SUSQUEHANNA RIVER: AN INDUSTRIOUS WATERWAY
The Susquehanna River has been navigated by Native Americans for thousands of years. One can only imagine the canoes headed south carrying food to feed the family of a mighty warrior, and later the transport of animal furs to Dutch, French and English traders in the Chesapeake Bay area.
As white Europeans settled along the Susquehanna River, they realized the importance of the river. The river was not just as a source of food, but it would enable cargo to be shipped to a rapidly growing region, the Lower Susquehanna Valley.
The period, 1750-1850, was probably the most active time of travel on the Susquehanna River. In the early 1800s between the months of April through October, as river levels permitted, 2500 to 3000 arks and rafts traveled from upstate Pennsylvania bringing coal, lumber, pig iron, and farm produce of all varieties.
One newspaper account of the mid-1800s reported "if a person were to stand on the banks of the Susquehanna at Washington Boro, look north to Columbia, then south to Turkey Hill, they would see a river clogged with arks and rafts anchored and ready to offload their cargo.
The rafts, some 80-100 feet in length, were constructed by simply lashing logs together. After the cargo was offloaded these rafts were disassembled and the logs sold to one of the many sawmills in Columbia and Washington Boro.
Most of the logging industry centered around the Williamsport area, also the Susquehanna’s West and North Branch. Some of the most popular timber was the Pennsylvania White Pine, a tree that grew straight and true, resisted wood rot and warping. White Pine was very suitable as a raft because of the buoyant properties of the lumber. Eastern Hemlock tree also a popular tree, of which the bark was used to make tannic acid for the thriving tannery industry, and the wood was found to be suitable lumber.
Washington Boro was known as a "Rivertown," a town that depended on the commerce of the Susquehanna River. A history of Lancaster County published in 1924, reports that the population of Washington Boro in 1880 was 900 inhabitants, but by 1920 that number had dwindled to 426 residents. At the peak of the rafting days twelve to fourteen hotels were located in the Boro.
During the busiest months of rafting, the town was alive with the raftsmen who traveled from upstate by river vessel, spent a night or two, then returned home. Some raftsman brought their horse for the return trip, others returned on foot. One can only imagine the noise of drunken raftsmen, mixed with melodies from banjo, fiddles, and harmonicas, that many raftsmen brought on the long trip down the river. Of course, there were the "ladies" who frequent the establishments offering companionship.
Several Washington Boroughs leading businessmen were recorded: Jesse Robert was listed as a lumberman, Louis Urban, Washington Wrighter, Daniel Neff, House & Shuman, Julius L. Shuman, and Joseph H. Shultz were lumber dealers.
A sawmill located on Staman’s Run, close to the intersection of River Road and Elizabeth Street was operated by Jacob Shuman. It was later sold and renamed the Henry S. Wertz Coal and Lumber Yard.
Levi Haverstick operated a saw and planing mill, noted on earlier Washington Borough maps as the Levi Haverstick sawmill. The location was also on Staman’s Run, just north of 2nd Street. Jacob Staman and Jacob C. Stoner, saw millers and Hiram Ward, the only river pilot listed, although several others certainly existed.
The rafting industry reached its peak by 1840. The ever-expanding railroad
soon put the local canals out of business. The Columbia-Philadelphia railroad was established around 1832 and the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad completed around 1876.
One account of a raftsman was described as follows: "Now a Susquehanna waterman… will go onboard an ark or a raft somewhere about the New York line, in March, April, and May, descend to the tidewater of the Chesapeake, and then return home on foot, through the mire, rain, and all sorts of weather, at the rate of 50 or 60 miles a day. When he gets home he jumps upon another ark or raft and enacts the same feat over again – making five or six trips during the season of high water.
Not all vessels traveled to the Chesapeake Bay because of the swift and dangerous waters below Turkey Hill. At least two accounts describing the beauty and the dangers of rafting down the Susquehanna can be found in the Columbia Spy newspaper. The first was published on June 9, 1877, entitled “Down the Susquehanna” and the second published May 7, 1881, “Down the River on a Raft.”
The following was found in The Intelligencer June 14, 1833: The industry quickly escalated over the next decades until the river became a super-highway of rafts. Between the 18th and 23rd of May in 1833, 2,688 arks and 3,480 rafts floated past Danville. That averages out to over 1000 rafts and arks per day or between 1 and 2 rafts every minute of the day. Their cargo was mostly grain and lumber.
It was reported that the last commercial raft to travel the Susquehanna River did so in 1917 and sold to a lumber mill in Marietta, Pennsylvania.
Made by lashing tall straight tree trunks together. These rafts would in some cases be 80-100 feet in length, many with the bark still attached.
Made of squared or timbered logs that had been partially milled into square lumber, much the shape of a railroad tie.
This raft consisted of logs already been sawed into lumber at a sawmill and could be sold as ready to use lumber.
These had a flat bottom and constructed in such a manner as to allow the transport of cargo such as pig iron, coal, farm produce and other commodities from northern Pennsylvania.