Virtually everyone has been wrong about Huck and Jim’s raft. To understand where it was built, how it was built, why it was built, what it looked like, what its original purpose was, and how it happened to be adrift on the Mississippi River, I found myself reading about the history of river commerce and the logging and lumber industries at the middle of the nineteenth century. And I found myself building a scale model ot Huck and Jim’s little raft. What I discovered led to my writing Rafts and Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn (University of Missouri Press, 2018).
There were essentially two kinds of Mississippi River rafts in Mark Twain’s day: log rafts and lumber rafts. Neither was designed to carry people or freight from one place to another, though they sometimes were appropriated for such purposes. Rather, both these kinds of rafts were built to move large quantities of wood — the rafts themselves — cheaply to a downstream market where the rafts would be dismantled.
A log raft was a low-tech binding together of floating saw logs cut off to a specific length — usually twelve or sixteen feet — and with the branches removed. The logs were arranged not in layers but side by side, so the raft that it made could float high in the water without getting hung up on rocks or sand bars on their journey downstream. The logs were usually held together by saplings tied tightly across the floating logs with ropes. The log raft was guided by two or more raftsmen using poles or long oars called “sweeps.” Log rafts were floated downstream to a sawmill on the riverbank. At the sawmill the log rafts were dismantled so the individual logs could be run through the mill and cut into lumber.
That lumber was then used to build an entirely different kind of raft: a carefully constructed and precisely measured floating stack of lumber called a “crib.” The cribs were then launched and, eventually attached to other cribs, floated down the river to markets like St. Louis and New Orleans.
Most readers and illustrators of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have assumed that Huck and Jim’s raft was a log raft with a single layer of boards nailed to the logs to provide a smooth upper surface. It was no such thing.
Huck describes their raft in chapter 9 in these terms: “One night we catched a little section of a lumber raft—nice pine planks. It was twelve foot wide and about fifteen or sixteen foot long, and the top stood above the water six or seven inches.” To understand what Huck was describing I built a scale model of the “little section of a lumber raft” that Huck and Jim called home. My friend Bill Curr, a professional photographer, photographed the model.
After the logs were cut into planks, some of the planks were perforated with three precisely placed two-inch holes, one at each end and one in the center. Into each of the three holes in the three sixteen-foot-long foundation planks were driven four-foot long saplings known as “grub stakes”—so-called because they were “grubbed” out of the ground with some of the root structure attached. The three long foundation planks were then placed on the ground with the grub stakes sticking up. The crib-builders then placed down over the grub stakes three of the shorter, twelve-foot-long planks. These shorter planks had also been pre-drilled with three precisely located two-inch holes. Those six planks penetrated by nine grub stakes, provided the basic structure for the crib (see Figure 1).
Then the crib was carefully stacked in alternating sixteen- and twelve-foot cris-crossed layers, to a total thickness of two feet. If the planks were sawed one-inch thick, it took twenty-four cris-cross layers to make a crib. If the planks were sawed two-inches thick, it took only twelve of these layers to make a crib.
When the twelve or twenty-four layers were completed, a special tool hooked onto the top of the grub stake and simultaneously pulled it up and pushed the top plank down. Then a special wedge was driven into the side of the exposed part of the grub stake to hold the stack of lumber tight. The grub stakes were flared out at the bottom so that they could be pulled tight against the bottom of the foundation plank without being pulled through the bottom hole. It was important that they could not be pulled through when they were tightened from the top. Because the layers were crossed, like layers of plywood, the lumber raft was amazingly strong and could withstand the bump and grind of collision on the journey downstream (see Figure 2).
The grub stakes typically stuck out at least a full foot above the top surface of the raft. There they served other important functions. In addition to holding the crib together, the grub stakes served as oar-locks or pivot-pegs for the long oars or “sweeps” that raftsmen could use to nudge the raft short distances to the right or left as it floated downstream with the current. The sweeps were located at opposite ends of the crib, each operated by a man who used it to keep the raft in the swiftest current or to move the raft to the bank to be tied up for the night (see Figure 3).
Still another purpose of the protruding grub stakes was to provide the means of joining the individual lumber cribs together into larger composite rafts known as “rapids pieces.” A rapids piece was typically seven cribs joined together end to end. This string of individual cribs was steered by a raftsman man using a sweep at the front of the first one and another and another raftsman at the rear of the last one. The two men could thus steer seven cribs at once. The seven cribs in the rapids piece were held together by pre-drilled planks that were fit down over the protruding grub stakes of adjacent cribs. These rapids pieces were ideal for running the narrow and wild upper Wisconsin River waters. Just by lifting off the joining planks the rapids piece could be taken apart and separated into its individual cribs to be moved around or over an obstruction, then joined again together below it.
As the narrow and shallow reaches of the upper Wisconsin River widened and deepened in the lower reaches and then widened and deepened even more when the Wisconsin joined the Mississippi, the rapids pieces could, using those same protruding grub stakes, be connected end-to-end and side-by-side to other rapids pieces to form huge lumber rafts like the kind Huck swims to in chapter 16: “a monstrous long raft that was as long going by as a procession.” That huge raft would have been made up of many cribs like Huck and Jim’s. When it got to market, the connecting planks were lifted so the cribs could be sold individually to builders who needed the lumber.
Huck and Jim’s “little section of a lumber raft,” then, was one of these cribs that had been separated from a rapids piece or from a monstrous long lumber raft like the one Huck visits. How did it get separated? Because Huck does not know we do not know. All are told is that it drifted past Jackson’s Island during a June rise. We we can probably assume either that it had been separated during a wild descent of a Wisconsin rapids or that it had been purchased by a builder above St. Petersburg who had failed to secure it properly before the rise, thus allowing it to drift off before he could dismantle it and use the lumber.
For much more on the rafts and other rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn, read my book!
Peter G. Beidler is the Lucy G. Moses Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at Lehigh University and has authored or edited numerous books on American Literature, Chaucer, and pedagogy.