The saying “the railroads out west were built on the back of Missouri pines” holds a lot of truth. A century ago, up to half a million ties floated on the Current River each Spring. Buyers would travel the countryside and purchase the hand-hewn ties for about 10 cents per tie. The ties would be pushed into the river and follow the dust-less highway to Chicopee where they were recovered and shipped to St. Louis for distribution. The massive number of ties meant the river was choked so others could not travel the river and fish spawning was disturbed.
The solution was the tie raft. Fifty ties would be crafted into a segment with hinges of saplings connecting the segments. These snake rafts as they were called, up to 500 feet long, would move at the current’s leisure navigated by “river hogs” using only large pine paddles called sweeps. Cant wood and ties made their way to market in this way for decades.
Recently a group of adventurous folks from Ripley and surrounding counties reenacted this tie raft drive with a slightly more modest length of 150 feet –reliving what it was like to float the river on a tie raft from start to finish. Using poles and the sweep, they struggled to keep the raft from hazards and enjoyed the calm beauty of the Current River while drifting silently through the pools. They did more than study the Ozarks timber industry, they were experiencing it.
The reenactment brought to mind the rugged individuals who made their living in the late 1800s timber industry. It was hard, dangerous work. There had been a trail of timber harvest down the east coast – then skipping from the Appalachians to the Ozarks with only stumps and Spring burns left in the wake. But there was something different in the Ozarks. The attitude toward the resource started to change. Men like J. B White, manager of the Missouri Mine and Lumber Company at Grandin, started realizing this level of harvest was not sustainable. Something needed to change. Unfortunately, the Ozarks harvest was complete before this mindset took hold. But this is where the thinking started to change. This page in our past would lead to our future. A future of forest management, of sustainable harvest, of wise use.
Next time you visit the Current, imagine the snake rafts that drifted through that very spot and the river hogs that steered that cargo downriver. Think of how the harvest and journey of those ties influenced the forest management of today. Want to learn more about the forest heritage of the Ozarks? MDC’s Grandin: The Big Mill and Tall Timber and Stamp of Character…From Trees to Tracks. Both are available on a single DVD at any Nature Shop outlet or online. Private lands conservationists and foresters help Missouri landowners apply some of the lessons we learned from the past to the forests of today.