Lake Superior Shipwrecks
Log Rafting and the Lake Superior Timber Industry

The Lake Superior timber industry developed in the mid-19th century. As logging operations began to appear around the lake, sawmills were built to process the cut timber. The first mill at Duluth, Minn., then known as the Oneota, was started in 1855 by Henry W. Wheeler. A number of others quickly followed, including a mill at nearby Milford, Wis. which was started in 1857 with a capacity of between 20,000 and 30,000 board-feet of lumber per day. Although the lumber industry experienced a number of ups and downs throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the overall trend was towards steady growth. By the early 1880s, at least eleven sawmills were operating in the Duluth area. These mills averaged 10,000,000 board-feet of lumber production annually by 1884 and the Duluth Lumber Company operated one with a capacity of 30,000,000 board-feet. By the turn of the century, Duluth-Superior had become the world's greatest lumber center and in the record year of 1899, 940,000 tons of lumber products left the port by water.

The problem of getting felled trees out of the woods, to the mill and ultimately to market was common to all lumber companies. Before the development of extensive rail systems, the simplest solution was to transport logs by water. Cut logs were floated downstream, collected at the river mouth, loaded onto vessels or packaged into rafts and transported to mills elsewhere. On the north shore, log rafts were the primary means of transporting logs and it was not until 1902 that more arrived in Duluth by rail than in log rafts. By the turn of the century, Duluth mills were receiving rafts sent from logging camps at Castle Danger and the mouths of the Cross, Knife, Pigeon, Split Rock and Gooseberry rivers. Log rafts began arriving in Duluth almost as soon as the first mill had opened.

According to the 1858 edition of Wisconsin and Its Resources, a book aimed at attracting new settlers to the area, the steamboat James Carson towed a raft of 2,900 logs from “Fond du Lac to the Du Luth mill.” Although rafts were not the only method of transporting logs on the Great Lakes, they quickly became the predominant one and equipment began to change as a result. According to the Toledo Blade, June 25, 1872, “Several newspapers note the demand for coarse freight craft. Many vessels are involved in the ore and grain trades, so that lumber regularly taken in steambarges is now taken in rafts, and a number of large tugs are as a result being converted to run on the lake.” Other methods of log transport, such as steam barges, were unable to compete with log rafts being towed by tugs. For example, in 1886, the 260-foot barge Wahnipitae was able to carry about 500,000 feet of logs from Canada to the mill for about $2.25 per thousand feet, while a tug and raft operation could transport the same logs for around $1.25 per thousand feet.

The first log rafts were relatively small and in the early 1860s, a raft containing 800,000 board-feet of timber was considered large. Since large rafts rode better on the open lakes than small ones, their size increased continually. The Duluth Daily Tribune of June 21, 1985, reported that one log raft on Lake Superior held 3,000,000 board-feet of timber and soon after the turn of the century a raft containing over 6,000,000 board-feet of timber was shipped from the mouth of the Gooseberry River. These large rafts could cover as much as 25 acres of lake surface.

The most common style of raft was the boom type. Known as a bag boom, this kind of raft was essentially a floating fence which held quantities of free-floating logs. When filled with logs and placed under tow, it took on the shape of a bag held by a string. Captain Benjamin Boutelle, owner of the Niagara from 1888 to 1901, used a boom built by stringing large logs together on a chain passed through a hole in the center of each log. Using this arrangement, Boutelle towed a raft containing 3,000,000 board-feet of logs from Lake Superior to Bay City, Mich., through one of the worst storms of the 1885 sailing season.

Some of the hazards associated with log rafts on the Great Lakes were never entirely eliminated. For example, storms or accidents could break a raft apart, causing the loss of a valuable timber shipment. Log rafting also brought about the ire of others who used the lakes. Vessel owners were constantly attacking the rafts as hazards to navigation. It was claimed that rafts destroyed navigation buoys and because they were so difficult to see at night or in conditions of low visibility they were an unacceptable risk to other vessels which might be damaged or sunk in a collision with a raft. These loud complaints went as far as the U.S. Congress and although a body of law eventually formed defending the transport of logs by water, the men who ran log rafts risked constant legal attacks.

|--Niagara-- |--Historic Description-- |--Construction and Career--|
|--Log Rafting and the Lake Superior Timber Industry |--Description of the Wreck Event--|
|--Post-Depositional Impacts-- |--Present Description-- |--Significance-- |--Photographs--|
|--Minnesota Lake Superior Shipwrecks-- |
|--Minnesota Historical Society Homepage--|