A Catskill Catalog: July 23, 2008

For years, my brother in Philadelphia and I have talked – it’s always been just talk – about taking a raft down the Delaware from my house to his house. While the rain that falls on my roof soon swells the river that runs by his, those who patrol the New York City reservoirs would certainly not welcome our raft. It’s merely a fantasy.
From the late 18th century to the early 20th century, rafting the Delaware was much more than a fantasy; it was an annual rite of spring. When the river rose with Spring rains and snowmelt, mountain loggers would lash together timber to be floated down the river for sale at Philadelphia or Trenton. These rafts were both commodities to be sold – the timber itself – and means of transport. Rafters would load cargoes of wheat, whiskey, and wool, bluestone and potash. (Potash, an important ingredient in the manufacture of soap, glass, and fertilizer, is made from hardwood ashes, a common byproduct in clearing the land.)
The Delaware River runs 360 miles from its sources to the sea. The West Branch begins in Schoharie County, up near Jefferson, and runs by Stamford, and Hobart, Bloomville, Delhi and Walton, before being impounded in the Cannonsville Reservoir. The East Branch rises in Grand Gorge, runs by Roxbury and Margaretville, where it is impounded in the Pepacton Reservoir, the largest in the New York City water system.
Below the dams, the two source branches meet at Hancock where the river, which had been flowing largely west, turns south, dividing New York from Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania from New Jersey, New Jersey from Delaware, before broadening into the great Delaware Bay and emptying into the sea.

Transportation beckons
The Delaware rafting industry was an interesting example of the resourcefulness of early settlers in the mountains. The annual swelling of the rivers is a fact of life in the Catskills, recurrent floods a hazard. Why not take advantage of the river’s regular annual increase in carrying capacity? Transportation beckons.
A fellow named David Skinner was the first Delaware River raftsman that we know about. In 1764, Skinner floated six 80-foot straight pine spars down river to the Philadelphia ship yards where he got $20 a piece for them for use as ships’ masts. Walton became a center of the mast-spar trade in the 1790s, providing the spars for “Old Ironsides,” the “USS Constitution” of War of 1812 fame, still a commissioned ship in the US Navy, the oldest commissioned warship in the world.
Skinner lived over near Hancock, and his pioneering trip down river made him a sort of godfather to river raftsmen who came after him. He was known as “The Admiral of the Delaware,” and it is said that anyone who wanted to make the trip after him had to pay tribute to the admiral – a bottle or two would usually do. David Skinner died in 1801. Skinner’s Falls, just below Callicoon on the Delaware, is a lasting memorial to his name. What a thrill it must have been to take a log raft over those falls!
Delaware River rafting grew as an important mountain industry throughout the 19th century, reaching its commercial high point in 1875 when more than 3,000 rafts were floated down the river. But by then, the competition of railroads and better roads began to eat into the river’s transportation value. The Delaware was a one-way stream. Railroads could bring products back into the mountains as well as out. By 1903, only 150 rafts went downstream.
As the industry grew, a cadre of skilled steersmen emerged, men capable of taking a raft down river, not just in the spring swell, but also throughout the nonfrozen year. Like Mississippi river-boat pilots, Delaware River raftsmen became memorable characters in the American mosaic.
Raftsmen were known as a hard-drinking, hard-fighting, two-fisted bunch. Characters like Boney Quillen and Rastus Chute were regionally notorious “Delaware water-dogs,” steersmen who knew how to negotiate the rapids and rocks of the river, while fussin’ and fightin’ and “makin’ jollification” all the way to Philly.
The craftsman, largely native-born mountaineers, hated the railroad, which both put up bridges that obstructed the way, and, they knew, promised their ultimate demise. The largely immigrant Irish railroad workers made an inviting target, and the late 1800s saw some real antagonism between the two groups.
The last raft down the Delaware was the last trip of the last steersman, a guy named Len Rowland from Corbett on the East Branch. Rowland hit a snag on the river, had a heart attack and died. No raftsmen were left to take his place. By the ’50s, the reservoirs were going in and the raft era was definitively over, rendered impossible by the dams.