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Retrospect

It Began With Failure 

John Conway
Posted 7/24/21

Timber rafting was once the linchpin of the area’s economy. It was the first industry to develop in the wild, desolate region that is today known as Sullivan County, predating both the tanning …

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Retrospect

It Began With Failure 

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Timber rafting was once the linchpin of the area’s economy. It was the first industry to develop in the wild, desolate region that is today known as Sullivan County, predating both the tanning and bluestone industries by more than half a century.

The practice of felling trees and floating them down the Delaware for sale in Philadelphia started just after the French and Indian War. Daniel Skinner, who came here from Connecticut in 1755 with his parents and siblings—his father, Joseph, killed in 1759, is believed to have been the first white man murdered in the Upper Delaware—is generally regarded as the man who started it all. The earliest trips downriver, however, were not without incident.

It was on a trip to the West Indies, historians note, that Daniel Skinner first got the idea of floating the tall, straight pine trees from along the banks of the Delaware to the Philadelphia shipyards.

“On returning from his voyage, he cut, trimmed and rolled into the water several of the tallest pines and followed them down the stream in a canoe. Failure marked the venture. The timbers either became lodged in inaccessible places or were lost in the long eddies,” wrote Leslie C. Wood in his 1950 history of timber rafting, “Holt! T’Other Way!”

So Daniel Skinner conceived the idea of lashing the trees together to form a raft, which could be ridden and steered down the river. He made his first successful trip in 1764.

“After felling six large masts of equal length, he cut a mortise four inches square through both ends of each, rolled them into the water, and inserted what he called a spindle through the mortises,” Wood wrote. “He placed a stout pin through the ends of the spindles to keep the logs from slipping. By using cross-logs on each end of the craft, he hung a large oar (in the center) fore and aft. He called the result a raft.”

Skinner hired a man named Cudosh to accompany him on the journey to Philadelphia on this raft, and it took them over a week to complete the trip from St. Tammany’s Flat, just below Callicoon. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Skinner was paid four pounds per mast.

A second raft, containing ten spars, and five feet wider than the first, was then constructed and floated down river in just two days. Soon, there were dozens of other daring, hardy men engaged in the same practice, each of them paying homage to Skinner as “the Lord High Admiral of the Delaware.”

It didn’t take long for those who regularly rafted the river to realize that spring was the optimum time for making the trip, which could usually be accomplished in about three days.

At first, rafters cut only pine trees of a particular height and straightness from the river bank, but by the heyday of the rafting industry in the 1870s, all types of timber, much of which would have been disdained by earlier harvesters, was being cut from as far away as Livingston Manor and beyond. Feeder streams, such as the Beaverkill and the Lackawaxen River, were used to get the timber to the Delaware. The narrow, twisted nature of these smaller streams usually dictated that the logs be floated individually or as “colts,” small rafts that were later gathered together in groups of four or six to constitute a full-sized raft when they reached the Delaware.

The story of the timber rafting industry in the Upper Delaware is just part of the presentation, “From Timber Rafts to Turnpikes: The Role of Transportation in the Development of Sullivan County” to be presented by the Sullivan County Historian as part of the 15th Annual “Coffee, Tea, and History” program at the Cochecton Preservation Society on Route 97 on Sunday, September 26.

The afternoon’s activities begin at 1 p.m. and this presentation will be followed by “The Advent of the Erie Railroad” by William Dudko, a retired railroad engineer. The program is free and open to the public, but there is limited indoor seating and masks are required.

Contact the Cochecton Preservation Society for more information: cps12726@gmail.com or (845) 932-8104.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com. He will present the program, “From Timber Rafts to Turnpikes” at the Cochecton Preservation Society on Sunday at 1 p.m.

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