjoy floating the Ozarks 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 sparsely populated and still wild region.

"All ready? Let 'ergo," one of them would shout. With long poles the men would push the long, un-wieldy-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 travel those same miles today, we wonder how they floated these eight-foot-wide rafts, when we sometimes have to portage a canoe. Lee Berry 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."

It took at least two men to guide the raft, wielding fifteen-to-twenty-foot-long poles to push, mm, 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 snubber. 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 entered 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 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."

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, that holds floating material. This condition made rafting easier.


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 fiver. Though there was a runway through which the rafts could float, an occasional miller was contrary and made rafters pay a toll before he would open the gate.

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 might not even have known a back section 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 fiver. 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 man 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 home on their backs. Many who rafted frequently had regular stops where they would stay overnight at nearby farmhouses. They'd pay something like fifteen cents for a meal and usually nothing for bed.

In the sparsely populated areas 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 fiver. My brother and I would take off to the fiver 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?"

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 fiver trip. Vernon said, "We walked the forty miles back home through the woods." His fiver 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. 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 Berry was paid a dollar and a quarter a day. Some rafters contracted the trip; some were paid so much a tie. Vernon Graven 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.

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 or 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 that 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.t" they'd shout as the current pushed the raft to the left toward the root-entangled bank. "Bear to the right. Snub 'er down.t''


Copyright -- OzarksWatch

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