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The Last Raft

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

For Rock Islanders, July 1915 is another date that should live in infamy.

By the end of the Civil War, the Rock Island area had already become an important sawmilling operation. The trickle of logs coming down the Mississippi River from the great white pine forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota turned into a deluge as immigration to the Midwest and its farms swelled.

The invention of the balloon frame house doubled and tripled the need for lumber. Like sand through an hourglass, the logs came down the river to a hundred or more mills between Stillwater, Minnesota, and St. Louis, Missouri. The first logs floated loose to individual mills, but in 1871 the Rock Island lumber baron Frederick J. Weyerhaeuser organized seventeen mills into the Mississippi River Logging company to collect logs as they came from the tributaries into huge rafts and send them downriver.

These log rafts were immense, as much as 300 feet wide and fifteen hundred feet long—eight acres containing ten million board feet of lumber, enough to build a small town. A crew of twenty to thirty lived and worked on each raft. By the 1880s, as many as a thousand of these rafts a year floated past Rock Island. Forty percent of the white pine in Minnesota and Wisconsin ended up at sawmills in Davenport, Moline, and Rock Island. 

By 1900, it became evident that the end was near. The logs were nearly gone, thousands of acres gone while no one worried about the future. The last log climbed the chute to the Weyerhaeuser sawmill in Rock Island at 8 in evening of November 18, 1905.

Remember July 1915 as the date we used up our first inexhaustible natural resource. That month, the steamboat Ottumwa Belle took the last raft of the last white pine down the Mississippi as people along the way turned out to watch an age disappear.

An old raftsman, Charlie Russell, said it best. "In the literature of waste," he wrote, "this is our Iliad."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.