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Sullivan County Historical Society History Maker Award 2005

 

Daniel Skinner

Lord High Admiral of the Delaware

When the pioneers first entered the lower Delaware valley, they found a land covered with Oak trees, other hardwoods, pines and in New Jersey, white cedar. A profitable business developed by constructing rafts and floating these logs down the Delaware to Philadelphia and other emerging settlements on the lower river. Not only were the timbers used to construct buildings, but they provided raw materials for a thriving shipbuilding industry. In time, however, the easily accessible stands of timber were used up and by the mid-1750's lumbermen had to turn their attention to more distant areas.

 

In 1760 Daniel Skinner, a Connecticut Yankee, came to settle in the vicinity of Cochecton on lands which belonged to Connecticut by virtue of old land grants which extended from the Atlantic Ocean westward. Though Skinner became a prosperous landowner, he is remembered primarily for having the imagination to create a new industry for settlers in the Upper Valley. He accomplished this by building a raft to float timbers down from the Upper Delaware to the growing cities on the lower river. His first raft was built on Tammany flats opposite present-day Callicoon and consisted of six white pine poles suitable to become ship masts, each seventy feet long and held together by hardwood spindles. The masts were sold for four pounds each and Skinner was granted the unofficial title of "Lord High Admiral of the Delaware," a title which he held until his death in 1801. His voyage marked the beginning of the era of timber rafting that lasted 150 years until the virgin trees within reach of the Delaware had been cut down and the hillsides had been denuded. At first the rafts began their voyage in the main river below Hancock, but as demand for Catskill timber increased rafts were constructed up the east and west branches of the Delaware as far north as Margaretville.

Quinlan's History of Sullivan County records the respect in which Skinner was held. "He was honored in a jocose way by the hardy men who followed his example. By general consent, he was constituted Admiral of all the waters of the river in which a raft could be taken to market and no one was free to engage in the business until he had the Admiral's consent. This was gained by presenting Skinner with a bottle of wine, when liberty was granted the applicant to go to Philadelphia as a fore-hand. To gain the privilege of going as a steersman, another bottle was necessary, on the receipt of which the Admiral gave full permission to navigate all the channels of the river."

In the early days logs were lashed together with saplings to begin their journey down the river. They ranged in size from 16' to 36' in width, from 100' to 200' in length and contained from 30,000 to 100,000 board feet of logs. Long heavy oars both front and back were used to steer the rafts. In addition, some rafts carried "top loads" of carefully selected oak timbers for shipbuilders, stone slabs for Philadelphia sidewalks and charcoal, whisky or butter produced by Delaware and Sullivan county farms. However, in time primitive water driven sawmills were built along side of some main-stream eddies. Logs could then be brought to the mill, sawed into planks and repackaged for rafting. By the end of the American Revolution these lumber rafts were becoming more common on the river. They were made up of a series of cribs coupled together. A crib was usually 18' long and126' wide and would be tightly packed with lumber. A string of five cribs was called a colt. Once the colts were floated down to the main river they were fastened together for the trip downstream. A raft of ten cribs contained about 100,000 board feet of sawed lumber.

Cutting timber, skidding logs and building rafts on the river bank was winter work. When all these preparations were complete, the rafts would be floated down river during high water, generally at the time of the early spring freshet. At night, the rafts were tied up along the banks or in a quiet eddy. At some eddies, such as the Big Eddy at Narrowsburg, inns and taverns catered to the raftsmen. During the heyday of rafting, as many as a thousand men could be in Narrowsburg for the night during the spring freshet. Many rafts were sold before they reached tidewater at Trenton and this enabled Easton to become the greatest log market on the river. For those men who made the entire run, it was a long trip back to Narrowsburg and their homes further upstream. After the railroads came, the raftsmen could take the train to Jersey City and then up the Hudson River to Newburgh and then make their way back home through the Catskill hills. There are records that some took the direct route and simply walked home.

Timbering reached its peak in 1875 when that spring more than 3,000 raftsmen came down the river, but declined rapidly afterwards because the virgin forests of the upper Delaware were depleted. The lumber industry faded along with the settlements which lumbering had supported. In 1907 only four rafts came down. In 1922 the last raft came down the river from Hancock to Callicoon, but never left the upper river.

Though today the Valley is being reclaimed by new forests and the area is again exporting forest products, it is unlikely that the lumbering industry will ever become as important as it was in the days when the availability of virgin forests gave to the Delaware the name of the "Timber River." In honoring Daniel Skinner we honor an adventurous era in our history and stand in awe of men who faced cold winters, the threat of rafts being upended by submerged obstacles, possible drowning and all the uncertainties of river travel. Quite a breed!

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