Rise and Fall of Timber in the Indiana County Area

With the rapid rise in popularity of clipper ships during the early decades of the 19th century, shipbuilders along the eastern seaboard clamored for unprecedented quantities of high-grade timber. Responding to this lucrative demand, lumbering firms along the eastern seaboard dispatch experts far and wide to locate new timberlands.

One of the most astute – if not the most ethical – of these timber scouts was 46-year-old John Patchin of Sabbath Point on Lake George, New York.  A Maine firm commissioned Patchin to investigate the woodlands on the watershed of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and concurrently determine the feasibility of transporting Western Pennsylvania timbers via Pennsylvania waterways to the Chesapeake Bay.

After examining and admiring the size and texture of the dense stands of white pines on rolling lands that now encompasses Indiana, Cambria, and Clearfield Counties, Patchin, who lumbering historian Dudley Tonkin clamed “had the ability to even smell good pine,” promptly severed connections with his employer by “neglecting to file a report” on his mission.  Realizing the enormous profit potential in these untapped woodlands, he sent his two elder sons to bring the rest of the family to his new home in the wilderness (now Patchinville, a few miles north of Cherry Tree) where in 1835 he began acquiring some 10,000 acres of prime timberland, probably unaware that the low purchase price he paid was the result of Ben Franklin’s efforts some years before to prevail upon the state legislature to reduce the price per acre from 30 cents to a “half-bit” (6 ½ cents).

Others soon recognized the greenback potential of these evergreens and purchased large tracts in Banks, Canoe, Green, and Montgomery Townships.  White pines in this area were among the best in the country measuring from 2 to 5 feet in diameter and rising like a plumb line about 100 feet to the branches.  In 1882, a pine 8 feet in diameter and 120 feet tall – reputedly the largest in the state – was felled on the Graham tract in Banks County.

Among the prominent timbering pioneers were John Tonkin, Cornellius McKeage, John Chase, Nathan Croasman, Porter Kinport, Reeder King, Richard Smith and J.M. Gutherie.  But by far the most legendary figure of this era was John Patchin who acquired the envious title of “The Spar King” together with a considerable fortune by the time he died in 1863.

Patchin shrewdly conserved his own timber preferring instead to cut and market the finest trees of impoverished neighbors and absentee owners many of whom were glad to have their land cleared of timber.

Patchin’s operations are illustrated by his dealings with his impecunious neighbor, John Tonkin, to whom he paid one dollar per tree which he then felled and cut lengthwise into rectangular timbers known as spars.  Shipbuilders fastened three of these 92 feet long spars end-to-end to form a single mast which they secured to the keels of sailing vessels.  In addition to holding the sails aloft, the mast also was attached to the rigging in such a manner as to give dimensional strength to the ship thereby preventing it from breaking in two during fierce storms.  While pine spars from Western Pennsylvania were ideally suited for masts because of their ability to withstand the rigors of all extremes of weather without warping or loss of strength.

logs yellow creek
Logs ready for cutting at sawmill in vicinity of Yellow Creek.

The transporting of enormous timbers to the shipyards required considerable ingenuity and skill.  The felled trees were dragged to the riverbank by as many as eight teams of horses.  In the winter, the logs were loaded on a timber sled, designed by Patchin, and hauled to the river.  Here the poles were assembled to construct a raft.  Ten or twelve timbers were fastened together with a “lash pole” and held firmly in place with U-shaped bows to form a platform.  Three of these platforms were then coupled together to make a “half-raft” or “pup.”  When the “pups” reached the mountains below Clearfield where the river widened, two were joined in tandem to reduce the crew required to maneuver them.  Rafts varied in size, the standard ones measuring about 27 feet wide and 250-300 feet long.  Reputedly the longest raft to navigate the Susquehanna contained 142 logs and measured 2,000 feet in length.

After the completion of the “rafting in” as the construction of the raft was called, the raft was tethered to the bank with a hickory with or heavy rope.  The crew then waited for a freshet or spring flood that would enable them to launch the craft.  At the propitious time, a raftsman would “tie the raft loose” and into the current it sailed.  Occasionally, the passengers included a cow to furnish liquid nourishment and a horse on which the “captain” returned after selling his timbers.  Navigating the tortuous, and in stretches hazardous, West Branch of the Susquehanna 200 miles to Williamsport and thence south on the Susquehanna through Harrisburg to the Chesapeake Bay required a high degree of rafting skill.  A pilot, experienced and proficient in the art of handling a raft was undisputed master of the craft.  He and his helper manned the front oar which they manipulated to guide the front end of the raft while the rafters on the rear oar, known as “sternsmen,” swung the aft end in accord with orders from the pilot.  A raft frequently changed pilots below Harrisburg.

One of the most notorious danger zones on the West Branch was located at Rocky Bend and Crest Falls just below the present town of Mahaffey.  Here the river bend, studded with giant boulders, hairpins into the head of the falls where the water slopes sharply.  Successful navigation of this sector necessitated circumventing the rocks and delicately maneuvering to scrape the inside shore of a sharp curve in order to gain the proper position for a descent through the rapid falls.

This same section of the river also was the locale for the activities of legendary Joe McCreery, a powerful young giant who settled in the vicinity of Cherry Tree.  Universally acclaimed as “the best man on the river,” McCreery was commissioned to dynamite the nearby hazardous rocks out of the river.  However, this project was never completed because of insufficient funds.

During the Civil War, rafting flourished as demand zoomed for white oak which was used to replace decayed and damaged timbers in docks and wharves.  Wartime prosperity inflated the price of wood per cubic foot from 5 cents to 21 cents – a profitable development which finally tempted “Spar King” Patchin to cut down some of his own trees.

lumber stockpile
Lumber stockpile ready for shipment.

In the latter half of the 1800s the practice of “logging” came into vogue as a means of transporting timber to market.  As the name implies, this procedure consisted simply in floating free logs on waterways to a “boom,” a riverside facility for halting, storing and floating the logs to the ponds of adjoining sawmills which purchased and processed them into lumber.  The Williamsport boom which handled as many as 300 million board feet of lumber per year began operations in 1850 and soon became the lumber capital of the world.

Timbermen contracted with loggers to drive their logs to the boom.  The most successful log drivers on the West Branch were Anthony and Patrick Flynn whose partnership, formed in 1868, was awarded the logging contract with all major producers for 22 years.

A logger’s work began at the “skidway,” a sloping riverbank area, on which logs were aligned in ranks parallel to the river.  When the melted snow and spring rains swelled the streams to a level favorable for floating the logs, a team or horses at the top of the embankment was urged forward so as to strike the back log and start it rolling.  The transmitted impact quickly rolled all the logs into the water.  The loggers, armed with long pikes and waring heavy shoes with long calks on their soles to reduce slippage, then walked out on the carpet of logs to shepherd them on their journey.  The loggers were followed by two large arks or houseboats, one of which served as a cook shack and sleeping quarters while the other sheltered the horses used to haul stray logs back into the current.  “Dan,” one of Pat Flynn’s horses, made 19 trips down the Susquehanna.

As log drives were often 30 feet wide, the driver had to be constantly vigilant to avoid jams.  He would move about by jumping from log to log always being careful to avoid slipping into the water as the logs were packed so densely that he ran the danger of not getting out or being crushed to death as sometimes happened.  And when one or more logs got caught in such a way as to cause the whole drive to jam and thereby halt the flow, the logger would endeavor feverishly to break the impasse with his pike, saw, or in stubborn cases, dynamite.

Although the West Branch of the Susquehanna handled the largest volume of logging business in this part of the state, Big and Little Yellow Creeks also carried their share of logs especially during the period from 1880 to 1902.

The leading local logger for this operation was J.M. Gutherie who owned substantial coal and timber tracts adjoining the waters of Yellow Creek from “Possum Glory” (now Heilwood) to Homer City and on Two Lick below Indiana.  In 1879 his company, the Charles Improvement and Mining Company, constructed mills on the banks of Yellow at Homer City.  Gutherie also operated two mills above Homer City on Two Lick Creek and the lumber yard located on the present site of Indiana University’s Leininger dormitory at Oakland Avenue.

Gutherie’s employees, like all lumbermen of that era, worked hard from sunup to sundown for which they were paid $1 per day plus board.  Skilled laborers received $1.50 a day, while the bossman picked up the handsome sum of $3.75 to $4 per diem.   Workers who lost two hours on their job because of rain were cut half a day’s wages.

Woodsmen were quartered or “shantied” in camps or boarded with local families.  Some stayed at the West Indiana House (later the Houk Hotel) where a dollar paid for a night’s lodging together with supper and breakfast.  Single beds were available for 25 cents.  Satisfying the appetite of these active outdoorsmen posed a real challenge to the cooks including the renowned camp cook, “Russ” Ray, as revealed by the following menus:

Breakfast:

Hot rare Beef Steak

Pork Sausage-Fried potatoes

Biscuit with Apple Butter (from farmer)

Stewed Prunes-cookies

Molasses-Tea with sugar

Noon Meal-dinner:

Pork and Sauer Kraut

Fried Pork-boiled potatoes

Boiled Codfish

Peas in Beef broth

Biscuits-cookies

Raisins and rice

Apple Pie

Tea with sugar

Supper:

Boiled Salt Cod Fish – freshened in a trough below the spring

Fried Pork, potatoes boiled in their jackets

Pea Soup

Biscuit-Corn Bread

Cookies and Stewed Raisins-Mince Meat Pie

Tea with sugar

west indiana hotel
Group of loggers with their pikes pose outside the West Indiana House (later the Houck Hotel) prior to going to work at Yellow Creek.  During the latter part of the 19th century this hotel was a favorite lodging for loggers who paid a quarter a night for a single bed.

The coming of loggers to the West Branch of the Susquehanna aroused the hostility of raftsmen who claimed that the free logs and booms impeded and endangered the fleet of rafts.  However, the deeper reason lay in the resentment of native residents to “furriners” in the form of businessmen from New England and veteran French-Canadian loggers.

Raftsmen reacted by attempting to sabotage logging operations by such means as driving metal spikes into the logs so as to snarl the saw during cutting.  Loggers quickly solved this problem by peeling the logs so as to readily reveal any embedded metal objects.  Thereupon, raftsmen resorted to the extreme of ambushing a crew of log drivers along Clearfield Creek on March 30, 1857.  The loggers initiated legal action with the result that the court found eight raftsmen guilty of obstructing the stream.  After ten years of feuding, the rival lumbermen agreed to an armistice which thereafter enabled them to enjoy a peaceful co-existence.

Although most of the wood in northeastern Indiana County was logged or rafted to eastern mills, some timbermen foresaw a lucrative market on their doorstep.  The fledging village of Indiana, founded in 1816, became the county seat and its anticipated growth would require a considerable volume of lumber.  One of the early lumbermen to seize this opportunity was Richard Smith who in 1822 settled along Cushion Creek in Green township.  Here he set up a sawmill which would process 1,000 feet of one-inch boards per day.

Smith loaded the pine boards on large wagons fitted with 60-inch rear and 48-inch front wheels.  To transport the wood to Indiana, one of Smith’s four sons would rise at 5 a.m. and set off on the 20-mile trip through the forest.  Consummate skill was required to maneuver the heavy load over the dirt roads treacherously decorated with rocks, roots, ruts, and mudholes.  The wagon reached the county seat in mid-afternoon, and the boards were unloaded in the lumber concentrating yard.  Then after picking up the cash payment, about $20 per load, young Smith drove the team back at a brisk pace so as to return home about daybreak.

Smith’s sons inherited his lumber business and expanded it extensively when the Pennsylvania Railroad ran a branch line from Blairsville to Indiana in 1856.  Some idea of the profitability of these lumbering operations may be gained from the fact that one of the Smith sons was robbed of $50,000, and the next day he deposited $40,000 in an Indiana bank.

But the tall pine tracts which had seemed endless to the early settlers of Indiana County eventually were exhausted.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the once green forests were denuded, leaving a desolate graveyard of stumps.  Over 43 million board feet of lumber had been stripped form the Patchin interests alone.  And as logs and rafts disappeared from the river, lumbermen dismantled their sawmills to use the wood for barns.

In 1938, a group of gray-haired loggers recreated the bygone days by constructing “The Last Raft” which set out form McGees Mills with ten aboard on a trip to Harrisburg.  En route other old timers came aboard until there were 48.  Then at Muncy the nostalgic excursion came to a tragic end when the raft struck a bridge pier hurling 47 raftsmen into the icy waters which claimed seven victims by drowning.  A happier remembrance of the rafting and logging era was celebrated on August 22, 1955 when a large crowd joined with 20 retired rivermen, ranging in age from 85 to 95 years, in unveiling a granite memorial dedicated to the “Rafters, Loggers, Their Mothers, and Wives of Penn’s Woods.”

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hgsic

Through a broad range of activities, The Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County seeks to promote a greater appreciation of the Indiana community's rich heritage and a better understanding of life today.

One thought on “Rise and Fall of Timber in the Indiana County Area”

  1. Beautiful story. My grandfather Rodolfo Dalla Corte became a wood industrialist after being in the mine in Homer City for 7 years (1912-1919). Thancs

    Like

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