McGills Era of ImprovementBuilding, Lumbering and Rafting
The McGill school ran its
course and accomplished its mission nobly, and for several years was the
best and most useful primary educational institution our locality ever had.
A welcome innovation, however, came in the building of the Saegerstown
Academy under the auspices of our late opponents.
The town of Saeger became the
Borough of Saegerstown by an Act of Assembly passed in 1849 and its
boundaries as outlined by the Act cut off a slice from the McGill district,
materially reducing its area and population. This was a master stroke of
policy that finally resulted in the extinction of the school. The erection
of the Academy, however, about the same time, to some extent relieved the
stringency of the situation and afforded an elegant outlet in educational
channels. Able and accomplished professors were imported from Dr. Nevins
German Reformed College (Franklin & Marshal), at Mercersburg, Pa., to
manipulate the new institution. They were gentlemen and scholars and we
immediately affiliated with them and filled their classes from the McGill
It would no doubt be
interesting to the alumni of the "Old Brick" to here peruse a sketch of its
brief and brilliant career-its professors-its students-its orators and
poets, many of whom became distinguished in after life, but that is another
story, and we must pass by the attractive theme and pursue the more
strenuous affairs of our own people.
Henry McGill, the home son of
Arthur, the Pioneer, had built for himself a small house in which he and his
family resided near the old mansion. After his father's death Henry came
into possession of a tract of pine land in the Muddy Creek Country, which he
bartered to parties who moved on the place, cut the timber and made payments
in lumber delivered in flat boats at such times as would be practicable for
the delivery. It was through this transaction that the McGills became
amateur lumbermen and boatmen on French Creek and the Allegheny. They were
never lumbermen in the proper sense of the word, but were only temporarily
engaged in the business in pursuance of their interests and necessities. By
this means Henry procured plenty of lumber of the finest quality for
building purposes and stuck it up to dry, loading the empty boats with
produce and running them to Pittsburgh where he also disposed of his surplus
lumber at a profit. This was a master stroke of business that enabled him at
an early date to build a fine, commodious farm house, which stands to-day as
good and substantial as when first erected.
It was, in those days, want
of money that drove farmers to many expedients to erect suitable dwellings
on their broad acres. Country produce of the best quality was plentiful, but
could only be disposed of for "dicker" or exchange of commodities and a man
could not build without some money. Uncle Henry by means of this "dicker"
got out ahead of his associates, in placing his family in a mansion suitable
to their condition in life, and it certainly added much to their social
standing in the community.
Uncle William P. McGill, who
was a sturdy, pushing man, near the same time or soon after, built a fine,
substantial house, with commodious barns and outbuildings, which together
formed an establishment of creditable and thrifty appearance, all of which
remains in fairly good condition, though since his death it has passed
through several hands.
Uncle Charles D. McGill built
a house near the ancestral home, about 1829, where he lived until after
grandfather's death in 1832, when he moved into the old place. He afterwards
sold the house he had built, and it was removed to a lot near by that he had
also sold. This building was quite recently burned. He built the barns that
are now on the place.
When my father, John McGill,
was married in 1822, his father, Patrick, assigned him to the north hundred
of his 350-acre farm. This included the vacant strip whereon the Hickernell
cabin had been erected to hold possession.
Father immediately commenced
building from the stump. He shouldered his ax-went into the woods-cut down
and hauled to the saw mill the logs designed for boards, joists and rafters,
including cherry, poplar and pine for the inside work then the logs for the
walls were hewn to the proper thickness and "hauled up" and the building
erected about the same size and on the same model as the home of the
Pioneer, except that the big chimney was at the end and not in the middle of
the structure. The house faced east and the porch extended the entire
length, and was about seven feet wide. The posts were of poplar and were
nicely beveled and there was a railing along the front. When the honeysuckle
and the woodbine twined along the eves and softened and scented the breeze
from the Southland it was an ideal place to rest. Many, many times when
perishing on the bleak, soggy hills of old Virginia have I thought of that
homely old porch and wished that I could make it a habitation forever.
The domicile was sufficiently
commodious for our simple wants on the farm, but as a "Methodist Tavern" it
was altogether inadequate, so along about 1853-4 it was determined to build
a more pretentious residence, one that would compare favorably with our
progressive neighbors, where we could dispense hospitality to our
distinguished guests in a manner suited to our acknowledged worth and
prominence in social life.
With this end in view, and in
compliance with the traditions of building from the stump, John McGill, John
McCloskey and Charles D. McGill set forth for the mouth of Muddy Creek at
the head of the Deadwater, where they bought a small tract of very nice pine
land-McCloskey and C. D. were after gunwale timber, while father wanted such
as would be suitable for building purposes. They divided the trees as they
stood in the forest, each marking those that fell to his share with his own
peculiar blaze, and he then took them off when it suited him.
My brother, William R., then
about 22 years old, bossed the job of taking the timber from the stump,
hauling the logs and dumping them into the bayou at the mouth of the
creek-shaping them into rafts and floating them to the Saegerstown Saw
Mills, where they were sawed into lumber suitable for the purpose. This was
then hauled to the home ground and stuck up in assorted lots to dry and
properly season for the work. In those days there was no such thing as a
planing mill, or lumber yards where building material was kept in stock and
cut to order, but everything was done by hand. Under temporary sheds the
siding was planed and the flooring matched. The frame was then set up
enclosed and roofed when the work benches were taken inside and all other
parts of the building, including doors, window sash, stairs and banisters
were manufactured on the premises by hand.
The amount of manual labor
involved in building from the stump such a structure as John McGill erected
is almost incredible. The building was completed in 1856 and is today one of
the most creditable structures in the community. Father was proud of his new
home, not on account of any prominence it gave him, but because he could now
entertain the Bishops and Presiding Elders in good style and not be obliged
to stow them away on the old loft, as in former days.
William R. was the banner man
in this enterprise. He seemed to like the flavor of the lumber camp and soon
after constructed several flat boats on his own account, loaded them with
lumber and ran them to the Pittsburg market. John McCloskey and Charles D.
McGill had become inveterate boatmen, not for the fun of boating, but as an
adjunct to their farming operations. Their lands were well adapted to the
growth of potatoes, and the neshannock, a tuber of the finest fiber, grew
luxuriantly under their skillful cultivation. Pittsburgh afforded a fairly
good market for this variety, while they were worthless at home. They
therefore, plotted to get their product down the river and to this end each
built one or more flat boats, in which they loaded their crops and floated
it down to the market every season. Now, I was a great favorite with Uncle
Charles, and from the time I was seventeen years of age often assisted him
on the farm; and whenever he had an enterprise on hand requiring pith,
courage and energy, such as digging potatoes, hoeing corn or hauling out
manure, he would call for my help, which was always cheerfully rendered. He
seldom made a trip to Pittsburg without taking me along, and I sometimes
went with other people, and early became familiar with the route, the
channel and the trick of boating and I made friends with many noted raftsman
of that day. These excursions awakened an interest in the upper lumber
regions and a desire to look further into the mystery of the disappearing
forests above and growing cities below; and I went over to the Brokenstraw-the
Tionesta and the Upper Allegheny and worked in the lumber camps, and when
the floods came rode down on the great Allegheny fleets that covered more
than half an acre. Rafting on the Brokenstraw and boating on French Creek
sixty years ago were very dissimilar propositions.
Standing on the bridge over
the Brokenstraw at Youngsville, Warren County, Pa., watching the raging
torrent rushing by, I was approached by two men-one of them a big
grizzly-looking man past middle age, who was the boss-who asked me if I
wanted a job. I answered, Yes. He then said, "Go with this man and he will
show you what to do." I went, without changing clothes.
At Siggins pond we detached
from its moorings a five platform piece which was a raft of boards, about
sixteen feet wide and eighty feet long, and I don't know how many courses
deep. The pond was not the placid sheet of water one might infer from the
name, but through its center rushed a roaring tide that more than intimated
that the Brokenstraw was on the rampage. It was no pond-freshet, but a
At the foot of the pond,
below the bridge, was a dam several feet high over which the torrent
plunged, rolling up mighty billows below. I manned the bow oar, and a few
sturdy strokes placed us on the rounding bosom of the current. Away we went
under the bridge and straight for the dam. Without the least hesitancy we
plunged over the breast and down into the abyss below; but those five
platform pieces were flexible at the joints and our little raft rode the
billows like a duck.
The Allegheny was low, but
was rising rapidly from the smaller streams pouring into it, swollen by the
As we approached the mouth of
the Brokenstraw, I noticed our accelerated speed caused by the higher water
debouching into the lower, rushing clear to the other side, but Dunn's eddy
was on our side of the Allegheny and the pilot skillfully rounded the point
and we swung gracefully into the tranquil bay. It had been a real pleasure
trip, and I was delighted with it.
On going ashore we met the
Boss, who had driven across by the shorter route and arrived about the same
time we did, though we came with great speed. He had picked up two men on
the ground and, indicating one, said to me, "McGill, take this man, who is a
green hand, and bring out No. 22."
"Davy, you and this other man
follow him with No. 16."
I was about to expostulate,
but Davy winked and shook his head at me, and I said nothing, and we struck
out overland for Siggins pond. When I got a chance I told Davy that I did
not think my knowledge of the stream would justify the undertaking, but he
poohed at me and said, "You can do it as well as any one; all you have to do
is to keep in the water."
Arrived at the pond I found
that No. 22 was a raft of spars; that is, long, straight pine trees lashed
together, intended for masts for sea-going vessels; they were all in the
rough, just as they had fallen in the forest. A more unwieldly looking thing
with which to jump over dams and cataracts could not well be imagined.
At sight of this inflexible
lumbering craft I felt for a moment like skipping the skidway and cutting
over the hills for home ; however, grit came to the rescue and we boarded
the darned thing and cast off the lashings.
I told my man that we would
dive in, going over the dam and most likely unship his oar, but by all means
to hang on to the sweep and we would re-ship when we came to the surface. He
proved to be a game lad ready for anything, and we rushed down through the
pond like a battering ramplunged over the dam and out of sight under the
turbulent waves. On the stern I was waist deep when she began to rise and I
could see my jolly mate coming up out of the deep hanging on to his
unshipped oar. The plunge momentarily checked our headlong speed and I ran
forward and together we put the gouger in position for service. Then ensued
the ride of my life. Down that infernally rapid stream-so tranquil and
smooth in the summer days, now so savage in its rage around those tortuous
bends-knocking the corners off adjacent farms-onward we went as if hell bent
for perdition. Swift as a runaway trolley on a Pittsburg incline we surged
into the Irvington pond, throwing up spray from the bow of every pine, but
Irvington pond was no stopping place for us. Men on shore and on the bridge
hallooed to us about the Sheute-devil take the Sheute - we had no time to
hunt for Sheutes! "Keep on top the spars," I shouted. "All right," came back
the jubilant response of the jolly bowsman, and over the great Irvington dam
we plunged and went out of sight.
Sixty years ago there was a
point formed at the mouth of the Brokenstraw extending out into the
Allegheny, and at the extreme end an immense butternut tree had fallen
outward, practically projecting the point many feet toward the river
channel, and this point had to be rounded deftly in order to strike the
upper draft of Dunn's eddy, where our fleet was building.
As we rose to the surface,
both oars gone, the Leviathans we rode seemed to shake their manes in wrath
and plunged straight for that big tree top. Into it we rushed-snap, crack,
bang, rip and tear, we went through. At one moment I thought our craft was
rolling up into a great log heap-but it straightened out nicely, and with
slackened headway dropped into the smooth waters below with out further
effort on our part.
"McGill, how did you make out?"
shouted the boss as we drifted up.
"On top half the time," was my
quick response; and an audible grin went round the crew.
My bowsman, younger than I -
and I was only twenty - was the best pleased boy I ever saw. To him the fun
was immense, and he was ready to repeat at any time. I was the tenderfoot of
the occasion, and this was my first, but by no means my last, experience on
the Upper Allegheny.
I seldom went aboard one of
Uncle Charley's potato boats on the French Creek without first blacking my
boots, feeling well assured that they would not get wet unless it rained,
and the trip down was a holiday.
It was by means of these
frequent excursions that I came to know personally many of the upriver men,
and they were strong, brave, fearless and manly; huntsman, woodman,
lumberman and raftsmana man was not all in until he combined all these
qualities in one. Quick hand, keen eye, lithe limb, ready to act, reckless
of danger, self-possessed and courageous, he was a terror in conflict and
mighty in battle. I later saw them and renewed old acquaintanceship on the
hills of Maryland and the plains of Manassas; and they wore bucktails on
their caps (1st. Pa. rifles), and before long the sight of a bucktail was
more terrible to a Johnny Reb than was ever the baying of hounds to a
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