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The McGills
Era of Improvement—Building, 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 school.

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 genuine flood.

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 recent storm.

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 raftsman—a 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 runaway nigger.


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