Log-rafting on the Clinch and Powell rivers

Jadon Gibson

For over 200 years the Appalachian Mountain range prevented western expansion beyond the vast forestland that was found by early long-hunters and settlers.

The giant white oak, walnut, yellow poplar, chestnut, ash, maple and other trees were widespread throughout the area. They were a Godsend as early settlers built log cabins and used wood for fuel. Gardens were planted on the cleared land and part was used for pastureland. The trees had never been harvested so they were much larger than those found today.

Indians hunted along the Clinch and Powell Rivers long before long-hunters came and traveled along their banks. The two rivers have their beginning in Virginia before meandering their way into Tennessee and beyond.

Powell River was named after Ambrose Powell, a member of Dr. Thomas Walker’s party. Walker documented the discovery of Cumberland Gap in 1750 although Indians used it as a passageway for hundreds of years. It was used by migrating animals for thousands of years before. Pioneers followed such animal paths as the worn trails tended to be the best routes overland.

Some said the Clinch River was named from an incident that occurred years ago when a group pioneers were crossing the river while swollen by rain. One of the men was swept down river and into faster current causing the frantic man to yell, “clinch me, clinch me.”

In Dr. Thomas Walker’s journal entries he made during his documented discovery and passage through Cumberland Gap and further into Kentucky, he refers to the river as Clinch’s River as it was called that by early long hunters. These rugged men got their name by spending many months in the wilds before returning with their furs and pelts. The river was ultimately named Clinch River and both sources of the name may be true.

A new industry sprang up after the Civil War. Much of the south needed rebuilding and wood was in demand. The most economical method for delivery was by river therefore many sawmills located along the waterways. There was a huge demand for hardwood and other timber following the Civil War… especially in the rebuilding of the southland. Transportation was the key and loggers in the north took advantage by rafting the logs directly to the sawmills which were established along the waterways in the south.

Logging became a major industry. After felling the trees the logs were snaked through the woods using oxen or mules and long poles for leverage.

he logs were usually 12 feet in length and 30 to 50 inches in diameter. Once at the river the logs were fastened together into rafts with cross pieces and wooden pegs or spikes before being branded or marked with the logger’s mark. The average raft contained about 35,000 board feet and the larger rafts up to 60,000 feet.

The teams, usually consisting of five or six men, rode the rafts to downstream markets such as those at Clinton (near Knoxville) and Chattanooga. These excursions began during the winter and spring months when the rivers became swollen by a rise of approximately six feet above normal.

Log rating was the most economical and effective way to transport logs during that era. Three men on the front and one on each of the back corners would use long poles while the sixth man in the back would man a steering paddle. Working together they would keep the log raft on the desired path.

Meals were cooked on the raft atop a bank of dirt and rocks or on a piece of tin, often under a shelter. The longer raft trips would take several weeks and required a stop along the way to replenish food and supplies. Sometime they would stop and stay overnight in a nearby inn or barn, especially during inclement weather.

When their destination was reached the raft was dismantled and the logs sold. The return trip was by foot until the coming of the railroad when most rode the train to the station nearest their home.

One of my deceased relatives wrote of a log float down the Clinch River and ultimately to Chattanooga in 1903. He found a large poplar log that had broken loose from another man’s log raft. After examining the log for any mark or brand and finding none, he hooked it to his raft and took it on down the river and sold it at the marketplace for a nice sum.

Having acquired the windfall profit from the sale of the log he decided to dress in style and went to a store where he bought a nice Stetson hat and a new pair of shoes. He then bought a gallon jug of corn whiskey and felt well prepared for the train trip back to the station nearest his home.

As he boarded the train however, he accidentally bumped the jug of whiskey spilling all of its contents. After riding the train for a while the Stetson hat blew off his head and out the window. With such bad luck he began developing pains, especially from the new shoes he had bought. His feet hurt so bad that he took his knife and split the shoes in several places to make them comfortable enough to wear. He said he “decided then and there that anything else he got he would work for.”

The Clinch, Powell and Cumberland Rivers are no longer used for transporting logs. Most river traffic now is for fishing, floating and recreation. Several communities purify their drinking water from the streams, including the city of Harrogate, TN, just across the mountain from Middlesboro, KY. Several churches use the Clinch and Powell rivers for baptismal services.

The logging and rafting industry reached its peak before 1891. In that year the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was completed and river-rafting rapidly declined. The days of the lengthy and hazardous float trips to downstream log markets ended. It has long been relegated to history and to news columns such as this. Copyright 2017 Jadon Gibson

Editor’s note: Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and may be read periodically at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single posting! Copyright 2017 Jadon Gibson

A voice for God – a voice for good

My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1962 I was in the insurance business in Columbia, Missouri for two years before transferring to and buying a home in Rolla, also in Missouri.

By 1967 we had a dog. I recall getting a police citation for “allowing our dog to run at large.” Being originally from a small town from Kentucky I knew little about confining or tying our dog. People back at home let their dogs run loose. It didn’t bother me that there was a fine for the offence. What bothered me was that I would be listed in the newspaper police report. I was a businessman and didn’t think it would be favorable publicity.

I recall going to City Hall the following day in fact. I spoke with city attorney Robert Turley about being omitted from the police report. I don’t relish the idea of any family member being shown in a bad light.

Why am I mentioning this? Because these days it seems that many young people and too many older residents too, don’t care if they appear in a bad light. Some may feel it is a badge of honor, especially among their circle of friends. Times have changed but it still isn’t alright!

Newspapers in our modern era often emblazon drug and other offenses all over the front page. Sometimes I feel it better to move those items to the back of the paper. Then it might be “out of sight, out of mind” for our young people. It certainly was a demerit in former times and it made for a healthier culture.

My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. I was brought up in a time when being good was good and being bad was bad. There’s been a breakdown in American families with many young people not having the guidance they need to make the best choices in life. They know what they should or shouldn’t do but many are influenced by the carefree attitude and actions of their friends.

Time is fleeting! Younger folks need to be aware of the extreme importance of their formative years. Parents need to be aware of this too so they can encourage and help their youngsters stay on the right track. Otherwise the actions they take and their life’s direction will be unduly influenced by their friends.

It’ll vastly improve their prospects for the future if they draw closer to God. This will give them a stronger resolve plus they’ll have new friends with positive aims and actions.

Dear Lord, help our young people know their early years are the most important as they establish a foundation to build on. Hold them close and protect them dear Lord. Amen!

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