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When it came to meanness, drunkenness and downright “cussidness,” there were few on the river who could take the measure of the lumber raftsmen.

These were the hard living men who wrestled the gigantic floating islands of timber from the pineries of Wisconsin and Minnesota to the lumber mills of Iowa and Illinois. 

In the latter half of the 19th century, Burlington had become the premier lumber mill town on the Upper Mississippi. E.D. Rand and Co., Gilbert Hedge Co., and Parsons and Co. processed the close-grained white pine cut on the St. Croix, Black and Wisconsin rivers into the lumber that built Midwest towns and farms. 

Other rafts arrived at the Burlington levee with lumber destined for the Cook and Co. Shingle Mill or Berry and Co., which stood at South and Front streets, or J. Dickie Co. beneath Prospect Bluff, where the wood became shingles and barrels. 

In 1870, an East Coast publication stated, “what iron is to Pittsburg, what boats are to Lynn, what pork is to Cincinnati, what grain is to Chicago, what whisky is to Peoria and government offices to Keokuk, the lumber trade is to Burlington.”

That lumber was to arrive at the town’s levee fashioned into log rafts that might run 600 feet long and 275 feet in width — or about three acres. Once started downstream, these juggernauts swept the channel clear and many an unfortunate steamboat was sunk or badly damaged when they ran afoul of a raft. 

The Scandanavians (and later the Irish) who attempted to guide these rafts were a special breed who considered the river their private highway and the river towns their playgrounds. They spent their winters in the northern woods, summers on the river and every free moment in the bars and brothels. 

Some of their adventures gained legendary status — including the seizure of the steamboat “Dubuque” after that boat had departed Burlington. In this misadventure, the mutineers left a trail of mayhem and murder in their wake before the boat was recaptured by a posse north of Clinton. 

Another of the legendary raft incidents was to occur in 1874 when Captain E.E. Heerman and his tow boat, the “Minnietta,” picked up a log raft on the Wisconsin River that was destined for the Burlington mills. 

All proceeded well until the raft reached Clinton because here it was necessary to split the raft into two parts and carefully work it between the piers of the new rail bridge. The raft crew completed that project and was in the process of rejoining the logs when someone spotted the black funnel of a tornado proceeding up the river, directly toward the raft boat. 

Most of the crew, including Captain Heerman’s 9-year-old son, jumped from the steamboat onto the log raft to seek cover among the logs. But the captain did not. He ran to the now abandoned pilot house of Minnietta. As he reached the door, the storm struck. 

The force of the wind pushed the steamer so far over that Heerman had to cling to the doorway to avoid falling in the river. After he gained the pilot house, Heerman yelled into the speaker tube and was amazed to be answered by his chief engineer who had remained at his post. 

The two men were able to point the Minnietta into the wind and save her, but the log raft was another issue.

The raft had dissolved in an instant, leaving only a 40-foot section joined together. This is where the crew had sought shelter. When the storm passed, a dazed Heerman surveyed the river and saw that thousands of valuable pine logs were scattered for miles. 

A lesser man might have given up and headed for port, but this was not the captain’s manner. To the amazement of his battered and soaked crew, he announced his intention to recapture the timber, but his rafter would have none of it.

Heerman, however, was a master psychologist and he knew his crew. He ordered the cook to fix a chicken and gravy dinner with a cherry pie for dessert. After the crew had relaxed, dried off and eaten, he again asked the raftsmen to join him, and they agreed to give the project a try. 

For eight days, Heerman and his crew scoured the river. Logs were removed from cornfields, islands, thickets, creeks and wherever else wind and waves had pushed them. Some were sailing down the river and had to be pursued in skiffs.

As the men struggled with their task, thorns, briars and branches tore at them, reducing their clothing to tatters. At the end of the effort, there were not enough clothes to make on decent outfit. 

The captain was forced to wrap himself in a sheet, and with the help of a crewman who had the last pair of trousers on board, the twosome made their way to a nearby town where Heerman was able to purchase sufficient pants and shirts to clothe his crew. 

When the Minnietta and the re-assembled raft at last reached the Burlington levee, the captain attracted some attention for wearing trousers that exposed five inches of leg and could not be buttoned. But an inventory of the raft indicated that only eight logs had been lost to the storm.



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