Money in the Forests of Great Valley

The picture is representative of an early homestead, not necessarily from the Great Valley Area.

When settlers first acquired land the first trees felled were used for a log cabin that had a window of oiled paper. Living conditions were harsh and only a scant subsistence was eeked out . Laboriously the land was cleared tree by tree to provide a place for animals to graze and to plant crops around the stumps. Hunting and fishing provided a little food to ward off hunger. Wolves were so plentiful that bounties up to $60 were given per scalp.  Many hunters made a good living by decreasing the wolf population.

There was another commodity that provided money for the poor settlers. “Black salts” could be sold to the chemical factories. Anyone able to procure a five-pail kettle or to work with neighbors to purchase a cauldron started “asheries”. Timber was cut into convenient lengths, piled and burned to ashes which was a very lengthy procedure. The ashes were then gathered in a sort of cauldron and drenched with water. This percolated the alkaline mass which then dripped out in the form of lye. The lye was boiled until it became crystallized into what was known as black salts. Each hundred pounds was worth $2.50 which was a considerable sum. The best ashes were from burning oak, elm, maple, beech, birch and other hardwoods. Soft woods were useless for this purpose. An acre of good heavy timber would produce possibly four hundred pounds of the salts

A source of revenue far greater than could ever be realized from the black salts was the lumber to be found in the dense forests of the area. The conversion of this choice timber into lumber became the leading occupation in Great Valley. About a dozen water-power sawmills were built in the area. Almost incalculable quantities of lumber were run down the Allegany, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. This lumber was used for building in cities and towns along these rivers.  The biggest trees were sent all over Europe and elsewhere to be used in ship masts. Portions of the lumber were shipped to the West Indies as well as other foreign markets and up the various rivers of the west and southwest. It has been stated that some of the most valuable lumber ever produced in America was shipped down the Allegany River in the early days from this area.

Trees were carefully selected by leaders, marked with chalk and from dawn until dusk the trees were felled, branches struck off and the grab hooks were driven in the logs.  Next the logs were pulled by chains with horses or oxen to piles to be skidded out to roads where they would be piled on bobsleds and taken to the riverside. The logs were left in piles by the river to wait for the spring thaw. Many more logs could be hauled by bob-sled than by wagons. When the ice melted they could be put out in the river and floated to the mill. My grandfather, Otis Patterson had such a mill and he was so adept at jumping from one log to another that the Indians called him Jo-ho-kwis, which means chipmunk in the Seneca language.

The logs were all branded as various mills had logs in the river at the same time. Each mill had a boom. The boom consisted of 12-14 inch wide pine or hemlock logs sawed or hewn flat on top so they could be walked on. These logs were tied together and reinforced by pilings in the river and secured on each bank. There was a gate which could be opened manually allowing logs earmarked for other mills to pass by. On occasion a pilot of a raft or a flat-boat carrying nitro glycerin down river to the oil fields would request passage and, needless to say, he was given wide berth.

As the lumber was manufactured it was piled on the bank until rafting time, usually about March. It was then rafted into the creek if the mill was along the creek, awaiting the spring flood when the rafts were run on the river. Creek rafts consisted of one string of four or five platforms or lengths. At the river about four of these strings made up a Warren raft. Three of those fleets made up a Pittsburgh raft; three abreast and twenty platforms in length. An Ohio raft, was usually three to five platforms abreast and from twenty to forty platforms in length. Creek rafts carried a crew of from three to five men; Warren rafts had seven to ten men and Ohio rafts had a crew of twelve to twenty. A creek platform contained from 16,000 to 20,000 feet; a river platform 25,000 feet. Each raft had six oars, one on each end and one in the middle. Oarsmen were paid $4-$7 a trip to Warren, Pennsylvania. They received $20-$30 a trip to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and $30-$40 to Cincinnati, Ohio. Pilots were paid twice as much or more. The pilot was the captain and his orders were immediately obeyed, no questions asked, as failure to comply could very well mean disaster. He knew the channels and could steer the crooked course with great skill. One of the best pilots on the river was a Seneca named Joe John. It was the greatest ambition of a young man to master the intricacies of the river and gain the title of master pilot.

Upon arrival near a city where there apt to be steamboats, at night men would walk side to side, back and forth with lighted torches or lanterns to give the position of the raft. A cabin onboard provided shelter and a place to cook and sleep.  When the lumber was delivered the men picked up their ropes and equipment and walked home. 

Submitted by Robert P. Stone, Former Town of Great Valley Historian

Early settlers were able to exist and later make a living from the products in the vast forests of the area throughout Cattaraugus County.

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