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Early Q-C river business came in the form of logs
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Photo: Dr. Mark Buckrop
This postcard shows what may have been the very last log raft destined for Rock Islandís sawmills. The sternwheeler, or 'raft boat,' is the North Star Rock Island. In the background is another sternwheeler at the head of the log raft. That smaller boat is perpendicular to the logs and to the riverís flow. It was designed especially to steer the log raft and was known as the 'bowboat.' In the background the Crescent Bridge is visible, which indicates that the picture was taken looking west from near where the Centennial Bridge is today Ė probably the photographer was standing near the top of another riverboat. Since the outline of the log raft is very irregular, it may be that it was in the process of being broken into smaller rafts, which would then be stored in pens near their sawmill destination until they could be sawn.
ROCK ISLAND -- For well over a century, the Mississippi River has been a means of conveyance, floating huge objects to a final destination.

Today, commodities are moved by barges, tied together and pushed by tugboats.But from the Civil War until early in the 19th century, the main objects on the river were log rafts.

Hundreds of logs -- mostly white pine -- were lashed together on the shores of the Chippewa and St. Croix Rivers in northern Wisconsin, then floated down the Mississippi.

Sawmills to process those logs dominated the landscape and the economies of area communities. Thanks to Frederick Weyerhaeuser and his brother-in-law, F.C.A. Denkmann, Rock Island and the Quad-Cities were a destination for many of those logs.

Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann maintained their first sawmill in Rock Island at 1st Street and 4th Avenue, where a barge terminal is today. There had been sawmills in the Quad-Cities area since the 1830s, and the one at the end of 4th Avenue was one of the oldest.

Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann acquired this sawmill, just north of the Kahlke boatyards, about 1860. In the very early days, local sawmills cut hardwood timber from the nearby bluffs, providing employment for many.

As the nearby local lumber was cut, Weyerhauser and others looked elsewhere for a source of logs. They found it in the woods of northwestern Wisconsin. Huge white pines were cut and floated down rivers to Rock Island and other destinations.

In the beginning, the logs were simply dumped into the river up north and fished out at their final destination. But big logs floating uncontrolled down the river were not conducive to navigation safety. It didn't take long until the lumber companies started tying the logs together, forming huge rafts.

The average length of a raft was about two blocks long. The largest log rafts were three blocks long and a block wide.

But even a large pack of lashed-together logs can be a navigational hazard. The problem of controlling the travel of the rafts was solved when Rock Islander Sam Van Sant invented the special purpose raftboat to push the log rafts.

In Rock Island, Weyerhauser and Denkmann owned their own raftboats, which were built at the Kahlke Brothers boatyard next door to the sawmill.

Rock Island had two big sawmills, both eventually owned by Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann. The first was their west end one at 4th Avenue. F.C.A. Denkmann and his wife lived nearby at 122 4th Ave.

The second Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann sawmill was near the foot of 27th Street, in the "Y'' formed by the railroad tracks, where some of the tracks curve to go across the bridge. In later years, the 27th Street mill continued in operation as Rock Island Sash and Door.

In the late 1800s, when the easily floated trees in Wisconsin or Minnesota were all cut, it was found to be uneconomical to log inland from the rivers.

With foresight, Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann looked farther afield to the rich forests of Washington and Oregon. The company eventually moved to the northwest, where it became the largest timber holder in the United States.

The end of the sawmill era in Rock Island arrived at 8 p.m.Nov. 18, 1905. That date and time is variously reported as either the arrival of the last log raft or the time the west end sawmill turned its saws off for the last time.

Although a few log rafts continued down the river after 1905, they went to sawmills in other communities. The summer of 1915 saw the last log raft, of Minnesota white pine, pushed down river by the Ottumwa Belle.

Memories of sawmill years lingered in Rock Island, even though that last raft changed our history forever. For years after the mills closed, there was more than just memory, there was smoke.

One byproduct of sawmills is sawdust. Lots of sawdust. After decades of sawing wood, the mills were pretty much surrounded by sawdust, covered by layers of river silt.

As a result, even 20 years after all the local mills closed, there were underground sawdust fires. In the west end sawmill area, sawdust fires regularly occurred along the river from 3rd to 13th Avenues.

The riverfront path provides access to both of our historic sawmill sites and includes photographic RiverWay markers near the Kahlke boatyards in the west end and the other near the railroad bridge at 27th Street.

The 27th Street photo shows a log raft, penned up, awaiting sawing in the adjacent sawmill.

Diane Oestreich lives in Rock Island.

Local events heading

  Today is Wednesday, Oct. 1, the 274th day of 2014. There are 91 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: It is rumored in the streets that the 13 negroes sent to Quincy on the Moline quota were refused. We think this must be a mistake.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Harvey McKenna, of Detroit, billiard player matched to play Wizard Schafer in New York in January for the world championship, was a professional friend and manager, Billy Catton in Rock Island.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Levi Cralle, former Rock Island county sheriff, had come from his farm near Mitchell, S.D. to visit friends in the city.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Work is being rushed on the new high school building in Orion to replace the one destroyed by fire last winter. Classes are being held in churches.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Rehearsals for the 84th season of the Handel Oratorio Society chorus will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday on the stage of Centennial Hall, Augustana College.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The Rock Island City Council's plan announced this week to have the federal government vacate Valley Homes public housing and move residents to Arsenal Courts to reduce density may not be feasible.

(More History)