Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn by Peter G. Beidler

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn. By Peter G. Beidler. University of Missouri Press, 2018. Pp. 179. Hardcover $40.00. ISBN 978-0-8262-2138-4.

“It’s lovely to live on a raft” says Huck just a few paragraphs into chapter 19 of Mark Twain’s masterpiece. But what kind of raft is it lovely to live on, and does it even matter what kind of raft Huck lived on? Of course, everyone who has read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn knows that the raft that transported Huck and Jim into literary immortality was a tiny affair consisting of a few short logs tied together with barely enough room to hold the two of them. Proof of this can be found on the covers of many modern paperback editions of the book. But looking at more covers it becomes obvious that their tiny raft was made of logs with a plank deck on top, and a wigwam. Of course, anyone who has studied the one dozen illustrations in the first edition of the book (found in chapters 12, 15, 16, 20, 21, 24, 29, and 40) knows that their raft was in fact made of planks and had a wigwam and a long steering oar, but nowhere in the book does an illustration depict the entire raft, so even a careful study of E. W. Kemble’s drawings does not tell the whole story. Finally, anyone who has read the text carefully, knows that Huck gives a fuller description of their raft, declaring that it measured twelve feet by fifteen or sixteen feet, and that it was made of pine planks that had broken off of a much larger lumber raft, and that it sat a good six or seven inches out of the water, and had one long oar. They also know that Jim had to fashion a second steering oar to control their not-so-tiny raft, make a raised platform of dirt upon which to build a fire, and build a wigwam large enough to accommodate that fire. They also know that the raft later had room for the Duke and the King. These astute readers think they know more than those readers who misplaced their trust in those modern paperback covers, but even astute readers don’t know the half of it.

In Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn, Peter Beidler knows the other half of it and a good deal more, and attacks a topic most Twainians might think could be vanquished in one short journal article. Beidler comes at this topic from every flank, armed to the teeth with meticulous research and 60 informative illustrations, and wins the battle in less than 200 pages. Beidler leaves no plank unturned, so to speak, and investigates things like whether the pine planks were seasoned or green (fresh) and how much they weighed per cubic foot, how and where lumber rafts were constructed (Wisconsin) and how they were steered (with sweeps), what Twain knew or did not know about lumber rafts and other rivercraft, and a myriad of other historical facts wisely separated from river lore, and convincingly concludes that Huck and Jim’s raft was a “crib”–a twelve by sixteen foot section of a lumber raft (which usually consisted of six such cribs held together by “yokes” dropped on top of “grub stakes”)–made entirely of fresh pine planks. Early on (page 35), he calculates that if six or seven inches of those planks were above the waterline, then another eighteen inches of planks were below the waterline giving the raft its buoyancy, and that this 12x16x2 foot raft was made of 384 cubic feet of green pine that weighed thirty-six pounds per cubic foot, bringing the weight of their raft to 13,824 pounds–nearly seven tons!–not counting the pad of dirt for the building of fires, the wigwam, Huck, Jim, various supplies, and two rapscallion guests for a portion of the journey.

Just about now, even the most astute reader must be rethinking everything they thought they knew about that flimsy little raft and its precious human cargo. And what the heck is a grub stake and how do you yoke one–or two–or, damn it, how many grub stakes do you have to yoke anyhow? And what exactly does a yoke look like? And what made their raft a crib? And how does Beidler know that lumber rafts were made of green wood? And, while we’re at it, just what the heck is a lumber raft, and what “pints” does Beidler see about a lumber raft that make it any better’n any other raft? And now that readers know the dimensions and origins of the raft, why should they care to know more? The astute reader might even begin to wonder why it is significant that Huck uses a canoe, the slave traders a skiff, and the Duke and the King arrive in style on a yawl posing as the English brothers of Peter Wilks.

The good news is that Beidler provides clear explanations augmented by contemporary drawings and photographs as well as modern diagrams that answer these questions. By the end of this book, every reader will know if there is any difference between a flat, a flatboat, a woodboat, a wood-flat, or a broadhorn (spoiler alert: nope). The reader will also know what a sweep is, and what to do with one (well, you don’t sweep with it), and how to use it with a headblock (no football or wrestling is involved either). The reader will know the difference between a rapids-piece, a skiff, a yawl, a scow, and a string. He’ll know a Mississippi raft from a Wisconsin raft, and how you make one out of several of the others. He’ll be able to distinguish a drift canoe from driftwood, and a witch from a thwart. He’ll know how to reconfigure a lumber raft to run a rapids, and what can go wrong, and how such a mishap yielded the raft that is central to Huck and Jim’s story. Huck and Jim knew these things, so it behooves the reader to know them too. As Beidler says “We might wish that Huck had explained some of his nautical terms more fully, but we can scarcely fault Twain for not anticipating that readers a century and more after he wrote his book would not be aware of the meanings of some of his terms. Surely it is our job as readers and as researchers to figure out what Huck means when he talks . . . . [T]o assume that we can always accurately guess from the context what Huck means . . . is to miss the boat” (117-118).

…continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum.

You may also be interested in Peter Beidler’s discussion of Huck and Jim’s raft from earlier this month!

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.

Building A Model of Huck & Jim’s Raft

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.


Figure 1: The basic foundational design of the lumber raft. Sawed planks, some of them pre-drilled to fit down over the nine grub stakes, were stacked in cris-crossed layers.

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).

Figure 2: The grains of the adjacent layers of the completed crib were, as in plywood, at right angles to one another. The layers were held tight together by the nine grub stakes.

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).

Figure 3: Huck and Jim’s raft probably looked something like this. Huck says that Jim built the “wigwam” with boards that he took up from the raft. They used the steering oars to shift their little raft into or out of the main current.

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.