First seaworthy log raft helped Oregon build city of San Diego
Lumber magnate Simon Benson needed to get logs from the Columbia to his mill in Southern California, so he designed cigar-shaped log rafts a full acre in size. They were a familiar sight until the early 1940s.
A Benson log raft is towed into the harbor at San Diego around 1910,
en route to the Benson sawmill there. The raft is pulled by the tugboat
Hercules. (Photo: Maritime Museum of San Diego) [Larger image:
1800 x 1180 px]
By Finn J.D. John — February 19, 2012
Any number of well-meaning people assured Simon Benson that seagoing log rafts were an impossible pipe dream. People had been trying to build them since 1791, when a Maine timberman named James Tupper tried to tow a raft to England and barely got out of the harbor.
The first summer squall would tear it apart, break a chain and it would be all over, they said.
They should have known better. Benson, one of history’s most gifted amateur engineers, had a strong track record of turning impossible schemes into lucrative realities.
Today, Benson is best remembered as the guy who covered the north end of Portland with free drinking fountains, the “Benson Bubblers,” so the employees doing tough, dangerous work in his Portland mill wouldn’t have to choose between beer and nothing to slake their thirst on their lunch breaks. He's also well known for his efforts to get the Crown Point Vista House and the scenic Columbia River Highway built (here's that story).
But not too many years ago, Simon Benson’s name conjured another image in the minds of people all along the West Coast: Floating, one-acre cigar-shaped islands made of thousands and thousands of logs, being slowly pulled through 1,100 miles of ocean behind a tugboat — from Clatskanie, Ore., to San Diego, Calif. Each with enough lumber to build almost 500 houses.
The seagoing rafts were just one example of something Benson had engineered after many others had tried and failed.
A Norwegian immigrant
A newly built Benson log raft is wrangled out of its cradle in the calm
waters of Wallace Slough, near Clatskanie, in this old postcard picture.
[Larger image: 1200 x 765 px]
Benson was originally from Norway, and emigrated to the U.S. when he was 16. He’d worked in logging in Michigan, and left for Oregon after the general store he’d established caught fire, leaving him penniless.
When that happened, he and his family moved to Portland in 1880, and got into the logging business.
Loggers at that time were using cattle — oxen — to pull the logs out of the woods. With the vigorous and profane encouragement of a “bullwhacker,” a big team of them would be chained to a log, which it would slowly pull along a road made of smaller logs half buried in the earth — the skidroad — as a lad known as a “grease monkey” ran along behind the oxen and in front of the load, greasing the skids with some sort of oil. It was a time-consuming and dangerous way to do it.
This postcard image shows several Benson rafts in the harbor at San
Diego, awaiting further processing. [Larger image: 1800 x 1116 px]
A man in northern California named John Dolbeer had invented a steam-powered cable yarder, and breakthroughs in locomotive design had made it possible for trains to go up very steep slopes. Benson engineered a system to use these two innovations to revolutionize logging operations, getting rid of the oxen teams entirely and replacing the wasteful skidroads with a narrow-gauge logging railroad that could penetrate deeper into the woods than any team of oxen. He implemented it in 1891, and it made him very wealthy.
What Benson had invented was a version of ground-lead logging — and, although many logging operators came up with the idea independently around the same time, Benson was the first in Oregon to do so.
The Benson rafts
Another early postcard image, this one vertical, shows a
Benson raft freshly assembled. [Larger image: 800 x 1200 px]
In 1906, Benson traveled to the very southern tip of the American West Coast and built a sawmill in San Diego. He knew Southern California was on the cusp of a huge building boom, and he intended to be there with the lumber that folks would need when it started.
But there was a problem. San Diego could not supply his sawmill with trees. To supply Southern California with building materials, Benson was going to need to import timber from his logging operations in northern Oregon.
Benson considered loading logs on coastwise steam schooners, which was the traditional method of transporting wood. There were several problems with this approach. First, it was expensive. Even with a full deck load, a lumber schooner could only carry a relatively small load — small, at any rate, relative to the raw-material needs of a then-modern sawmill.
Secondly, raw logs were dangerous on a ship at sea. As a load, they shifted easily and developed tremendous momentum when they did. Sure, they’d be chained down, but in rough enough weather chains could break.
And finally, some of the logs Benson was getting out of the woods at this time were just too big to fit efficiently in the space available on a lumber schooner. No, another solution was needed.
Benson thought he had one: An oceangoing log raft.
Nearly everyone thought this was lunacy, and dangerous to boot. But Benson, with his natural engineer’s approach, came up with a system that he knew would work.
How they built them
A close-up view of the chains used to secure one of the very earliest
Benson log rafts, in the first few years of the 20th century. (Photo:
John Fletcher Ford/Univ. of Washington) [Larger image: 1200 x 824 px]
In the quiet waters of Wallace Slough, on the Columbia, Benson’s team built a mammoth cradle, which looked a little like the ribs of a ship.
The cradle was filled halfway with logs of various lengths before the chains started getting put on: one mammoth chain down the middle of the raft from one end to the other, with chains radiating out from it to the outside of the raft, where they were linked to a series of external chains that circled the cigar-shaped mass of logs. The finished product contained up to 6 million board feet of lumber, held together by 175 tons of chains.
Putting the raft together took weeks; a crane operator had to carefully place each log so that there would be plenty of overlap, to prevent the raft from breaking in two.
When the cradle was full of logs, the outside circle chains would be dogged down as tight as they could go and the finished raft would be released into the river. When released from the cradle, the load would spread out a bit, leaving the top flat enough to stack cargo on it, so many Benson rafts made the journey with deck loads lashed on board. The finished product was 835 feet long and about 55 feet wide — just over an acre, being pulled slowly down the coast toward Southern California.
Oregon builds San Diego
It was a great success. Simon Benson got to build San Diego. He settled into a rhythm: During the winter, while the storms raged on the ocean, his crew worked in the quiet waters of the slough, building the summer’s fleet. When the weather calmed down, the cigar-shaped behemoths would start heading out to sea. Out of 120 rafts built, only two were lost to heavy weather.
“If we struck rough weather … the steamer cast loose [and] let the raft wallow in the trough of the sea till the storm blew itself out,” Benson later recalled, according to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Then we reattached the cable to the raft and went on.”
Benson’s mammoth log islands were a familiar sight on the West Coast from 1906 until 1941. In that year, the 120th raft actually caught fire. After that, citing insurance issues, the owner — not Benson, who had sold his San Diego operations in 1911 — ended the era of Benson rafts.
(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart. Holy Old Mackinaw. New York: Macmillan, 1939; Crawford, Richard. “Rafts of timber floated to booming San Diego,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 26, 2008; www.sandiegoyesterday.com)