Tie Rafting

Long before the lake came in the Osage River served as a highway for railroad tie rafts. The ties were cut from the oak forests along the Osage and its major tributaries, then they were assembled into long rafts and floated down the river to the nearest town with a railroad connection. Osage City, near the mouth of the Osage, served as the original terminus of the tie rafts; later it was supplanted by the town of Bagnell.

The demand for railroad ties created a thriving business along the Osage, Niangua, and Grand Glaize Rivers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The preponderance of oak, hickory, and other hardwood trees along the bluffs and hilltops bordering those rivers were ideal material for tie making.

After felling the trees, the tie cutters dimensioned the wood where it lay, by hand. The tree trunks and large branches were rough hewn into six-inch by eight-inch by eight-foot ties. The ties would be loaded onto wagons and hauled to the nearest collection point--usually on a bluff overlooking the stream. A buyer from one of the local mercantile stores would purchase the ties and issue script to the tie cutters. The script was redeemable for merchandise at the buyer's store. The buyer would then mark each tie with a brand or identifying notch.

When enough ties had been collected--the quantity could number into the thousands--and the stream was at a good stage, the ties were pushed over the bluff and down into the river. This repeated action wore a slide, or "chute" into the bluff face. Raftsmen would then assemble the ties side by side and secure them together by nailing sapling trunks lengthwise along the top of the forming rafts. At regular intervals the sapling beams were fixed with only one nail at each end so the raft could arch around the sharper bends.

The vertical gap in the center of this photo is what remains of the Hurricane Deck tie chute, located on the east shore at mile marker 38. (Photo courtesy of Mark McBride.)

Rafts sometimes exceeded two thousand feet in length, though most were only a few hundred feet long. The raftsmen stationed themselves along the length of the floating boardwalk and guided it with poles--those at the front actually steering the raft while those at the back acted as brakemen, or "snubbbers."

In most summers the Osage River fell very low, scarcely more than a foot or two deep. One of the shallowest places in the lake area was Mining Port Shoal, where the Osage River crossed over from the south bluffs to the north bluffs.

The following excerpt, written by Jefferson Davis Blount, of Linn Creek, illustrates the difficulty of getting tie rafts through the shoals:

"I was 18 years old and it was at the toe of Horseshoe Bend, just below Cape Galena. We put in ten thousand ties, started down the river on the 15th day of August, 1879, and we was 31 days on the trip [to Osage City].
"The river was at a dead low stage, and the first day we got to Mining Port Shoal, a distance of three miles. There we had to cut free the first raft and make dams out of it so we could get through with the other rafts. Then we had to pry the first over with hand spikes. My, but it was hard work. We had to lift all we could and then some more, and I mean we had one hell of a time at Mining Port."

(Mining Port Shoal, the bane of all tie rafters, is now in the deepest reach of the Lake of the Ozarks. Located at mile marker 5, it is under one hundred feet of water!)

Jefferson Davis Blount, and wife Sarah Stubblefield Blount, taken circa 1890. J.D. lived to see the Lake of the Ozarks; some of his Camden County land was purchased by Union Electic in February, 1931. J.D. died in 1934, and is buried in Conway Cemetery, Osage Beach. (Photo courtesy of Donna Blount Fisher, Kansas City, Missouri.)

Blount's tie raft averaged only three miles a day and took a month to reach Osage City.

Upon arriving at the terminal port--either Bagnell or Osage City--the rafts were broken up. The individual ties were taken out of the water, counted, and credited to the supplier whose mark appeared on each one. Eventually the ties were shipped by rail from the wholesaler to the individual railroads.

The tie rafting business began to decline in the 1910s. Competition from other regions and the closing of the rivers by Tunnel Dam and Bagnell Dam eventually put an end to the local industry. It proved too costly and difficult to haul the ties by wagon to the nearest railhead.

Some tie chutes are still visible today along the lake shore. One is on the Glaize Arm in the state park at mile marker 12. Look for the orange and white buoy marked "A". Another, pictured above, is on the main channel at mile marker 38, near the north end of Hurricane Deck Bluff. And according to Blount's account, yet another should be visible near Galena Point, at mile marker 8.

For further information about tie making as it once existed in the Ozark region, see "Sleepers Through Time," by Lynn Barnickol, in the October 1996 issue of Missouri Conservationist, pages 15-19.

Text © 2000 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.