Log rafts: a vanishing sight

Log rafting has almost disappeared from the inland waters of the West. Once upon a time, logs were even rafted offshore on coastal routes. The current issue of the Oregon Maritime Museum newsletter has a feature on log rafting that some of you might enjoy. Some of the pictures will take you back to a bygone era!

FYI, the Oregon Maritime Museum, in Portland, operates the restored Steam Tug Portland. The steel hulled Portland was the last steam powered, stern wheel driven tug built in the US (launched 1947, retired 1981). Museum volunteers, most of them licensed mariners, have restored her to fine condition with 50% of her original boiler capacity. They operate her regularly on excursions, open to the public, on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Hearing her whistle alone is worth a trip to Portland!!

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I beg your pardon.


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Well, you probably should make allowances for our narrow parochial outlook here in the Columbia/Willamette system! ;-)) I’d mainly stand with the article, since most of the guys who contributed worked river towboats and log rafts at one time. But it is a local outlook they’re talking about.

I think their comment that log rafting has “faded into oblivion,” compares it to when we saw rafts like you show there almost any day of the year. It’s been a long time since we saw rafts like that on the Columbia & Willamette. Still a lot of tonnage moving on the Columbia but few logs.

To satisfy my curiosity, can you place and date your photos? Maybe I should have qualified my post to the “US West” since everything IS bigger in Canada! My hunch in 2 & 3 is we’re looking at the Fraser Delta around Richmond. If I’m right, then that would explain it since we haven’t cut trees in Oregon the way they still cut them in BC for well over 50 years. Your 1st pic is probably up north although it kind of looks like it could be in Boundary Pass somewhere.

You nailed it: Fraser River, any day of the year. Come on up and see for yourself. You can see them from the bridges or the skytrain. They are never not there. I got them off the googler, but to me, the first one looks like Howe Sound.

Just for fun, I looked at the current Google Maps satellite view of the Columbia River’s south channels along Government Island (W. of I-205) and along Hayden Island between I-5 and Marine Terminal 6. Also at Multnomah channel behind Sauvie Island between the Willamette and the Columbia at St. Helens. Those are 3 places where, even in the fairly recent past, you could see at least a few rafts of logs. No date on the Google sat. view but you can take it as a random “typical” recent day. NOT A SINGLE LOG RAFT in ANY of those locations. In distant times past (30+ years or more), you could see multiple enormous rafts of logs in all those locations, especially in Multnomah channel. When I was a kid (60+yrs ago), you could see rafts like your 3rd pic on the Willamette right upstream from the Portland Harbor. So it has pretty much died out down here. But I can remember watching the sternwheel steam tug Portland moving ships in the Portland Harbor too!

I was recently on the Fraser River. While I did not see logs actively being towed, there were zillions of log rafts tied off to pilings along the river bank.

Further north in the BC Inside Passage, the huge log barges seem to have replaced most, but not all of the log tows.

I’ve also seen logs rafted in the water in the Southeast Alaska Inside Passage, but can’t recall seeing recent log tows. Probably, I have not been in the right place at the right time.

I have mixed feelings about them. Too much gets exported as timber. If its for export, should be that we mill it here. I feel the same way about the bitumen: don’t export it like that, refine it here. Its stupidity. Countries that buy those things are getting too sweet a deal, and we’re getting quaint log rafts. Its not like we ARE our national animal. But maybe there’s a reason why the beaver is on the lowest denomination of currency.


Beavers-R-Us because we were founded as a place from which to extract cheap resources (fur trade, etc), but we are meant to have grown out of it, all ready.


And one more thing:

I love the National Film Board, but its not like they tell you it is. I have yet to meet a waltzing log driver.

Its all very nice on paper, but this is a purely propaganda puff piece.

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Love it. But then there’s this:

One of the first things visible as the drive approached Bangor, Maine, was Fan’s Sky Blue House – for the fellas who wanted to cut to the chase, so to say.

I was mate on a tug / barge hauling logs out of Alaska to Port Angles, I recall loading at Throne Bay.

They were containerized so to speak. A log truck load is strapped with steel wire and the entire load is lifted off the truck to inside a log boom in the water. These were not individual logs as a traditional log raft but bundles. This raft was then towed out to the barge where the bundles were lifted by crane onto the barge.

There used to be a bunch of independent contractors called beachcombers in BC who rounded up stray logs that escaped from the booms during storms. Most often the strays ended up on the beach. They’d secure a line to them, tow them to the mills and collect payment. If containerized is the new normal, I’m guessing their way of life is gone.

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That bundling of logs is a faint echo of the massive “cigar rafts” that used to be towed from the Columbia River to the California mills:
"Cigar Rafts, gigantic masses of logs chained together in the shape of a cigar for towing through rough Pacific waters, belong to an era long gone. …

The final cigar raft was made up in Coal Creek Slough at Stella (in 1921). Stern wheelers of the Shaver Transport Co. towed the monster boom downriver below Astoria where seagoing tugs took over for the thousand-mile journey to San Francisco. Pilings from that load still support piers and terminals from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Embarcadero. These colossal rafts in their heyday contained eight million board feet of wood, enough to supply a modest sized sawmill for a year.

The Robertson Raft Company, the team of Robertson and Bain, built cigar rafts in Coal Creek Slough as early as 1895. Their first small raft broke at sea. Bain left the business, but Robertson tried again the next year, with success.

It was sheer size and three-inch chains that finally made the cigar raft work. It was much like building a ship. The raft began taking form in a huge wooden cradle shaped like the bottom of a ship. The logs were hoisted by cranes powered by small donkey engines. These cranes had 110-foot swing booms which carefully piled the logs in layers, taking care to overlap them precisely so that the structure of the raft itself would contribute to its strength. At the bow end a great steel prow was anchored by a huge center chain which ran from one end of the raft to the other. Side bracing was accomplished by cross wires and wrapper chains. The chain links were as big around as a man’s wrist.

These wrapper chains were made fast and tightened by turnbuckles. When the cradle was full, the largest rafts would be 1,000 feet long inside, 55 feet wide, draw a 28-foot draft and have a freeboard of 17 feet above sea level. Then the retaining pins of the cradle were pulled, the side braces were parted, and the cradle opened to set the raft free at high tide. …

_The rafts made at Stella were piling, Benson’s rafts, made on the Oregon side, were saw logs only. Hammond Company made rafts at Stella. The shape of the rafts made it possible to tow them from either end. At times, during a storm at sea, the raft would be cut loose to roll and then be picked up again after the storm was over. …" _

Source: Stella Historical Society, 1984, “History of Stella”, vol.1, excerpt written by Lester Howard.

Typical Benson rafts were 800 to 1000’ long, 55’ wide and 35’ top to bottom with a draft of 26’-28’. They held 4 to 6 million linear feet of logs and were wrapped by 175 to 250 tons of chain of up to 3" link thickness. They were typically made up around Clatskanie about river mile 50. The typical 1100 mile tow to Benson’s mills in San Diego took 15 days if weather allowed. The cigar rafts were generally so stout that they could be cut loose if the weather got really heavy and the picked up again. They were towable from either end. Between 1906 and 1941, 120 cigar rafts left the Columbia River for California and only 4 were lost. Sometimes, they were even loaded with “deck cargo” of sawn lumber on the top.

More interesting stuff about cigar rafts, and pictures at https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/timber_industry/#.WtoQWC_MzMUhttp://columbiariverimages.com/Regions/Places/log_rafts.html

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My father’s first on-the-water job was as a deckhand on Williamette river steam tug, towing log rafts up to the Columbia river. According to him, Portland was a pretty wild and wooly place during Prohibition.



Tell me this Portland prohibition story, Earl. Do you know it?


caption: spirit of the West

Well, he didn’t go into specifics (probably out of deference to my mother) but he described the town as basically wide open. He was an accomplished amateur boxer and said that came in handy during shore leave.

Everybody with a boat (including my uncle) ran hooch into town from the fleet of motherships sitting just outside the 3 mile limit. One of my distant cousins (“shirttail relative,” in PNW parlance) was Coast Guard and he told me that in those days they were understaffed, under equipped, and kept plenty busy by fishermen in distress and people running aground on Cape Disappointment, so customs enforcement was pretty low on the priority scale.

The only specific story my father told was sitting on the deck at night and watching the occasional gill-netter (open boats powered by single-cylinder make-and-break gasoline engines) blow up from gasoline in the bilges. When he became skipper of our Sea Scout ship the first thing he did was throw the Coleman stoves overboard and replace them with two of those round brass kerosene-fired Primus stoves, which I still have. I got very familiar with them because he made me the ship’s cook :slight_smile:




Swtiching coasts here. When I was a young rover I got to see one of the last log rafts on the Kennebec River somewhere between Skowhegan and Solon Maine in 1974 when I was hitchhiking to Quebec. Quite a sight!

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Well my Dad, who was also a Portland native, always drank ONLY Canadian whiskey. When I got old enough to notice that and be interested, I asked him why. His reply was that he developed a taste for Canadian whiskey during Prohibition because it was the only GOOD choice available in whiskey in Portland in those days. I imagine that was probably Canadian whiskey that came ashore on some remote beach or island in Oregon or Washington from those guys down from BC and “outside the 3 mile limit.”

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Definitely Canadian. According to my uncle, six cases was a load. Each case in burlap bag with a sash weight, dipped in tar to waterproof. Load attached to 1/4" line, followed by trolling line, followed by monofilament. A commercial gallon can soldered shut attached to the monofilament.

If things go hot you dumped the load overboard and then went back when things were cooler and looked for the can floating in the ocean. My uncle coached me in dead reckoning navigation when I was a Sea Scout. He was very good at it.