Log Raft on the Mississippi

In the 1800s large rafts of logs and sawn lumber were floated down the Mississippi River from the pine forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The earliest lumbering was probably on the Wisconsin River, where Pierre Grignon had a sawmill operating in 1822. Log rafts and sawn lumber rafts were despatched downriver to Galena and Dubuque, and sometimes as far as St. Louis. A treaty with the Indians secured lumbering rights in 1830, hastening mill establishment. The first documented raft taken through to St. Louis was in the charge of Henry Merill, who refitted it at the mouth of the Wisconsin River, and delivered it to St. Louis in 1839.

In 1857, three thousand men were engaged in lumbering on the Wisconsin. As all the lumber had to be floated out of the Wisconsin and down the Mississippi, rafting grew into a great business, requiring a breed of hardy, rough, but industrious and reliable men, working under raft pilots. When they reached their destination the raftsmen would take passage on a steamboat going upriver.

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‘I remember the annual processions of mighty rafts that used to glide by Hannibal when I was a boy, ~ an acre or so of white, sweet-smelling boards in each raft, a crew of two dozen men or more, three or four wigwams scattered about the raft’s vast level space for storm quarters, ~ and I remember the rude ways and the tremendous talk of their big crews, the ex-keelboatmen and their admiringly patterning successors; for we used to swim out a quarter or third of a mile and get on these rafts and have a ride.’
Credit: ~ Chapter 3, Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain.

‘Moonlight Encounter on the Mississippi’

Log rafts were made up of long strings each about sixteen feet wide and about four hundred feet long. The string was composed of rows of logs, close together, side by side and end to end. The rows were held together by poles laid across the string and fastened to each log with hickory or elm lockdowns, or plugs. Strings were similarly secured side by side.

Sawn lumber rafts were similarly made up of strings. The planks were fitted into a frame crate or ‘crib’ sixteen feet wide, sixteen to thirty two feet long and twelve to twenty inches deep. Sometimes this was built on a tilting platform beside the river, so that the crib when filled could be released into the water.

A number of these cribs fastened together would make a raft of perhaps
twenty-four cribs for the Chippewa, and from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and sixty cribs for the Mississippi. Rafts were not made up to size until they were safely on the Mississippi. About seven cribs long and one to four strings wide was the usual size run on the tributaries.

The steering-oars or sweeps used to handle the rafts were usually some twenty to fifty-feet long, made from young tamarack poles about twelve inches thick at the base where a pine blade was inserted measuring about fourteen inches wide by twelve feet long. A sawn taper narrowed the end. The sweeps were mounted on heavy pins, in rows, fore and aft (an iron ring or washer was slipped over the pin first to reduce friction). There was a sweep at the end of every string, so that a raft of ten strings had a fore crew of ten men, and and aft crew of ten. All were under the direction of the Pilot who hired and paid them off, and usually had fair control of them.

The crew lived on the raft as it journeyed downriver, usually constructing small shelters made of rough boards. Larger shelters were discouraged because they would catch wind and cause more work at the sweeps. Rafts generally had a low wide ‘cook-shanty’ in which they sat down to eat; but often the cooking was done with only a cover to keep the rain off the stove, and the “grub” was served out in the open, the men standing to eat.

‘Raftsmen Playing Cards’ ~ 1847

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The first regular lumbering outfit on the St. Croix arrived in 1837 by mackinaw boat. The first steamer up the river was the Palmyra. Chartered for the occasion, in 1838, it carried sawmill machinery, men, and supplies to St. Croix Falls. Mills established there and at Marine sent the first rafts of lumber and logs downstream.

Within five years, larger rafts of St. Croix logs were being floated to St. Louis. Initially the rafts were managed with large oars and taken through lakes St. Croix and Pepin by means of sails or, in calm weather, by cordelling (men walking along the shoreline pulling the rafts with hand lines). Lake Pepin was dreaded by raftsmen; more than one raft was lost there during an attempted crossing. By 1851, steamboats were used for the first time in towing log rafts through those lakes, and, in 1863, a steamer was first used for the same purpose on the Mississippi below Lake Pepin. Log raft construction also improved, cutting assembly costs and creating larger rafts with less waste. The early towboats, raft boats, or log rafters used to move the rafts were typically stern-wheel steamers with powerful engines. Eventually, oars on the heads of rafts were replaced by bowboats.

Commercial lumbering in the Mississippi River system began tentatively in 1848-1849 when logs cut that winter on the Mississippi (above Little Falls) were floated down to a new commercial sawmill at St. Anthony Falls. At the same time, Minnesota became a territory of the United States, and St. Anthony, fed by an ever-increasing flow of logs and grain, soon grew into one of Minnesota’s largest towns. With the northern harvest of logs in escalation, both the St. Croix and the Mississippi alike became conduits for southbound logs.
Credit: ~ 
Shipwrecks of Minnesota’s Inland Lakes and Rivers report by Wes Hall, Douglas Birk and Sam Newell.

‘Working The Lumber Raft’


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Mississippi rafts were frequently kept running day and night. The market for lumber run by water might be anywhere, according as a demand could be found for all or any part of the raft, but it was often contracted for beforehand, by parties in Dubuque, Rock Island, St. Louis or other cities along the water-route.

The men usually received pay by the trip, either so much to the mouth of the Wisconsin, or to market, the prices ranging from $70 to $125 per trip for bowsmen and tailsmen. The pilot received about double that amount. Some pilots, however, ran by the season.

In making these rafts no nails or spikes were ever used; everything was fastened with wooden wedges or pins. All coupling planks, binding planks, yokes, spring-poles etc., were securely wedged down.
Credit: ~ Theron Lyon, resident of Grand Rapids, in an article written by F. J. Natwick about 1906.

‘Rafting on the Missouri’


Small saw-milling operations were established very early in wooded locations along the Missouri River and its tributaries. Most of these used portable saw milling equipment, cutting available timber beside rivers so that it could be formed into rafts and transported to markets. When the local market declined or saw logs became scarce sawmills were moved to new locations. More permanent sawmills were usually built with a grist (grain) mill attached, forming the nucleus of settlements.

Even the smallest of tributaries were useful for rafting out timber. Logs, lumber and cut railroad ties all found their way down the Missouri River, to St. Louis and other markets en route.

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Though the rivers (in the Oazark Hills) could not be navigated by steamboats, they were perfect for rafting logs out of the Ozark hills. Thus began a cottage industry of tie-hacking, and the men who became famous and infamous in local folklore throughout the nineteenth century. Tie-hacking consisted of cutting out the best oak in the forest, thinning rather than clear-cutting the trees. The logs were then hacked into uniform ties, and tied together to create a raft which could, with luck and courage, be guided down these fast streams to St. Louis. It was a rough job, often done in the dead of winter. Bends along the Big Piney were named for their dangerous histories like “Pike’s Defeat,” “Crooked Shute,” and “Devil’s Elbow.” When local heroes have names like Nathaniel “Stub” Border, you know they lead wild lives. Nathaniel lost a hand, toe, and eye before his career his career was over. Because the forests were thinned rather than clear-cut, the trees lasted, as did tie-hacking, up until right after World War I. Even after that, local subsistence farmers would occasionally cut trees for ties well into the 1930s. Thus, while the rivers were not the main course of settlement into this part of the Ozark landscape, they provided a method of transporting raw materials out.
Credit: ~ The Transportation Landscape Within the Fort Leonard Wood Region of the Missouri Ozarks, by Steven D. Smith.

Rivers such as the Yellowstone and Missouri provided more than the usual hazards. The Missouri, often discoloured and rife with tree-snags was challenging enough, but there were times on the Yellowstone when Indian attacks were a greater hazard. Indian relations were at a low ebb during the 1860’s, especially, as tribes such as the Sioux came under ever-increasing pressure from westward migration.

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The Indian attacks upon the camp were of almost daily occurrence during the summer and fall. Parties of men cutting and rafting logs from the mouth of the Yellowstone were often attacked and driven to camp, where, being joined by other men of the company, the Indians were driven off, the fighting lasting from two to six hours, often with loss on both sides.

Three civilian wood choppers in government employ having been killed at the mouth of the Yellowstone, Lieut. Ketchum, with sixty men, repaired to the spot, drove off the Indians and recovered the bodies with slight loss to his detachment.

Building logs were obtained under great hardship several miles distant from the posts, large escorts were sent with the wagons, and many men while on that duty were killed and wounded in fights with the Sioux Indians. The troops lived in tents until late in the winter of 1867.
Credit: ~ The Twenty-Second Regiment of Infantry, by Captain Oskaloosam Smith, C.S., U.S. Army (Late First Lieutenant 22d Infantry)

Building Rafts on the Chippewa

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After 1837 the vast timber resources of northern Wisconsin were eagerly sought by settlers moving into the mid-Mississippi valley.  By 1847 there were more than thirty sawmills on the Wisconsin, Chippewa, and St. Croix river systems, cutting largely Wisconsin white pine.  During long winter months, logging crews felled and stacked logs on the frozen rivers.  Spring thaws flushed the logs down the stream toward the Mississippi River.  Here logs were caught, sorted, scaled, and rafted.

Between 1837 and 1901 more than forty million board feet of logs floated down the Great River to sawmills.  The largest log raft on the Mississippi was assembled at Lynxville in 1896.  It was 270 feet wide and 1550 feet long, containing two and one-fourth million board feet of lumber.
Credit: ~ http://www.crawfordcountywi.com

Three String Rafts on the Chippewa


These rafts have been formed into three string rafts to navigate this narrow section of the the Chippewa River. Each string has a steering-oar or sweep, but in this scene the raftsmen have dismounted the sweeps on all but the center strings. Great skill was required to run narrow sections and rapids. A heavy lumber raft, striking rocks, would be carried forward by its own weight, resulting in much damage and possibly a jam as other rafts came down upon it. Rafts were lost after ‘sagging’ toward and striking rocks, islands, sand-bars, bridge piers. A jammed raft could quickly break up, and raftmen could be washed from the deck and drowned, or caught among the heavy timbers in the water and crushed. Once on the Mississippi, however, rafts could be formed into much larger units, and navigation became easier. And unlike on most of the tributaries, they could also raft at night. A safety-lantern burning through the night would usually be sufficient to avoid collisions with upstreaming steamboats, unless there was fog.

ANNIE GIRDIN and Lumber Raft ~ June 1869


Until the mid 1860s, all rafts of both logs and lumber were manned by raftsmen pulling on sweeps, keeping them in the current in the channels, to avoid drifting sideways onto, or ‘saddle-bagging’, sand-bars, the heads of islands, bridge piers and other hazards. After the Civil War, however, sternwheel steamboats took on this work.

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Captain Winans was the first pilot to try to run a raft with a steamboat.In September, 1863, he chartered a little side-wheel geared boat of only twenty-nine tons; hitched her into the stern of a lumber raft at Read’s Landing and started for Hannibal.

He prudently had secured a good bow crew to work the forward end and he also had men to form a full stern crew if the steamboat failed to handle her end. Owing to the lack of a rig or machine to change or control the position of the boat behind the raft they soon got in trouble and before going ten miles, he had the boat go back to Read; his crew shipped up the stern oars and they proceeded in the usual way to their destination, Hannibal, Missouri.

But Captain Winan’s idea was correct; it only needed working out. The next year Cyrus Bradley took the same boat, the ‘Union,’ and successfully used her behind a raft of logs to Clinton, Iowa, for W.J. Young and Company. W.J. Young authorized Bradley to charter the ‘Union’ and was well pleased with the result and soon bought larger, better boats to use on his own work.
Credit: ~ A Raft Pilot’s Log, by Capt. Walter A. Blair.

Steamboats ‘Towing’ a Raft

This is the view from a sternwheeler as it pushes a raft, while at the bow of the raft a ‘bow boat’ is steering by pulling the raft toward the channel as required.

When steamboats were first used to push rafts in the post Civil War years, the rafts still retained their raft crews at the bow, manning steering-oars to guide the raft. Gradually, however, these men were also replaced by sternwheel steamboats attached to the raft bow as shown here.

Raft crews continued to guide rafts on tributaries where it was not possible to use sternwheelers, until 1888 on the Wisconsin, and into the 1900s on some rivers.

Rafts Down the Wisconsin

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Logs were cut in twelve, fourteen and sixteen feet in lengths.The raft was made by taking three planks and boring two inch auger holes about one foot from each end and one in the middle. Into these holes, grub stakes were inserted from underneath. Then the building of the crib began. The lumber to go into the raft was laid cross wise and alternately until sixteen courses had been laid.

Oars were very large, the stems thirty feet long, one foot in diameter at one end and shaved down to about three inches at the other end. Into the large end of the stem was inserted the oar blade made of a plank set edge-wise, usually three inches thick and from sixteen to eighteen feet long. This made an oar fifty to forty-five feet in length. A hole having been bored in the stem the same size as the pin in the head block the oar was balanced on this pin. It required strength and skill to handle such a rigging. The man in front guided as he saw the current and the man at the tail also steered.

Six or seven of such cribs were fastened together tandem fashion, by coupling planks and this was called a “rapids piece”. Two “rapids pieces” fastened together made a “Wisconsin Raft” and several such rafts comprised a “fleet of lumber”, sometimes containing as much as a million feet. To properly operate the “Wisconsin raft” it required at least ten bowsmen and ten tailsmen together with a pilot and steersman. When required all hands jumped into the water and with long heavy poles lifted the rafts off the sand bars. From Grand Rapids to St. Louis might require six weeks. On these rafts were built the cook’s shanty and the “dog-houses” as sleeping cabins for the men.

When the rafts passed through towns where there was some population there were always a lot of young fellows waiting at the various eddies for a chance to run the rapids with the crew and when the water was not too dangerous this permission was granted, to the great delight of the boys.

Usually the ice went out of the river between the first and fifteenth of April and the log driving and running of the rafts began then or soon after though high water in June and September was better for running the river. The dangerous places on the river Big and Little Bull Falls, Stevens Point dam, Conant Rapids, Grand Rapids, Clinton’s dam, Whitney Rapids, the Dells and Kilbourn dam. Mosinee – Little Bull – Rapids was the most dangerous on the river. Here, the channel narrowed to not more than thirty feet and the plunges “down a gulch” thirty feet deep, with a rock wall on either side. These rapids were a half mile long and one rebellious stream of water. All rafts were supplied with a “sucker line” which ran from one end of the raft to the other, for security of the raftsmen. Should a raft suddenly take a nose dive in the swift rapids it would take men overboard but for this line.

During the flood stage in the spring of 1888 the last of the lumber rafts passed through Grand Rapids and down the river. In June, John Farrish sent his two pilots, Ed Wheelan and George Ellison down to Clinton with one fleet and Henry Rablin took the balance of the fleet to St. Louis. We rafted the four-hundred miles on the Mississippi faster than the two-hundred miles on the Wisconsin, because there were no obstructions. The speed of the raft in normal operations is usually a little slower than the speed of the water.

We never experienced very much trouble between Yellow Bands and the head of the Dells, because it was early in the rainy season, and we had a fair supply of water. In going through the Dells we disconnected our rafts. Where formerly two men handled a Wisconsin raft, consisting of three pieces, four men would take one piece through the Dells, run it through below Kilbourn, and gig back. That is, walking back through the Upper Dells. I suppose it is a distance, if I remember right, of about five miles. We will be all day running that lumber through the Dells.
Credit: ~ John Starr, Wisconsin Raftsman, recounted in 1939 (present in this 1886 photograph with John Daly’s Arpin Lumber Company raft crew on the Wisconsin.).  http://www.scls.lib.wi.us/mcm/taylor/photos/pages04_5.html

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It was in 1849 that I made my first trip down Wisconsin River. …

Frequently the lumber raft gets the advantage of the person running it, and passing under leaning trees sweeps him off into the river. I was thus served on the Eau Claire. While at the head of Little Bull Falls (April 15), I accidentally fell in again. In passing over the falls at the “Jaws,” I came very near being knocked overboard by the oar getting away from the steersman. No one thus thrown off at this place has been known to have been saved.

We passed on down (April 20) to Stevens Point and Conant Rapids. On the 21st we stopped at the Yellow Banks, near Plover, and later were caught on Crooked Riff. We next passed on to Grand Rapids, where three men were drowned.

May 1, our run was from Grand Rapids to Pointe Bas, over the Whitney Rapids, which are the lowest on Wisconsin River. About sundown on the same day we passed through the Dells. The raft ahead of ours struck Notch Rock, and turned a whole rapids piece bottom side up, breaking it to pieces.

After passing Kilbourn City and Newport, Sugar Loaf Rock appears, and farther down on the opposite side Lone Rock, a solitary pinnacle thirty or forty feet high, much dreaded by raftsmen, since the current sets strongly against it, and rafts were frequently driven to destruction there. This is at the foot of the Dells, which are five miles in length.

From the Dells we passed on by Norwegian Bluff, Pine Island, and Portage City; and still farther down, Sauk Prairie. A few miles below this are the Honey Creek flats. We next passed Bogus Bluffs, which are very high, and noted for their singular caves. New Helena lay just beyond. The next place I noticed was Cave Rock Slough. From here we passed on by English Prairie and Prairie Dubay to the mouth of the Wisconsin, where on the south side the bluffs are 500 feet high and very steep, and where the great Mississippi fronts us, with her towering bluffs on the Iowa side.

We drifted on to the bosom of the “Father of Waters” and connected our rafts together, thus making what is known as a Mississippi raft. We had scarcely got the rafts secured together, when I heard a roaring noise and looking up over the bluffs discovered a large black cloud rolling over us. In less than fifteen minutes we were engulfed in one of the most terrible thunder storms I ever witnessed. The wind blew a gale, the rain fell in torrents, and thunder rolled, and the lightning flashed. The waves rolled upon the raft, and we were in fear of being broken to pieces.

It looked still more awful and sublime, because we were floating along under those gigantic bluffs. Night setting in, left us in total darkness, except when the lightning flashed and furnished all the light we had by which to guide the raft. About midnight the storm abated and another set of men took the oars, when I crawled into my bunk, wet as a drowned rat.

Towards morning I heard the shout for all hands at the oars, and on getting up found the raft sagging down towards an island; with all the pulling we could do, we could not change its course, and the bow struck the island right in the head and ran the front end high and dry upon the land. However, it lay quartering with the current, and by pulling at the oars we swung it around and soon got off.

Some of these rafts cover several acres of surface, and when under motion in a rapid current it requires a great force to stop them. I recollect that one day we were having a game of ball, when the pilot called us to the oars. The raft was sagging into a bend, and into that bend it went in spite of us, one corner striking the bank and taking two or three loads of dirt upon it. With all this resistance, its headway did not appear to be in the least checked.

We finally arrived at Dubuque, where my cousin, another man, and I got into a skiff and went across to Galena, a distance of sixteen miles. I began to feel ill, and before I reached Galena was badly off. The cholera was then raging on the Mississippi, and there was great excitement about it.

I went to my cousin’s and stopped five or six days, then feeling better, I started back for the pinery on the steamer “Newton Wagoner.”
Credit: ~ Lumber Rafting on the Wisconsin River, by Simon Augustus Sherman.

Lumber Rafts on the Allegheny ~ 1885

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By the 1830s, the national market for lumber exploded; however, with New England forests depleted of resources, Pennsylvania forests were quickly uncovered as the new prime lumber grounds. Northern lumbermen plunged south to acquire white pine timberlands and utilize their professional skills. With the professional timbermen came a high level of technology, triggering a transition from small-scale, family-owned mills to large industrial mill operations. As a result, dimension lumber production skyrocketed.

The burgeoning national market for timber products spurred a vast arena for lumber production within Pennsylvania. Towns such as Lock Haven and Warren grew in response to industrial lumbering. Rivers became the primary means of transporting logs and products downstream. An intricate system of transport evolved including timber rafts, spar rafts, log rafts, and lumber rafts, each type uniquely designed.

The West Branch saw square timber and spar timber rafts carry supplies along its route. The Allegheny transported log rafts supplying mills with saw logs and arks or boats of dimension lumber carrying products to downstream markets. Lumber from the Upper Allegheny helped build the towns and cities along the Allegheny, Ohio, and Lower Mississippi Rivers as far south as New Orleans.
Credit: ~ Lumber Heritage Region of Pennsylvania, Management Action Plan, May 2001.

Rafts Down the Susquehanna

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Although the logging industry of Pennsylvania was centered around Williamsport and the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, the North Branch also contributed a great deal to the story of Pennsylvania timber. The virgin forests of Penn’s Woods held some of the finest White Pine ever seen. This species of tree was invaluable to American settlers. The grain of this tree is straight and true, and it will resist rot and will not warp. Although very light in weight, it is remarkably strong. Not only was this resource valued by the naval vessels for masts and spars on ships, but the farmers in Pennsylvania’s southern tier had an insatiable thirst for wood to construct homes and barns. White Pine floats very well and was also used to transport goods from the frontier to markets as far away as Baltimore.

There’s a misconception that all virgin timber consisted of large diameter trees. Loads of virgin timber would come off the mountains on its way to the anthracite or hard coal region of Pennsylvania where it would be used for mine props and posts. The coal industry in the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre area owned large blocks of land in the seven mountains and owned it primarily to obtain the wood for mine props. (Jim Nelson, former State Forester for DCNR).

The Raftsmen

“Now a Susquehanna waterman…will go on board an ark or a raft somewhere about the New York line, in March, April, and May, descend to the tide water of the Chesapeake, and then return home on foot, through 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. “ (unnamed observer of 1800’s log rafts)
Credit: ~ The Story of the Montour Log Raft

Plundering of Public Domain Forests

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The huge fraudulent operations in the theft of timber from the public domain in Minnesota and other States and territories, and the bribery of public officials to connive at those thefts, were another example of the widespread and permeating fraud. Congress had passed an explicit act prohibiting depredations on the public timber lands, and providing a penalty for each vio­lation of the law, of a fine not less than triple the value of the timber cut, destroyed or removed, and a term of imprisonment not to exceed twelve months.

This law was effectively ignored or evaded by individual lumber capitalists or lumber corpora­tions. In a long report, under orders, to United States Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland, on February 12, 1854, James B. Estes, U. S. Timber Agent for Iowa, Minnesota and the Western District of Wisconsin, stated that in one Minnesota section alone—the Black River District—more than two hundred million feet of pine had been cut and carried away.

Along certain rivers … there were “nineteen sawmills of steam and water power which are engaged in cutting forty or fifty million feet of lumber yearly. In addition to this there has been a large traffic in rafting logs down the Mississippi to the St. Louis and other markets below.” This immense amount of lumber was almost all stolen. Usu­ally the Government timber agents were bribed to wink at this colossal system of fraud, and at other times they were likewise bribed to sell (what they had no legal authority to sell) per­mission or licenses, for insignificant payment to the Government, to cut timber from the public lands.

So intrenched was this system of enormous theft that when one honest Government official attempted to enforce the law, the whole lumber interests sought to discredit him and his aim and bring about his removal. Even further: not only did the lumber capitalists systemati­cally seek to thwart the enforcement of the law by honest offi­cials; all of the allied capitalists in the same region, and subsi­dized newspaper owners and hirelings joined in threatening and often using force to prevent the laws from being executed… The lumber barons wanted their predacious share of the public domain; thruout certain parts of the West and in the South were far-stretching, magnificent forests covered with the growth of centuries.

To want and to get them were the same thing, with a government in power representative of capitalism. At the behest of the lumber corporations, or of adventurers or politicians who saw a facile way of becoming multi-million­aires by the simple passage of an act, the “Stone and Timber Act” was passed in 1878 by Congress. An amendment passed in 1892 made frauds still easier. This measure was one of those benev­olent-looking laws which, on its face, extended opportunities to the homesteader . . . Here was a way open for any individual homesteader to get one hundred and sixty acres of timber land for the low price of $2.50 an acre.

This law, like the Desert Land Law, it turned out, was filled with cunningly drawn clauses sanctioning the worst forms of spoilation. Entire train loads of people, acting in collusion with the land grabbers, were transported by the lumber syndicates into the richest timber regions of the West, supplied with the funds to buy, and then each after having paid $2.50 per acre for one hundred and sixty acres, immediately transferred his or her allotment to the lumber corporations.
Credit: ~ Chapter 5, The Lumber Industry and Its Workers, by James Kennedy.