Historical Society of Southwest Virginia


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Rafting Down the Clinch River
By Roy L. Osborne and Logan Osborne



 Rafting down the Clinch


     There are yet many people in Scott County who remember the days of rafting on the Clinch, but for the sake of  those who shall yet crave to know something about the days when we were much more in the backwoods than we are today, we write this story.

     Most of the fine timber in Scott County was gone before a good market existed. Perhaps a better price should have been paid for the logs that went down the river. The rafting began about 1880 and continued until the completion of the C. C. & O. Railroad about 1909. It would be difficult to estimate the millions of feet of the County's best timber that was sold in this way.

     In the beginning, Mr. James Brickey from near Ft. Blackmore bought all the timber on the ridges along the Clinch from Ft. Blackmore to Russell County. He paid one to two dollars a tree. The best walnut brought two dollars. This timber was easily logged. Much of it could be rolled or skidded with little effort to the edge of the river. Mr. Brickey used two or three yokes of oxen for the entire boundary. The oxen cost about $65.00 a yoke. A good driver received a wage of fifty cents or $10 a month.

     Some other timber was later cut that had to be hauled a short distance to the river. All the timber close to the river was gone when the Railroad was built. One large boundary in the mountain above Ft. Blackmore was manufactured at Ft. Blackmore after the completion of the C. C. & O. and earlier than that another large set was sawed out at the base of the High Knob on the Stoney Creek.

     Reforestation will now begin in this area with the organization of the Lake-mountain National Forest and we hope to see a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp established on the Scott County side of this Forest.
     The technique of raft making will soon be a lost art. It has probably served its day and will never be revived. Yet it was an economical way to get the timber to the markets.

     Much of the timber was delivered at Clinchport to men who tooled it on down the Clinch into the Tennessee to Chattanooga or Clinton. A crew of ten men brought the rafts through the rough waters from Dungannon on the Clinch to Clinchport. Here men were turned back and still others as the work became less hazardous.

     These rafts were made up of 150 to 250 logs and contained 50 to 100 thousand feet. The rafts were started as single rafts, but after the worst water was passed two were tied together to form a double raft. These rafts were steered by large oars. A nice slim chestnut of sufficient strength was used for an oar stem. This tem was 25 to 35 feet in length. The paddle was a well seasoned 16 foot board, three inches thick at the end which fastened in the stem, and shaved to a thin edge to make it "flip" as the stroke was completed
     The logs were bound together with young hickory saplings. These were split in the center. At first spikes were tried, but these were not satisfactory. Wooden pins were used for successful rafting. The holes for these pegs were made with a two-inch auger through the binder and one-and-one-half inch auger into the log.
     These rafts were not always brought through the rough waters, such as the Slate Cliff and the Blue Cliff above Dungannon, Stoney Creek Shoals at Ft. Blackmore, and Ervins Bend at Hill Station. Many rafts were torn up in these places, and most of the logs lost. Men were hurt and some killed. Hop Duncan was killed while trying to swim out of a wreck in the Stoney Creek Shoals.

     Sometimes a wreck was tied up until the tide went down and was repaired to be floated again on the next ride. This was sometimes the following winter. These wrecks were relatively few, for these expert steermen knew the tricks of the river, and when the tide was high enough and not too high. When the tide was too high they would have to tie up and wait.

     Steersmen to Clinchport through the bad waters were P. H. Osborne, B. F. Osborne, Logan Osborne, Kenny Ramey, and David Sluss. These men would direct the hazardous work of drifting the rafts out of Russell County and upper Scott County. John Catron, John Church, Isaac Horton, and Tom Neff were steersmen on to Chattanooga.

     This work had to be done in the cold weather of winter and spring. Hardy young men were required. Many times they would have to swim out through floating ice and spend the night around a camp fire. Food was stored on the raft and cooked there on a hearth of mud and stone or sometimes in small cook stoves. The bunk was built in the middle of the raft, and straw was carried for bedding.

     Steersmen were paid two dollars a day and other hands one dollar a day. The round trip to Clinchport took about a week. The trip on into Tennessee was slower and usually took about a month.

     We wish it were possible to collect the stories of the experiences of the men who rode these rafts through the rapids of the Clinch. Z. D. Collins at Dungannon had all his money tied up in two large rafts. These rafts were approximately 300 feet long. P. H. Osborne was steering one and David Sluss the other. The rafts started out from Sandy Point at Dungannon. Each raft was worth about $1,000. Bill Bryant, Will Collins, Evan Collins, Hoge Osborne, Fleet Osborne, and Loge Osborne were on the two rafts. The rafts were very heavy and they had been forced to tie up frequently. The cable had worn out. They got through and were nearing Clinchport. The oars were broken in an effort to tie, and the ropes would not hold. It looked like the rafts would be lost by running into the railroad bridge at Clinchport. Three attempts were made to tie. P. H. Osborne and Z. D. Collins broke a boat loose nearby and paddled with all their strength ahead to get a rope. They overtook two men from Chattanooga, who had two ropes. Collins said, "I cannot tie my rafts and all I have will be lost. Loan me a rope for a few minutes." "We will do no such G___ D___ thing. We are taking care of ourselves; you do the same." "Sell me a rope," Collins begged. "Nothing shaking," the other replied. "Now you get to hell off here before I cut your head off with this axe." "You put that axe down or I will kill you," Collins said, "if you will not loan nor sell we will take a rope." At that a fight started and P. H. Osborne untied a rope and they started back up the river with cursing and threats from the owner. The raft which was now a double raft, was tied up just in time to keep it out of the bridge. The rope was returned and the owner forced to take pay for its use.

     One winter Kenny Ramey was steering a raft for Jim Marcum and Marion Stapleton. Loge Osborne, P. H. Osborne, and Charlie Wheatley were on the bow. "Happy" Blevins and Kenny Ramey were on the stern. The raft was loaded and cut loose at Isaac Porter's at Sinking Shoals. A good start was made. But Kenny saw a friend on the bank and began "hollering" to him. The friend was Lonzo Semones. This joking and fun took the steersman's eye and mind off the job. Sinking Shoal Cliff was just ahead. When Kenny was aroused to the danger he gave the command, "Quick, up! Lay her over to the right." It was too late. The raft hit the cliff, tore off the oars and ripped the binder back half way. Many of the best logs were lost. On down through the rapids, ripping, bumping with loose logs rolling under the raft, men screaming, but not daring to leave the wreck. What was left reached an eddy and was tied up, and rafted for the next tide.

     Many trips were made on many a tide in the roughest weather down the Clinch. And many are the stories that these old rafters still tell to the children and grandchildren around the winter fires, while tides come, but the rafts float no more.      The oxen are found no more in the woods, the powerful truck hauls the logs to the market, or to the railroad station. The railroad came and had its day like the rafting tide, and now the good highway and the auto-truck. But nothing today compares in adventure to those days of logging with the oxen and the floating of the mighty rafts down the Clinch.

     Truly the history of man's progress is the history of transportation. But do we have better men with it all? Have we in Scott County builded men as we have builded roads and school houses?
     The nation's security depends not upon these material things but upon the character of men. In the shadow of the monument of material success we seek a way out.

     Plenty of railroads, too much cotton, too much wheat, too many hogs, too much clothing in warehouses, too much money in the banks, too many school houses and teachers, too many churches and preachers, too many colleges. The wealth of plain and mountains, of soil and mine are still here. Yet we lost something and that loss has brought us down into the trough of the greatest "depression" in the history of our country. What had we lost? We had lost that quality that enables men to trust each other.
The Gate City Herald, clippings in the possession of E. B. Broadwater.

HSSV Publication 8, June 1974, pages 1 to 4.