PA Great Outdoors: True Tales of the Clarion River

In celebration of the Clarion River’s status as Pennsylvania’s 2019 River of the Year, the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau will share one excerpt each month this year from the book “True Tales of Clarion River,” published in 1933 by George P. Sheffer and the Northwestern Pennsylvania Raftsmen’s Association.

The below story was written by Peter McDonald of Vowinckel, PA.

As this is my eighty-sixth birthday and I have a holiday, I will try and write my first experience as a raftman on the Clarion and Allegheny rivers. 

My experience as a raftman up to the time of this story, which was in December 1862, was of the traditional style handed down by my father, David McDonald, who had helped Davis Munn run several rafts down the Clarion to Lower Hillville. There he sold them to Jacob Hill, who had a boat scaffold and furnished 100 foot boats for the Pittsburgh coal companies. 

These boats were dropped into the water without the aid of lines.  My father and Mr. Munn used grapevines for cable to anchor the rafts.  David Munn ran his first raft about 1840. He had purchased 150 acres on Troutman Run near the Clarion. He and his wife lived and died on this piece of ground, and their tombstones are standing to this day. They should have a monument. As I pass their lonesome resting place it brings back memories of the earlier days of the lumbering and rafting business and along with these the memories of the many hardships the early pioneers had to endure.

Well, getting back to my own experience: My rafting to the year 1862 had been learned from Father and an old raftman by the name of William Daugherty. He would go down the river on every flood and when returning home would stop at Father’s and tell all the experiences that occurred on that trip, and of his narrow escapes.

These stories and those of Father’s filled me with a longing to go down to Pittsburgh, so in December 1862, when I was 14 years old, I heard that there was going to be some rafts leave Clarington on a certain day. I told Tom McClosky, a neighbor boy of about my age, about it and we decided to go down the evening before and see if we could get a trip. 

We started from home for Clarington, which was nine miles away, at about dark. When we arrived at the town everything seemed to be closed up for the night. We hurried down to the river and boarded a raft and began pulling the oars to keep from freezing, and also for practice. We worked all night and by early morning began to feel hungry. We had five cents between us, so Tom went to a house and bought a loaf of bread. We ate the bread and drank water from the river and felt refreshed. 

There were several rafts to start but they seemed to all have their full crews. We asked several men for a trip but they would answer with a smile, “We don’t need any more men.”

Tom and I were discouraged and about ready to leave for home, but we met a man who told us that another raft would leave during the day, and if we would stay around, perhaps we would get a trip. This man proved to be John Brandon, the owner of the raft that we had practiced on all night. Well, about noon Tom and I took our places on the raft along with John Davis and Conrad Barr, the pilot. Everything went nicely that day and we landed at Millcreek and tied up the raft. 

Tom had gone to the boarding house.  John Davis was on the raft fixing something and Conrad and I were on the bank when a raft came down the river, struck ours, and took John and the raft down the river. There was a skiff on the beach that belonged to the landlord and Conrad tried to buy or rent it, but he refused to do either, so we decided to take it. We found it was locked but I took a stone and broke the lock. 

Conrad and I then took the skiff and started after John and the loose part of the raft, the greater part having been torn away when it was struck. We caught up with John some time later and Conrad drifted the raft toward the shore. I took a short line and tried to find a tree but it was too dark and stormy. The only anchor I could find was a rock but the raft pulled the rock into the water and John and Conrad went on.

I was almost frozen but fortunately a light in the distance gave me courage. I found my way down the river bank to the house which proved to be the hotel at the Clarion River bridge. I told the landlord that I wanted to stay all night but i had no money. He said, “I don’t keep customers of your calibre.” I then told him that if he did not keep me I would stone every window out of his house. I don’t know who would have come out best. Fortunately a man, hearing the argument, came out of the hotel and told the landlord to give me some supper, a bed and breakfast. This man’s name was Mr. Furman. 

I ate a big supper and had a good night’s rest. After breakfast Mr. Furman told me that he was going down the river and would give me a lift. I helped him get the skiff into the water and we started after John and Conrad. We finally caught up with them at Piney Eddy. I had helped Mr. Furman and he gave me two dollars besides my hotel expense. This was the first money I ever earned on the river. 

The next thing was to gather up our scattered timber. So John and another boy stayed at the raft while Conrad and I took the old leaky skiff and started up the river. Several pieces had been caught by the mill men. They claimed all that was not stamped and wanted fifty cents apiece for catching it. We had no money but as it was getting dark we took all we found that was not marked and floated them down to John who rafted them in. 

After that everything went good to the mouth of the river and John Brandon said, “That was the best wreck I ever had as we had more timber when we finished that when we started.”

I was at the mouth of the Clarion then, and still longing to see Pittsburgh. I managed to get on a raft of square timber owned by John O’Neil & Co. We coupled four rafts and started with our fleet as quickly as possible as the weather was getting very cold and there was danger of the river freezing over. 

We landed somewhere down the river and put up for the night. Early the next morning when we started out again it was so cold that we boke up our extra oars and made a fire on the raft. This annoyed the oil boats as they were afraid of the sparks. 

That evening we reached Freeport, twenty-eight miles from Pittsburgh, tied up our fleet, and just at that time a fleet of boats belonging to James Clark drifted in along side of ours. The men were almost frozen. One man by the name of Conrad Myers had to be carried off the raft. He never recovered from the exposure. 

Oh! yes, those boats drifted down stream and were found frozen in the middle of the river the next morning. 

At this time I decided not to go any further as the Allegheny railroad only came to Kittanning, and they told me to not ride on it as it was unsafe because of the slides from the river hills.  It would have been a long walk down to Pittsburgh and back.  

I started to walk home by the way of Worthington, Middlesex, East Brady, Clarion, and Lucinda, and reached home about midnight with ten dollars in my pocket for the Clarion River trip and fifteen dollars for the Allegheny run. 

Oh! yes, about Tom. He got another raft the next morning at Millcreek and went to visit some of his relatives and did not get home for three weeks. There was considerable anxiety at his home about him and all I could tell them was that I had left him at Mill Creek.

Learn more about the Clarion River and find other interesting places to visit in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region by going to or calling (814) 849-5197.

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